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Public debates on sexual abuse

By Kevin Baker - posted Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Recent events at the Australian Defence Force Academy have evoked nationwide attention and considerable debate about related issues. I admit to a personal interest in those issues, having lectured at ADFA for four years and being currently a Visiting Fellow (and having had children graduate from ADFA). The fire of the debate has been sparked by decisions of top officials in relation to perceived sexual abuse. Columnists and commentators and lobbyists have waxed wroth about whether certain actions were too much, too little, or just right – in other words, it has been a "Goldilocks" debate.

The current debate around alleged sexism and sexual abuse in the Australian Defence Force can be compared with two other debates on child abuse from our recent past.

One debate concerned a Governor-General of Australia. In 2001 Prime Minister John Howard had recommended to the Queen that the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, be appointed to the office of Governor-General, the first churchman or churchwoman to hold the post. Archbishop Hollingworth had a long history of service to the community and had served as the Archbishop of Brisbane since 1990. In late 2002 however, the Governor-General was severely criticised for not having taken sufficiently strong action when there were allegations of sexual abuse within his diocese of Brisbane during the time he was Archbishop. Although personally he was innocent of any criminal activity, such was the public outcry at his minimising of the act of child sexual abuse that eventually he was forced to resign on 28 May 2003. At the time, the leader of the opposition (Mr Simon Crean) called for his resignation saying, "Dr Hollingworth must resign because of his proven failure to appropriately deal with child sexual abuse." Mr Bob Carr, then Premier of NSW, said, "Australia doesn't want to have as its head of state someone who, to put it brutally, recycled a child abusing priest."


The actions for which Archbishop Hollingworth and many other senior figures in churches and charities were called to account were not immoral or illegal in themselves, but they were akin to the actions of the officers on the bridge of the Titanic referring to the presence of icebergs as being just minor obstacles and not requiring evasive action. It was as if one of those officers had said, " Icebergs – piffle, they're only made of water and can't do us any harm. Maintain full speed ahead! "

The public debate at that time was extensive and well-reported, yet there has been a set of circumstances similar to those that surrounded Peter Hollingworth, and there has been a debate over similar issues, but that debate has largely been a secret one. It revolved around another Governor General, Mrs Quentin Bryce. In September 2008 Mrs Bryce became the 25th Governor-General of Australia on the recommendation of the then-Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and she took up residence in Government House in Canberra. It was reported (somewhat sketchily) at the time that the outgoing Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, had called for a report into possible constitutional implications of the newly-designated Governor-General's involvement in what was known as the Heiner Affair.

The Heiner Affair can be briefly described. In Queensland in February 1990, a Children's Court magistrate named Noel Heiner was inquiring into the operations of a state institution for the care of juveniles. Unexpectedly, he started to uncover evidence of paedophilia and child abuse (as well as quite bitter inter-union divisions). A lawyer advised the Premier's office verbally and in writing (twice) that he was taking legal action over the paedophilia and associated issues raised in the course of the inquiry, and he asked that the evidence be secured. In March 1990, with permission of the Labor Cabinet of Premier Wayne Goss, the Premier's office (headed by a Mr Kevin Rudd) destroyed every bit of evidence they could find. Later, some more evidence emerged and that was destroyed as well. Eventually, even more evidence came to light and was passed to the likely defendants of the lawyer's legal action for them to destroy. These actions appeared to be clearly in breach of the Queensland Criminal Code relating to destruction of evidence needed for judicial proceedings, but no charges were laid over the matter (although later a clergyman in Queensland who destroyed evidence of paedophilia five years before legal proceedings commenced was found guilty of a criminal act and received a jail sentence of one year (suspended).)

In 1999, Kevin Lindeberg, the tenacious and somewhat heroic union organiser (and then former member of the Australian Labor Party) who had argued for the rights of John Oxley Youth Centre manager Peter Coyne, set out all the pertinent facts of the affair in a petition. The petition was tabled in the Queensland Parliament but without result. On 13 October 2003 and again on 20 September 2004, Lindeberg appealed to the Queensland Governor, at that time Her Excellency, Mrs Quentin Bryce, and he submitted to her office a full and detailed description of all that had taken place in relation to paedophilia and child abuse at the John Oxley Youth Centre, and the inactivity and obstructionism of certain officials. He asked her to act as a final arbiter. The grounds for so doing was that it appeared that the State Government that constitutionally operated under her commission was placing itself above the criminal law and by so doing was abusing its power. Lindeberg included the fact that a Christian Pastor had been convicted for the same criminal act that had been perpetrated by those who shredded the Heiner documents.

There were grounds for the Governor to become involved in what were the clearly-illegal actions of a State Government. The momentous event in New South Wales in 1932, when Governor Sir Phillip Game had dismissed Premier Jack Lang for what were perceived to be illegal actions, and as a last resort, served as a clear precedent.

However, the Governor informed Lindeberg on 24 May 2005 that she had considered the matter after taking advice from the [Labor!] Government, and had decided to do nothing.


On the face of it, the actions of Peter Hollingworth while Archbishop of Brisbane and Quentin Bryce while Governor of Queensland were very similar. In each case, they occupied an important post in Queensland; they were informed about evidence of paedophilia and child abuse, and subsequent cover-ups, yet they did not take any effective action in response.

This was apparently the substance of the report called for by Major General Michael Jeffery in 2008 on his being notified of Quentin Bryce's appointment – but the report has not been made public.

It is perhaps an irony that a current debate on issues of sexual abuse and actions to confront that abuse has drawn in top Defence Force officers, and yet a former Major General had a role in a secret debate on issues of accountability, child abuse and the Heiner Affair.

The community has a deep and reflective interest in debating issues of child abuse, sexual abuse and paedophilia. Some events spark debate and have consequences for parties involved. Other events do not provoke as much attention – but should.

What if the leader of an opposition called for the resignation of a Governor-General, using words similar to those of Simon Crean in 2003, saying, "The Governor-General must resign because of a proven failure to appropriately deal with child sexual abuse"?

Is "failure to appropriately deal with child sexual abuse" only a resigning offence when it involves officials on the right-side of the political spectrum?

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Baker is the author of Who Will Guard the Guards? Corruption in Australian Governments and the Heiner Affair (New Lambton Press, 2011).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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