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Lament, law-making, resolution and prayer on child abuse dominate General Synod

The Anglican Church's national parliament faces up to the Church's failures and seeks a just way forward

Melbourne's Archbishop Philip Freier, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, and Royal Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald were blunt in their keynote addresses on the first business day of General Synod. "This Synod has many matters before it but none can be more urgent than the three measures on our agenda concerning child protection and our response to survivors of childhood sexual abuse," Dr Freier said. Commissioner Fitzgerald said: "There may be a day when this Church has to live with difference and not come to agreement on certain matters... But I want to say to you that today is not that day and this is not that issue."

By Mark Brolly

September 20 2017 

The sexual abuse of children in the Anglican Church of Australia occupied at least part – and often most – of every day of the 17th meeting of its national parliament, the General Synod, this month. The fact that General Synod met on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, the first time it had met outside a capital city, did nothing to ameliorate the sombre tasks facing the more than 250 bishops, clergy and laypeople assembled there for six days.

From its opening service on 3 September at Matthew Flinders Anglican College in Buderim through to its final day of business, 8 September, at the Novotel Twin Waters Resort in Maroochydore, General Synod – which meets every three to four years – was faced with the consequences of the Church’s failures to deal with abuse over many decades, the Church’s shame before God and the Australian public and what needed to be done to bring redress, safety and healing in future.

It responded with prayer, debate and the passage of legislation and resolutions.

 

Sunday 3 September

Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, the Anglican Primate of Australia since the previous General Synod in Adelaide three years ago, read the following Lament early in the opening Service of Holy Communion:

Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

In our church there is a lot of hurt.

Vulnerable people and young children have been abused.

Our structures have protected the powerful instead of the helpless.

We long to help, to heal, to make whole,

but sin clings closely.

 

We raise our voices in lament

and pray for new beginnings.

 

A time of silence for reflection followed.

Sydney’s Archbishop Glenn Davies preached on another time of crisis in the Church, Martin Luther and the birth of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago (see http://tma.melbourneanglican.org.au/news/general-synod-2017-opens-040917).

 

Monday 4 September

Two keynote speeches – by Archbishop Freier and Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald, one of the six members of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – set the tone for the first business day of General Synod.

Six months earlier, the Primate and other bishops and Anglican leaders appeared before the Royal Commission at its “wrap-up” hearing into the Anglican Church. The Commission, which is to conclude on 15 December after almost five years when it delivers its final report to Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, has held eight public hearings into Anglican institutions – the hearing into the Diocese of Newcastle in August and November last year was the longest of any of the 57 cases for which it conducted hearings.

Almost nine percent of survivors told Royal Commissioners in private session that they had been abused in an Anglican institution. More than 1100 complaints of abuse in Anglican institutions were reported to the Royal Commission, which by August had made 106 referrals to police in every state and territory relating to allegations of child sexual abuse involving the Anglican Church.

Archbishop Freier, in his President’s Address soon after Synod convened at 8.30am (see http://tma.melbourneanglican.org.au/news/child-protection-response-to-survivors-most-urgent-issues-050917), said the Royal Commissioners had been very clear in stressing the community expectation that the Church must achieve uniform and consistent national standards of child safety and that he had made a commitment that this would be addressed by General Synod.

“This Synod has many matters before it but none can be more urgent than the three measures on our agenda concerning child protection and our response to survivors of childhood sexual abuse,” Dr Freier said. “The Safe Ministry to Children Bill set in place consistent and high standards for child safety in our church for all children who are part of our life and activity. The Redress Bill enables us to participate in the Commonwealth Redress Scheme for people who have experienced child sexual abuse in the church and within our institutions. The Episcopal Standards Bill widens the scope and rigour of accountability for the members of the House of Bishops in the area of their responsibility for child safety. Taken together they are brought to you by the Standing Committee of the 16th General Synod as coherent measures to respond to the failures that have been exposed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.”

Commissioner Fitzgerald opened the afternoon session by urging Anglicans to unite around the common purpose and common cause of child protection (see http://tma.melbourneanglican.org.au/news/child-protection-common-cause-for-anglicans-070917).

“There may be a day when this Church has to live with difference and not come to agreement on certain matters,” he said. “There may be certain matters where it is appropriate for dioceses to act differently. But I want to say to you that today is not that day and this is not that issue.”

Responding to a question from Bendigo’s retiring Bishop Andrew Curnow after his speech, Commissioner Fitzgerald, a senior Roman Catholic layman, expressed confidence that the Anglican Church could regain the trust and confidence of the Australian community, though “not easily, not quickly and not without some pain”.

Before Commissioner Fitzgerald’s speech, General Synod had formally endorsed motions on Professional Standards and Safer Ministry proposed by Bishop Greg Anderson of the Northern Territory and Melbourne’s Ms Dianne Shay, including a recommendation that the Federal Government promote a national system for child protection, and that State and Territory governments “as a matter of urgency” enact legislation for a national system for child protection that provided for the mandatory reporting of child abuse by persons, including ministers of religion, to the police and the government child protection authorities; the screening of all persons seeking to work with children in a paid or voluntary capacity; and the mutual recognition of clearances for persons to work with children in all States and Territories.

At 3.30pm, General Synod began considering one of the key pieces of legislation – on Safe Ministry to Children – which provides for national rules to protect children that are binding on all clergy and church workers and include regular independent audits to be published publicly.

This occupied the rest of the afternoon session and part of the evening before debate was adjourned after it passed through the Committee stage, which examines the legislation in detail, with amendments.

 

Tuesday 5 September

The Bill for the Safe Ministry to Children Canon 2017 achieved majorities of more than 75% of each house of General Synod – Laity, Clergy and Bishops – when put to the vote on the morning of the second business day.

A motion honouring Newcastle’s former Bishop Greg Thompson, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse as a youth and a campaigner for justice for survivors, was carried formally. The motion was proposed by the Administrator of the Newcastle diocese, Bishop Peter Stuart, and a lay delegate from Newcastle, Mrs Sue Williams.

It read: “This General Synod gives thanks to Almighty God for the courageous ministry and prophetic leadership by the 13th Bishop of Newcastle, the Right Revd Gregory Thompson, in calling the Church and especially the Diocese of Newcastle to face their past about child sexual abuse and shape a healthy future in responses to Christ’s call to protect, esteem and nurture children and vulnerable people.

“Further this General Synod requests the Primate to convey these sentiments to Bishop Thompson.”

Newcastle is seeking a new bishop after Bishop Thompson resigned this year, having returned to his home diocese in 2014 after leading the Church in the NT.

In the afternoon session, General Synod considered and passed three pieces of legislation – notably the Episcopal Standards (Child Protection) Canon 2017, which also passed with more than 75% majorities among the laity, clergy and bishops. The other two Bills amended the Church’s 1962 Constitution to extend the jurisdiction of the Special Tribunal to bishops who had retired and to extend child protection offences to retired bishops.

The legislation was proposed by Queensland Supreme Court Justice Debra Mullins, who chairs the Church Law Commission of General Synod, and Sydney’s Archbishop Glenn Davies.

 

Wednesday 6 September

Bishop Stephen Hale, of St Hilary’s Kew, and Melbourne Assistant Bishop Genieve Blackwell successfully proposed a motion about Safe Ministry Implementation, urging all 23 dioceses of the Australian Church to adopt the General Synod Canon at their first diocesan synods and calling for “a free exchange of resources and the drawing upon centres of excellence in safe ministry practice to enable the full implementation of the Canon by large and small dioceses working together”.

Sydney lay representatives Mr Doug Marr and Mr Lachlan Bryant proposed that General Synod call upon the Federal, State and Territory governments to develop an “age appropriate” Working with Children Check system or suitable alternative for persons aged under 18 who worked with children. The motion was accepted.

General Synod then turned its attention to six Bills, the first of which enables the Anglican Church to establish an independent company to handle complaints from and compensation to survivors of abuse and join the proposed Commonwealth national redress scheme.

The company will coordinate and manage redress for survivors of child sexual abuse through participation in the Commonwealth redress scheme, as well as for survivors of abuse who are unable or unwilling to use the Commonwealth scheme.

Sydney Senior Counsel Mr Garth Blake, who leads the Church’s Royal Commission Working Group, told General Synod that the Church needed to face its moral responsibility, including financial consequences, to the survivors of child sexual abuse.

Mr Blake said the Anglican Church had paid more than $30 million to survivors so far, but the financial commitment still required would be much greater than that.

“It will cause significant pain and hardship, but nonetheless is the right thing to do,” he said. “We will be paying for a long time to come for the sins of our fathers and of our colleagues.”

The Redress for Survivors of Abuse Canon 2017 achieved more than 75% majorities in the Houses of Laity, Clergy and Bishops.

Mr Blake and Tasmania’s Mrs Audrey Mills, General Synod’s Deputy Chair of Committees, then steered four Bills on disclosure of information and the National Register - which contains information about complaints or findings of child abuse and adult sexual misconduct as well as adverse findings against or adverse admissions made by clergy or laypeople within the Church – through General Synod.

Bishop Michael Stead of South Sydney and Mr Blake then introduced two Bills about Confession, one revising a Canon passed at the 2014 Adelaide General Synod and the other concerning vulnerable persons. Debate was adjourned until the following day.

 

Thursday 7 September

General Synod passed the two Bills on Confessions in the morning and one for the Holy Orders (Removal from Exercise of Ministry) Canon 2017, proposed by Mrs Mills and retired NSW Supreme Court Justice Peter Young, after lunch.

Melbourne clergy and laity took prominent roles in the passage of a motion on Clergy Professional Supervision, proposed by Canberra-based Bishop Stephen Pickard.

The Revd Canon Dr Rr Richard Trist, Dean of the Anglican Institute at Ridley College, was seconder of the motion, which said that “in the light of the increasing challenges facing clergy and lay ministers, and the heightened demand for the accountability of church workers,” General Synod recommended that every Australian diocese take seriously the benefits of professional supervision for its clergy and paid lay workers; supported the development of pilot projects in supervision of clergy and lay ministers, particularly in rural and regional areas; and asked its Ministry Commission to undertake an audit of the extent and types of supervision already occurring across the Australian Church, and to develop national supervision guidelines.

Prominent Melbourne lay representatives Mr Colin Reilly and Mrs Leonie Bird successfully amended the motion to include a clause asking the Ministry Commission to consider the inclusion of Clergy Professional Standards “as an integral component of a continuing professional development framework for clergy”.

 

Friday 8 September

General Synod’s final day included the passage of a motion on Faithfulness in Service, the Church’s national code of conduct, and consistency on Professional Standards proposed by two leading NSW clergy – the Revd Canon Sandy Grant of Wollongong and the Dean of Sydney, the Very Revd Kanishka Raffel.

It asked General Synod Standing Committee, which conducts the business of the national Church between General Synod meetings, to report which dioceses had adopted the Faithfulness in Service without amendment as their code of conduct, those dioceses that had adopted the code with amendment, those that had used Faithfulness in Service in some manner other than as a code of conduct and on the dioceses that had a code of conduct other than Faithfulness in Service.

The resolution also asked the Standing Committee, in consultation with the Professional Standards Commission, to report to the next session of General Synod “on preferred options for effectively ensuring that professional standards regarding the care and protection of adults, especially the vulnerable in our midst, are nationally consistent to the greatest extent possible”.

In its final hour, General Synod formally carried two motions – one recognising the “unprecedented level of support in this session for consistent national standards and approaches with respect to child protection, episcopal standards and redress for abuse survivors measures” and recording its thanks for the work of many years of Mr Garth Blake, SC, and the members of the Professional Standards Commission; Justice Debra Mullins and the members of the Church Law Commission and Episcopal Standards Task Force; and Melbourne Diocesan Chancellor Mr Michael Shand, QC “for their unstinting and tireless efforts to prepare legislation and garner support to ensure the protection of children and the accountability of clergy and church workers in this Church”.

The other resolution, proposed by Mr Blake and seconded by Archbishop Freier, gave thanks to God for the work of the Royal Commission; “acknowledges the significant contribution of the Royal Commission in revealing the extent of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts, identifying appropriate redress to survivors, and recommending strategies to create child safe institutions”; expressed its sincere gratitude for the engagement of the Royal Commission with the Church, particularly through the attendance of the Chair, Justice Peter McClellan, at National Bishops Meetings and the address of Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald at Maroochydore; and “prays for the Royal Commission as it completes its work, and that its lasting legacy will be an Australia in which children are safe, including in this Church”.