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National Observer Home > No. 52 - Autumn 2002 >Legal Notes

The Campaign Against Dr. Peter Hollowingworth

Dr. I.C.F. Spry, Q.C.

The matter of sexual abuse of minors is highly emotional. The betrayal of trust by teachers and priests is an extremely serious matter and may have very severe emotional effects on children, especially where parents, friends and outsiders magnify trauma by conducting campaigns actually or ostensibly on the children’s behalf.

However these facts should not lead to witchhunts. Two matters are here of particular importance.

First, where claims of abuse are made, institutions face possible legal action and demands for enormous sums by way of damages. However the institutions are legally and morally entitled to protect themselves. If forced to pay excessive damages their very existence may be threatened, and many others may be denied the care and attention they provide. Therefore there is a legal and moral duty on those who represent institutions to ensure that they pay no greater damages than are appropriate.

Secondly, the heads of Anglican dioceses, such as Dr. Peter Hollingworth, who previously presided in the Brisbane diocese, but who was appointed as the Governor-General in 2001, are, despite their nominal authority, unable to supervise personally all the actions that take in the hundreds of churches and institutions within their dioceses. Schools, in particular, have councils and full-time executive officers, and the responsibility for the conduct of schools rests particularly on the officers and council members who are directly involved in the school, rather than on a nominal diocesan head. Here it is relevant that criticisms made of Dr. Hollingworth are related to conduct within schools such as the Toowoomba Preparatory School and St. Paul’s School, Brisbane, and within other institutions of which Dr. Hollingworth did not have control.

Dr. Hollingworth was from 1964 the Director of Youth and Children’s Services in the Anglican Church and was from 1980 Chairman of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence. In this capacity he concerned himself with promoting the poor and underprivileged, and for this purpose he often made statements that caused him to be regarded as left-wing, although in fact he has been careful to remain politically neutral. No reasonable person could doubt his genuine concern and efforts in favour of children, in particular.

When in December 2001 a sustained and unfair attack was made on Dr. Hollingworth in regard to sexual abuse of children within the Brisbane diocese it was difficult not to detect political motivations. Dr. Hollingworth had been appointed as Governor-General by Mr. John Howard, whose success in the 2001 Federal election had angered many journalists and others of the left. By attacking Dr. Hollingworth these elements had Mr. Howard as their real target. Further, virtually all of the same journalists were republicans, who had a vested interest in demeaning the office of Governor-General by attacking its incumbents from time to time (unless, to some degree, those incumbents themselves had sufficiently left-wing views, as did Sir William Deane).

The result was that although Dr. Hollingworth had acted bona fide by balancing the interests of the relevant children against those of the institutions in question and their continuing dependants, and had not committed any legal offence or impropriety, he was pursued in what became a witch-hunt. The Brisbane Courier-Mail (whose editor is Mr. Chris Mitchell) allotted journalists to investigate and pursue possible criticisms of Dr. Hollingworth. Never to be regarded as a quality paper, it has become worse under Mr. Mitchell, and its reporting on this issue was one-sided and superficial. The Australian, which for many years has been regarded as little more than a branch of the Labor Party, conducted what can hardly be regarded as less than a smear campaign. In particular, it misconstrued – and must have done so deliberately – events so as to target Dr. Hollingworth. For example, on 20 February 2002 there was an allegation in The Australian that Buckingham Palace had “distanced” itself from Dr. Hollingworth. 1  In fact, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman had done no more than note its standard position that it does not interfere with the Governor-General’s office. Also on the same day The Australian published a malicious statement by a so-called “child protection activist”, one Hetty Johnson, saying of Dr. Hollingworth that “he said last night it was okay for a priest to have a sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old child”. Of course not only did Dr. Hollingworth not make this statement (as The Australian knew), but from his actual comments it is clear that any such statement would have been completely repugnant to him. Again on the same day, The Australian’s editorial ended with a deliberate echo of Mr. Gough Whitlam’s outburst in 1975 when his commission was terminated: “If the Prime Minister decides Dr. Hollingworth should go, then nothing can save the Governor-General.” On 27 February 2002 Archbishop Aspinallwas compelled to correct The Australian, which had deceitfully included him under the heading “The Forces Against Hollingworth”. 2 

The recent political pursuit of Dr. Hollingworth will be found to have many costs. Those attacking him demonstrated a lack of integrity and, in particular, a disposition to manipulate facts in order to give false impressions. And valuable institutions, such as long-established schools, will have their very existence threatened through what can be seen only as a witchhunt, to the detriment of the many who are the beneficiaries of what they provide.







National Observer No. 52 - Autumn 2002