a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

on the allegations of John Hepworth: part one

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Nick Xenophon

John Hepworth

Ian Dempsey



Just as I’m not a philosopher, unfortunately, and I’m not a scientist, sadly, and I’m not a historian or an academic or a professional anything, I’m most definitely not an investigative journalist. I don’t have any sources that aren’t third or fourth hand, and I don’t have too many friends in high places, or low places for that matter. What I do have, I suppose, is a certain native curiosity and a reasonably active and sensitive pair of skeptical antennae, and these have been stimulated lately by a local story hitting the headlines here and being reported nationally. It’s about the Catholic Church and sexual abuse, an issue I’ve long been interested in, and it features as one of the principal actors the high-profile local-turned-federal politician, Nick Xenophon – hero and crusader to some, unabashed media junkie to others.

I’m starting out this post knowing virtually nothing about the issues of this case, beyond a few headlines and brief media grabs. But before I set out on this little investigative journey, I should declare two influences upon my thinking which might seem to clash. First, I’ve long been critical of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its defence of Canon Law, that’s to say, Catholic ‘club rules’ that, it continues to believe, trump secular law wherever the Church operates. Canon Law is completely inadequate in dealing with clerical sexual abuse, with the result that this Church has lagged behind virtually every other western institution, secular or religious, in dealing with this issue, to the detriment of countless victims. Second, having myself been the victim of a false accusation of having perpetrated sexual abuse, I know very well how easily such claims can be made, and taken seriously, and I have a very personal attachment to the concept of the presumption of innocence.

Now to the case in question. It hit the headlines when Senator Xenophon threatened to, and finally did, name, under parliamentary privilege, a currently active priest who is alleged to have raped another currently active priest more than forty years ago. The alleged rapist, Monsignor Ian Dempsey, has publicly denied the allegation, made by Archbishop John Hepworth. I’m not entirely sure of Hepworth’s ‘archbishop’ status. Apparently he was formerly a Catholic priest, but became a member of a breakaway organisation associated with the Anglican church. So clearly he’s not a Catholic archbishop, and possibly not a bonafide Anglican archbishop either. He’s known around town as a political or social commentator, possibly on local radio. I haven’t heard him, though I’ve vaguely heard of him.

Apparently this matter is not in the hands of the police, and there’s much dispute as to why, and as to the handling of the case within the Catholic Church.

My long-suffering research team has uncovered some information about Hepworth’s background. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1968 at the age of 24, and he was received into the Anglican Church in 1976. As the allegations are about an event that occurred over forty years ago [forty-five years, I’ve read somewhere], that places it back in the sixties, probably before his ordination. I believe two other individuals, now dead, were implicated in the alleged rape.

Hepworth, as the above link indicates, is quite an important figure in religio-political circles:

He is currently the Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, an international body of continuing Anglican churches, and Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of Australia in the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia.

Now, I’ve never heard of these august institutions, and I’m afraid nothing could be of less interest to me than the internal politics of religious sects, but Hepworth’s activities have certainly taken him into the political arena, in religious and in secular terms:

Hepworth has a degree in political science and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Adelaide in 1982 with a thesis about Catholic Action entitled “The Movement Revisited: A South Australian Perspective”. For five years he was lecturer in politics at Northern Territory University before becoming co-ordinator of international studies at the University of South Australia.[2] In 1998 he was elected to the Australian Constitutional Convention as a member of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.[3] He was formerly chair of the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Committee in South Australia.[4]

Hepworth is a regular radio commentator on 5AA, in Leon Byner’s time slot [Byner’s been around a long time – I used to listen to him as a high school kid, and found him mildly witty, until I realised the bully-boy nature of his tactics, cutting people off because he had the power to do so, then badmouthing them when they had no chance to defend themselves, the age-old method of shock-jocks everywhere. I’ve never listened to him since]. It’s fair to say, from all this, that he’s a prominent figure here in South Australia. This is important, I think, in considering the allegations.

The question of motive obviously arises. It seems unlikely that such a prominent figure as Hepworth would make an allegation of this nature without considering the consequences very seriously. Financial gain can surely be ruled out, and I can’t think of any other motive for making a false allegation. Spiteful or other motives would be too easily found out. From what I’ve heard [I would need to substantiate this] Hepworth left the Catholic Church precisely because of this alleged event. It’s not unreasonable to assume that he has been haunted by it, and he has finally decided to seek reparation, not from the law, but from the Catholic Church.

This issue of the law or the Church is key. As an atheist, I would naturally go to the law on such a matter, but we have to remember that Hepworth is a person steeped in religion and faith, and that his sense of outrage might well find a focus on the Catholic Church, both for its creation of the conditions in which these events occur, and for its lack of response to complaints. He would have felt personally betrayed, along with a crisis of faith [at least in that Church] and all that this entails. It seems that Hepworth’s exasperation has led to the matter being taken up by Xenophon, who has forced the issue by naming Dempsey as one of the alleged perpetrators. There are obvious problems with this, as naming amounts to shaming, and the public, not to mention the police and legal authorities, have no evidence before them upon which to base a judgement. Xenophon’s argument appears to be that the Catholic Church’s heel-dragging on this case is to blame. The Adelaide Advertiser [September 14] quoted Xenophon on the front page, from his speech which named Dempsey:

This creates a serious moral dilemma for me. It has put me as a representative of the people of SA in a situation where I have privileged information. And the problem with privileged information is that it can be misused to benefit only a select few. The question is do the people that attend this priest’s parish have a right to know that serious allegations of sexual assault have been levelled at their priest?

In an earlier interview with The Advertiser, Xenophon spoke about his intentions:

I’m reluctant to do so, but really this is a matter where the Catholic Church of SA bears, I believe, considerable responsibility.

One can only guess at the ‘privileged information’ Xenophon is talking about, but it’s reasonable to assume that Hepworth has confided to him the details of the alleged rape, along with his frustration at the Catholic Church’s lack of will to pursue the matter.

Now, to the details of the alleged rape. It turns out that the allegations aren’t about an isolated incident, but serial and violent rape over a period of twelve years, from when Hepworth was fifteen, in 1960, to 1972. Xenophon named in parliament the two other parties to these events, Ronald Pickering and John Stockdale. Claims against these two deceased priests were apparently settled in Melbourne, presumably by the Catholic Church there [George Pell, former archbishop of Melbourne, is a friend of Hepworth’s, who shares his conservative views].

Xenophon also targeted Monsignor David Cappo, South Australia’s high profile Commissioner for Social Inclusion, and Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, for failing to act, or to act with sufficient celerity, on Hepworth’s claims, first aired four years ago. However the Catholic Church hierarchy here in South Australia has come out strongly in its own defence. A few days ago I opened my work emails [I work part-time for a community centre that has been taken over by Centacare, the Church’s social welfare arm] to find that all staff had been sent the full text of a statement by Archbishop Philip Wilson in response to Hepworth’s allegations. Here’s what Wilson has to say about Monsignor Cappo’s role:

Monsignor Cappo who acts on my behalf has met with Archbishop Hepworth on multiple occasions since 2007. In fact at least eight meetings have been held, all of lengthy duration. Monsignor Cappo gave me a full briefing of each meeting, immediately following his interviews with Archbishop Hepworth. On my behalf Monsignor Cappo urged Archbishop Hepworth, at the end of each meeting, to give his permission to proceed with an investigation in the allegations. On each occasion Archbishop Hepworth declined, indicating that he was not in a proper emotional state to deal with an investigation.

The statement also claims that Hepworth was urged to take the complaint to the police as it was clearly a criminal allegation. Hepworth consistently declined to do so, but in February this year he sent a letter to the Church indicating that he was now ready to proceed, and giving permission for a [presumably internal] investigation to commence. Wilson goes on to say that this process is now well under way and that all necessary interviews will have taken place. However, Hepworth has been asked to provide a list of other people who might throw some light on these events. No reply has yet been received from Hepworth.

Wilson has supported Monsignor Cappo’s handling of these matters, which he says have been treated with compassion and sensitivity throughout. ‘Archbishop Hepworth himself has acknowledged as much on several occasions’.

The statement runs to three pages and is generally comprehensive and convincing. Perhaps the only question mark hanging over it is the refusal to have Dempsey stood down while he was being investigated. Wilson offers this:

Priests are normally stood aside from their ministry when accusations of child sexual abuse are made or where there is otherwise any risk posed by the priest’s continued ministry. In such cases this decision is clear and made as a matter of course. In this case, however, we are not talking about child sexual abuse. Despite the unfortunate suggestions made to the contrary in the past few days, the allegations refer to when Archbishop Hepworth was in his 20s. That is over forty years ago. And considering the presumption of innocence and the good standing of the priest under investigation, I would not stand a priest down in these circumstances.

All of this seems eminently reasonable. An earlier newspaper report suggested that Hepworth had been the alleged victim of rape over twelve years from the age of fifteen by three priests, but in fact the alleged rapes by Dempsey occurred some years after the rapes by Pickering and Stockdale. However, the claim by Wilson that Hepworth was in his twenties at the time of these alleged rapes is at odds with what Hepworth has told The Age newspaper, in an article published on September 14:

He says that he fled the Catholic priesthood in his 20s after serial sexual assaults over 12 years by a seminarian and two priests. He told The Age Monsignor Dempsey had subjected him to ”at least a half a dozen” sexual assaults over three years from when he was aged about 18, ”by which stage I was in a fairly bad state”.

Of course these events  allegedly occurred a long time ago, and memory is unreliable, but eighteen is obviously more of a borderline age than twenty-something [the age of ‘adulthood’ would’ve been twenty-one at the time]. There are also other inconsistencies and concerns raised by this case, some of which I’ll look at in the next post.

Written by stewart henderson

September 22, 2011 at 8:34 am

Posted in crime, politics, religion

2 Responses

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  1. I’m looking forward to reading more of your reasoned, well thought out exploration of this case


    September 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    • Thanks for your discerning comment Sarah, whoever you are. Keep in touch, you know you won’t regret it..


      September 24, 2011 at 7:07 pm

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