An Australian archbishop leading a breakaway Anglican faction that wants to reunite with Rome has revealed that he fled the Catholic priesthood after experiencing systematic sexual abuse over more than a decade.
Archbishop John Hepworth, the primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, a 400,000-member Anglican breakaway group seeking reconciliation with the Vatican, broke decades of silence after securing an apology from the Catholic church and an offer of $75,000 compensation.
The revelation of his private pain, known until today only to family, a few close friends and senior church leaders, adds an extraordinary personal twist to the creation of Anglican ordinariates that have opened the way for the largest mass defection to the Catholic Church since the Reformation.
Despite what he suffered over a 12-year period from 1960 at the hands of two priests and a fellow seminary student who went on to be ordained, Archbishop Hepworth said he was determined to continue his mission to bring the churches together…
Documents obtained by The Weekend Australian show Archbishop Hepworth’s ordeal began in 1960 when he was 15 and newly enrolled at Adelaide’s St Francis Xavier Seminary.
The matter took another twist years later when one of Archbishop Hepworth’s assailants tried to use the Seal of the Confessional to silence him, by confessing the abuse to him.
Despite the experience, Archbishop Hepworth was ordained a priest and stayed with the Catholic Church until 1972, when he fled to Britain and drove trucks for Boots chemists. He became an Anglican, and then a priest in the Anglican fold, rising to be world primate of the breakaway Traditional Anglican Communion.
In an attitude of extraordinary forgiveness and atonement, his prime concern, set out in a letter to Archbishop Wilson in November 2008, was that his relationship with the Catholic Church be healed before he died.
“I do not seek retribution,” he wrote but he felt “deeply cheated of a priestly life that I have been exercising as it were by subterfuge, outside the communion of the Catholic Church”…
In an apology to Archbishop Hepworth dated August 26, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart wrote: “We cannot change what has happened . . . You may never be rid of the memories or the hurt . . . On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father Ronald Pickering.”
The consultant psychiatrist’s report provided to the Melbourne Archdiocese’s Independent Commissioner for Sexual Abuse shows Pickering’s abuse was coupled with gruesome blasphemy about the Virgin Mary.
Archbishop Hepworth, who prays with the rosary daily and has a strong Marian devotion, told the psychiatrist working for the inquiry: “When I see a statue of Our Lady, that whole thing comes back and I can’t get rid of it.”
Nor can he get rid of the panic attacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, dizziness, feelings of terror when the doorbell rings and spontaneous tears that have haunted him for half a century. At one point he was brought close to suicide – he drove towards the graveside of one of his abusers, intending to take his own life there, but turned back.
He remains angry and frustrated that his complaint has not received attention in Adelaide. In 2007, he and Lay Canon Cheryl Woodman, chairwoman of the TAC professional standards committee, met the Vicar-General of the Adelaide Archdiocese, Monsignor David Cappo, who is the retiring Social Inclusion Commissioner to Premier Mike Rann and incoming chairman of Julia Gillard’s new Mental Health Commission.
Archbishop Hepworth says he named his initial abuser in the Adelaide seminary as the late John Stockdale, who worked as a priest in Bendigo. Stockdale died on December 31, 1995, reportedly in a sex cubicle at Club 80, a “men-only” club in Collingwood, Melbourne.
Archbishop Hepworth further complained to the Adelaide archdiocese about being violently raped by a priest on a beach at a seaside town and at other centres when he was a junior priest.
He also complained about that priest’s unseemly behaviour at the funeral of a relative.
Earlier this year, frustrated by the lack of progress and again accompanied by Lay Canon Woodman, he spoke to Monsignor Cappo. They were told inquiries in Adelaide were still at a “preliminary stage” because he had not lodged a “formal” complaint…
For all his suffering, Archbishop Hepworth retains a passionate love for the church, with which he is determined to be reconciled in full sacramental communion.
In his March 2008 statement, he wrote: “Perhaps I have been too driven in my search for redemption, for acceptance by a church that I did not know how to approach. I ran away from that church, but I have never lost my love for it.”
Despite the fact that he has been married, divorced and remarried and has three children, he also wrote: “Perhaps it is the only real love that I have ever known, and it is a love distorted and beyond my reach over all of my adult life.”