The more Archbishop John Hepworth talks, the more it seems a great wrong has been done. But perhaps not to him.
Hepworth is the primate of the breakaway Traditional Anglican Communion who claims he was raped by an Adelaide Catholic priest, who we will call X.
Since his allegations were made public three weeks ago, much of the media has treated them almost as proven already.
The headlines give the flavour: “One man’s life, and how the church he loved let him down”, “Clergyman’s long road to resolution” and “Abused Archbishop John Hepworth ready to forgive”.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon seemed so sure of Hepworth’s story that he was the first to name the alleged rapist — in the Senate, which means he cannot be sued for defamation.
And that may have been the smartest thing Xenophon did.
I don’t say Hepworth hasn’t been sexually abused. The Catholic Church has already paid compensation for the abuse he suffered from two priests, both now dead, when he was a teenaged seminarian in Adelaide.
But the allegations made against X are different.
Let’s first remind ourselves that “rape” generally means the victim was forced to have sex against their expressed will, usually because they were too weak to resist. The rapist must also know that the victim was objecting.
It’s a terrible accusation, and X has now had his reputation trashed. Who believes a Catholic priest is innocent when the hostile press brays that he’s a rapist or might be?
Yet even the most basic facts of this case raise grave doubts.
Hepworth says he was at least 24 years old when X allegedly raped him; X was one year older. This is not the stereotype of an older priest intimidating a boy.
Nor is it obvious that X could have overwhelmed Hepworth with his strength. Hepworth is 1.88m tall — or six feet two. X is shorter.
Hepworth doesn’t claim he was drugged or drunk, either…
Hepworth describes his reaction hours later as not one of anger, but guilt…
Couldn’t this suggest that Hepworth’s “no” was a quiet no from his conscience, not a loud one to his “rapist”? Indeed, Hepworth claims he was sexually assaulted by X up to seven more times, yet not once did this tall man forcefully resist. He says he felt “so weakened physically and emotionally” by his past abuse that he just gave in.
To the ABC, Hepworth told a similarly ambiguous story.
ABC: Why were you unable to stop it?
Hepworth: Even though I was six foot two and I was fairly light in those days, but I always thought myself a very small person, very weak person.
I was trying to befriend a few people, priests. I think it was out of a sense of loneliness, also a sense of an effort to belong. And then the experiences of (his past abuse) particularly, of overtures that I couldn’t resist and didn’t know how to, repeated itself a number of times…
Even on his evidence, there seems more reason to doubt Hepworth was raped than there is to believe it.
In fact, X strongly denies any rape, and at his press conference one parishioner called him “a good shepherd” and another, a retired judge, “a good bloke”.
Moreover, Hepworth’s credibility has been challenged in the past.
He concedes he faced a Ballarat court about 30 years ago, charged with misappropriating $1200 — a lot of money back then — from his Anglican parish to pay for his son’s baptism party.
“I pleaded not guilty. The magistrate refused to find any verdict,” Hepworth told the Canberra Times.
“I was trying to stop the marriage breaking up. My then wife wanted a big party and I could not afford it.
“The diocese brought (the charge) because I had wrongly used … (a parish account) and regretted it … I had paid an account intending to pay it back.”
Hepworth was also accused of financial irregularities at Glenelg, an Adelaide parish he administered in 1974, but says his bishop refused to confirm any allegations to an investigator.
Again, he denies any wrongdoing and we must give him the benefit of the doubt.
But who has given that benefit to the priest Hepworth accuses so curiously of raping him?
Even Senator Xenophon insists X is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but just to name him was already to punish him.
As X wrote to Xenophon: “For over 40 years I have served with integrity and honour as a Catholic priest … You irreparably smeared and denigrated my reputation.”
And on what flimsy, flimsy grounds.
And it’s more than a tad nauseating.