Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Church apology for a 14-year sexual relationship an Australian first

Just after 10am on Sunday, inside Victoria's oldest and busiest Catholic church, the congregation heard something extraordinarily rare.

A senior church official told those seated in the pews at St Francis on Lonsdale Street that their one-time priest, Tom Knowles, has become the first in Australia to be defrocked for having a "long-term inappropriate sexual relationship" with a woman.

The church official also said sorry to that woman in public.

"On behalf of the Australian Province of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, I wish to apologise to Jennifer Herrick for the pain and suffering she experienced," reads a copy of the apology, which has been obtained by Fairfax Media.

Ms Herrick was not be at the service. 

She lives in another state and finds the idea of being there traumatic.

The public apology is the culmination of a seven-year battle Ms Herrick has waged against the Catholic Church to obtain redress for an ordeal that began when she was a vulnerable young woman with a disability in Sydney. 

Knowles, who was later to become the Australian head of his order, was working there as a priest. 

Ms Herrick's story was first told publicly in early 2013 when Fairfax Media revealed how the church had first stood down, and then reinstated Knowles despite evidence he had sexually preyed upon Ms Herrick for 14 years.

It encapsulates a critical question to arise from abuse scandals involving religious institutions: how should the church and the state make amends?  

Ms Herrick and another victim, former Melbourne schoolboy Marcus Lindsay, have decided to tell their stories to highlight the ongoing struggle and uncertainty that some victims face.

Ms Herrick was a shy 19-year-old with bilateral congenital hip dysplasia – a condition causing her to walk with a highly abnormal gait – when Knowles, who was her family's priest, cultivated a relationship with her at his church, Our Lady of Dolours, in Chatswood, Sydney. 

Subsequent psychological reports assert she was being groomed.

When she turned 22, Ms Herrick allowed Father Knowles, who as a Catholic priest had taken a vow of celibacy, to have sex with her during a 14-year period. 

The sex was often hurried, aggressive and sometimes painful. 

And she told no one about it. 

In a report, Ms Herrick's psychologist, Ana Grant, said the priest's conduct had caused her patient serious post-traumatic stress disorder and fell "within the criteria for clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse".

The apology in St Francis in Melbourne's CBD on Sunday, along with a confidential payout, was offered recently to Herrick to settle court action she launched against Knowles and three senior members of his Catholic order in mid-2013. 

The church initially sought to block her case by using the controversial "Ellis defence" – a legal precedent that means the church is not liable for the conduct of a priest. 

The church also argued that Ms Herrick's case lacked merit, as she had previously accepted a confidential settlement as part of the Towards Healing process, an internal complaint handling system run by the Catholic Church.

But Ms Herrick insists she was under "extreme duress" when she initially signed a settlement with the church in late 2011. 

As with many of the cases reviewed by the Royal Commission, Ms Herrick says that the settlement was on terms dictated by the church, rather than those of the victim. 

She says it did not acknowledge the tremendous impact of Knowles' conduct on her life, a claim reinforced by the decision of the church to allow Knowles to return to work as a priest in 2013. 

That decision was over-ruled by Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart when the Sunday Age ran a front page photo of Knowles delivering mass. 

Ms Herrick's story ran alongside that picture. 

Last year, as Herrick battled on in the NSW Supreme Court, Knowles was quietly "laicised" – defrocked – though Ms Herrick only discovered this by accident. 

That decision has not been made public until now. 

Ms Herrick says she agreed to settle her court action in return for a public apology in church and further compensation. 

"It was the church's attitude - and their refusal to accept that I was abused - that prompted me to fight.  I decided they needed to be accountable. They just wanted to give me some money and for me to go away," she says now.

Ms Herrick believes there may be many vulnerable women who have been abused by priests but who have never come forward. 

"I also took the case forward on behalf of those women," she says.

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