The smiling bishop falls from grace
In a church hall with apricot walls, a man wearing a dark suit over a hot pink t-shirt – with socks to match – waits for justice to be done. Today, he thinks, might be the day that one of his tormentors is called to account.
New years bring new beginnings, and in some instances, endings. In the final months of 2015, life changed for several of the key figures in a long-playing battle.
Many readers have been following my stories about the saga some know as “Tommy v Anglican Church”. In the last half of 2015, I was a witness to the events that have lead – at last – to the final chapter in Richard “Tommy” Campion’s quest for truth, justice and peace.
The old church hall at the back of the Anglican cathedral in Grafton, New South Wales, is an unprepossessing setting for such an important matter. Clutter has been cleared to make way for trestle tables, red and black plastic chairs set out for the small audience.
The man in the pink socks waits quietly for justice to be done. But it’s not the first time Richard “Tommy” Campion has hoped for this, and each step in the 10-year campaign he’s waged has been tortuously slow. He barely dares to hope that this will be the day when a bishop falls from grace.
It has been a chess game like no other: Tommy v Anglican Church. But on a cold July day in the New South Wales town of Grafton, Tommy Campion is about to topple a bishop.
A small audience listens intently as the case is presented for and against Keith Slater, former Bishop of Grafton, as he fights to retain his holy orders. An independent tribunal, the Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church, has been convened to determine his future at a disciplinary hearing ordered following evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse.
Tommy Campion and Keith Slater have met only a few times, but over a decade years, hundreds of letters passed between them. Most were written by Campion as he sought help from the former Bishop of Grafton in his quest for answers, an apology and compensation from the Anglican Church over abuse he and others suffered while living in the Church of England North Coast Children’s Home, in Lismore, part of the Grafton diocese. Many of his letters were ignored by Bishop Slater; others got replies that were dismissive, rejecting the church’s responsibility or duty of care towards children living in the home.
Seeing Slater stripped of his holy orders is important to Campion. He’s here to see justice done; Slater ignored and belittled his claims and he wants to see him bear the consequences. And he is hopeful, because there is a recent precedent. Earlier in July, the former registrar of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton, Patrick Comben, was defrocked over claims that he – and Bishop Slater – had ignored complaints from sexual abuse victims and misrepresented the diocese’s financial position in order to lower compensation claims.
Comben, a former Queensland government minister, had been a licenced deacon in the Anglican Church during the time that Tommy Campion was writing his letters, begging for someone to listen and to admit to the truth of his claims and those of others who had lived in home as children. At first, in the absence of the bishop, he had been sympathetic, but his attitude later hardened.
Defrocking of a bishop is rare and Campion has donned a suit, an important sign of respect from a man whose usual colourful attire of “hippy pants” and bright t-shirts has always set him apart. He is putting great store in the tribunal, and hopes they will deliver the outcome he’s hoping for. Also hesitantly taking their seats are other abuse survivors from the North Coast Children’s Home, here to listen and hope. Campion hugs an elderly woman called Annie. They were together in the home as children, and she’s come along with her adult daughter for support.
But he won’t see his tormentor. Slater is a no-show, sending a lawyer to present his case. Despite being forced to resign as Bishop of Grafton in May 2013 over his handling of abuse claims by 40 people, Slater has retained the title Right Reverend and wants to continue to do so.
The tribunal is chaired by former Supreme Court judge Moreton Rolfe QC. Alongside him are Archdeacon Sally Miller of Ballina and Phillip Bonser, a Sydney-based organisational change consultant. They will consider carefully Keith Slater’s role in the diocesan response to allegations of abuse at the North Coast Children’s Home in Lismore between 1940 and 1980 and claims for compensation, and his case for retaining his holy orders.
Opening the hearing, Morteon Rolfe QC speaks for 20 minutes, outlining the eight allegations against Slater, which span seven years. In the public gallery – one side of the square formed by the trestle tables – eight people strain to listen intently. Rolfe’s voice is soft and measured, and the acoustics in the hall are terrible.
“Your honour, would it be possible for us to move forward?” asks Archdeacon Greg Ezzy, from his seat in the public gallery. Permission granted, the trestles and chairs are shuffled forward a little on the faded red and gold carpet. Now the trestle tables form an almost perfect square, the panel facing the observers, with defence and prosecutors on either side. It’s a strangely intimate gathering.
Ezzy takes a chair beside me and whispers: “I’ve been ordained for 48 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s history.”
Through the arched windows of the old wooden hall, the red bricks of the cathedral where Slater presided for a decade glow in the sun as the morning wears on. Words and phrases fall into the cold air: “Gross failure to uphold church protocols”, professional standards “should have been engraved on their hearts”, “obfuscation”, “deflection”, “harmful misconduct”.
There’s a tea break, everyone standing around in the winter sunshine behind the cathedral, just a block from the mighty Clarence River that meanders through the city. One of the women in the public gallery runs to the shopping centre across the street to buy a cardigan to keep the chill in the hall at bay. A burly bearded man who has arrived late, says he and his nine siblings lived in the Lismore home during the early 1980s. It was a different place by then, he says, but there was still abuse.
Police tape is strung around a building adjacent to the hall. A fire – believed to be arson – had destroyed part of the church’s opp shop three weeks earlier destroying nearly $50,000 worth of stock. Nothing seems quite to be going in the church’s favour these days.
The former bishop has chosen not to attend the hearing into his future. His solicitor, Michael Taylor, says Slater’s non-appearance will save “time and expense” for the proceedings.
Slater is, Mr Taylor tells the tribunal, “simply unable to explain” his actions towards the abuse victims. He “admits and concedes” his actions and “had not sought to excuse his failings”. He offered “genuine contrition and remorse” but could offer no explanation.
He also explains to the hearing that Slater was keen to reiterate his apology for his demeanour at the Royal Commission, where he was dubbed “the smiling bishop” by the media, and publicly apologised to the commissioners for his tendency to smile “inappropriately” while giving evidence.
At the Royal Commission, Bishop Slater said he was “personally humiliated” by his decision to put the church’s finances above the needs of the victims.
The Royal Commission recommended that the Anglican Church take disciplinary action against Bishop Slater, who the commission found tried to mislead victims into accepting lower payments.
At the disciplinary hearing, in Slater’s defence, Mr Taylor says the bishop had allowed Reverend Comben to be “the driving force” behind the decisions, and that “differing personalities may have led Bishop Slater into error”.
Finances aside, Mr Rolfe asks, how could the bishop have allowed a person who had been convicted of child abuse and spent time in jail for that crime, to remain active in the Grafton Diocese. It seems a rhetorical question, for which Mr Taylor had no answer.
The man in question, convicted paedophile Allan Kitchingman, was jailed for 18 months in 2002 for sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy in his care at the North Coast Children’s Home in the 1970s. The Royal Commission found that Slater knew Kitchingman was a convicted paedophile as early as 2003, but did nothing to start disciplinary action against him, allowing him to retain his title of Reverend after he was released from jail. He was only defrocked in 2014.
Mr Taylor says that while Keith Slater had resigned as bishop, he had continued his work for the church and wished to be able to continue to do so. He had, since being removed as Bishop of Grafton, travelled twice to Jerusalem on good works.
Reading from the Diocese of Grafton’s Professional Standards Ordinance 2004, Archdeacon Miller says Slater would be unlikely to be able to continue his work if the tribunal found against him. “A person who has been deposed from Holy Orders in accordance with this Ordinance…shall not hold himself or herself out to be a member of the clergy,” she reads.
Richard Campion – known to all as Tommy – has travelled from his Gold Coast home and has been granted permission to address the tribunal. The only former resident of the children’s home to speak publicly and be identified during the Royal Commission, he is determined to be heard by the tribunal.
“I won’t take up much of your time,” Campion, 67, tells the panel. He twists his hands as he speaks, his fingers knotted by arthritis and emotion.
For 10 minutes he talks about the dealings he had with Bishop Slater, and the emotional impact of the Anglican Church’s continued rebuttal of his claims. Tears flow, his own and those of others in the gallery.
For eight years, he wrote about one letter a week to members of the church. He wrote to then-Anglican Primate, Archbishop of Brisbane, Phillip Aspinall. He even wrote to the Queen. In 2011, he established a website and began a relentless media campaign. And he staged a one-man protest outside the Anglican cathedral in Brisbane that finally got him a meeting with the Archbishop Aspinall.
Stubborn, angry and resilient, Campion was determined the Anglican Church would be brought to account for the failure of its duty of care. He would fight on until they admitted the truth.
“They admitted the church was associated with the home. That church clergy and staff abused 200 children. That the church had a moral responsibility to protect the children,” he says. “They said no child should have been subjected to cruelty or abuse as I was. However, they would not admit the church had the duty of care.”
And then, in November 2012, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. All the pieces started to fall into place, and Campion was certain he would have his day at last.
As he finishes his address and sits down, Archdeacon Miller rises from her chair, offering a quiet “Excuse me, please” to two men on the panel beside her. She takes a dozen steps across the room and stands directly in front of Campion, extending both her hands. He grips them with his gnarled fingers and holds on. The archdeacon’s eyes brim with tears and she says: “Thank you. Thank you for your courage.”
It’s a powerful moment, and it seems that everyone in the room is holding their breath. After a moment, she returns to her chair and the formalities continue.
On October 16, 2015, Slater’s replacement as Diocesan Bishop, Dr Sarah Macneil – the first female head of an Australian Anglican diocese – announced that she had adopted the Professional Standards Board recommendation that Keith Slater be deposed from holy orders and had informed him of that decision.
A church statement said: “The deposition means Mr Slater no longer holds any ordained position, role or status within the Anglican Church of Australia and returns to being a lay member of the church….Under church law there is no avenue of appeal.”
“Defrocked!” cries Tommy Campion down the phone to me. “The bastard has gone.”
Slater has joined an ignominious club. Only two other Australian bishops have been stripped of holy orders. In August 2004, Donald Shearman became the first churchman in Australia ever to be defrocked, after allegations he had seduced a schoolgirl in the 1950s and had sex with her regularly for two years when he was a boarding house master and she a boarder in his care.
In 2010, Ross Davies was stripped of his office as Bishop of The Murray in South Australia for “disgraceful conduct” after failing to deal appropriately with sexual misconduct allegations against an archdeacon.
But there was still one man in Tommy Campion’s sights. Reverend Campbell Brown, 80, was also expected to be defrocked by a similar hearing, over claims of sexual abusing children. Brown was named at the Royal Commission by former residents of the North Coast Children’s Home as one of the perpetrators of abuse. He had been investigated by police but had not been convicted.
Two days later, Campion sends me an email. He’s just been told that Campbell Brown has committed suicide.
Another piece falls on the chessboard. And for Tommy, that’s enough. It’s over.
20 Responses to “The smiling bishop falls from grace”
A powerful piece Leigh. beautifully written. And to Tommy – bloody well done!
Thank you JP. There were some very powerful moments on that day. Tommy was strong and determined (as always).
Justice is a power feeling. It is not about the money but about justice and truth.
I am happy for Campion however as I was a ward of the State of New South Wales. I believe my justice will never come. One would need to expose that inevitably the Government was responsible for my sexual and physically abuse endured over many years on Out of Home Care.
Thank you, Lee, your strong words are much appreciated. You know more than many what a battle I have endured with the Anglican Church. The church people concerned should hang their heads in shame. But I doubt that they will.
It was a honour to tell your story Tommy.
Lee, a moving piece. Thank you. Well written. Well done Tommy – and I hope it really does bring peace. Cheers, David McG
Wonderful piece, Lee. Tommy has done so much for others after being so badly treated by these people. Heaven has a special corner for him, I’m sure.
Thank you Trina…and I’m sure you’re right.
A powerful story Leigh. Bravo for Tommy’s courage.
Thanks Sue…bravo indeed. He’s a strong and determined person.
Well done Tommy, you are an inspiration. Good luck and I hope that peace now finds a place with you.
Beautifully written Lee. And, old mate Tommy, I’m so very glad the journey is finally over and justice bloody done. Proud of you. Max
Thanks Max (you are a bit of a blast from the past!). Thanks for the kind words.
As others have said, this is so well written Lee – your narrative skill is to be admired. But craft aside, this is powerful because of the content. What a testament to Tommy’s determination and courage. Simply amazing.
Thank you! It’s quite a story, isn’t it…
I recently saw the movie, “Spotlight,” which highlighted the abuse by Catholic priests over decades. Really well done and your story here reminded me of it. If you haven’t seen it, especially after writing this story, it’s worth a watch. Really well done.
I saw the trailer for Spotlight at the movies recently, and thought it looked worth watching, so glad that you recommend it. I’ll look out for it to start screening.
This story immediately made me think of “Spotlight.” Such a powerful movie. It showed just how deeply-rooted and powerful the church is and how systematically they get away with abuse of that power. It’s maddening. And scary. I wish Tommy and all the other victims justice.
And thank YOU for bringing the issue forward.
I’m looking forward to seeing Spotlight too. I don’t think it’s quite opened here in Australia yet – but soon! Maddening and scary are good words to describe the power that the big churches have. Thanks for your comment.