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Following the Hollingworth saga, three issues for the Anglican church

By Elaine Farmer - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

The Anglican Church at the moment is awash with emotion. For an institution whose culture has been built on order and seemliness, it is deeply distressing to learn of serious flaws and even criminal activity within its fold. Christians are accustomed to acknowledging all humankind as flawed and, as we Anglicans confess in our Book of Common Prayer, following 'too much the devices and desires of our own hearts', but it is nevertheless shocking to be confronted so publicly with evidence of wrongdoing. Opinion expressed among Anglicans about the current controversy engulfing the Governor General (and, in the process, all victims of abuse) deals with three fundamental issues. First, child abuse; second, the treatment of the Governor-General; and third, media and community responsibility.

First, no one, of any faith or of none, can view child abuse with anything but abhorrence. Abuse is a gross and always inexcusable misuse of power. Where children are concerned, it is also irreversible theft – of childhood, of innocence, of the ability to trust and, often, to love. Anglican opinion supports an uncompromising intolerance of child abuse and a single-minded determination to pursue justice for its victims. Anglicans expect their leaders to be equally uncompromising and determined to ensure that church protocols are clear, tough and enable full cooperation with police and other civil authorities. Furthermore, they expect the church to demonstrate transparency and abandon the secrecy and inaction of the past.

Second, for Anglicans, shock has been joined by anger, confusion, outrage and frustration over the treatment of the Governor-General. Those who know Dr Hollingworth speak of a human being flawed like the rest of us but with a deep compassion and sense of social justice that are genuine. In accord with the Gospel of Christ, he has championed society's marginalised courageously, despite periodic public criticism. Many Anglicans think the most of which the Governor-General can be accused is pride, naivete, outdated thinking and his admitted errors of poor judgment. They note that such errors are not confined to the Governor-General and do not deserve the recent frenzied attacks upon him. Others, still wrestling with his decision to accept the position in the first place, grieve for the damage being done to the Church. Nevertheless, there is frustration and anger at what is perceived to be a trial by media, with Dr Hollingworth's being hounded to a degree unjustified by any press argument of the public's 'right to know'. Many Anglican eyebrows are raised and expressions such as bias, manipulation and dubious ethics have been used.


Third, Anglicans share the view of many that the community, including the media, ought to sharpen its focus on child abuse as such. We must be wary of blindness, which is an unfortunate part of all society, over horrors we prefer not to see. On the one hand, it is too easy to blame victims rather than grapple with the reason why they are victims. (Hence, society has tended to blame the poor for being poor, single mothers for being single, abuse victims for being abused.) On the other, it is too easy to find scapegoats, in this case Dr Hollingworth, 'in someone else's house', rather than to acknowledge the existence of crimes such as child abuse closer to home.

The problem of child abuse is much bigger than the Anglican Church. Our society is diminished if it cannot face this fact and rise above vilification and scapegoating. The Anglican Church has made, and is making, great efforts to put its house in order, particularly to ensure that attitudes and language are informed by current knowledge. There is a feeling that, while our institution has not yet done enough, ours is not the only house with messy rooms. Some Anglicans also believe that the media could play a more productive part; sensitive, compassionate focus on child abuse might help alleviate the suffering of the abused by continuing to raise public awareness of this evil. Condemning Peter Hollingworth to live the rest of his life in public disgrace will achieve nothing of lasting value; only ongoing public education will do that.

Finally, there is another victim in this whole sorry business: the concept of forgiveness. The tragedy, as much for society as for Dr Hollingworth, is that this has been consistently abused by church and state alike. Forgiveness can never be demanded of victims and certainly not in the absence of admissions of wrongdoing. The fact is that the Gospel, to which Peter Hollingworth has given his life and which is the church's raison d'etre, means that forgiveness must always be considered to be attainable. In society at large, and in public life in particular, that appears not to be so. Both the Governor-General and the whole community are the losers as a result.

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An edited version of this article was published in The Australian Financial Review on 27 February 2002.

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About the Author

The Reverend Elaine Farmer is a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra & Goulburn.

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Anglican Church in Australia
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