WARNING: Graphic content
BETWEEN 1998 and 2003, the ringleader of a Newcastle-based paedophile priest network preyed on his victims with impunity.
Father Peter Rushton is believed to have raped a number of boys in the Hunter Region, two hours north of Sydney. On one occasion he used a small knife to cut the back of a victim during the assault. The blood, his victim said through tears, was “symbolic of the blood of Christ”. Rushton was accused of owning child pornography and raping a number of children, including a priest’s son. He died in 2007 having never been convicted of his crimes.
A royal commission investigating years of abuse within the Newcastle diocese heard on Monday how Rushton got away with it for so long. The commission heard evidence from Roger Herft, who was the bishop of Newcastle for more than 10 years and who oversaw Rushton’s conduct. He is now the Archbishop of Perth. During questioning, Archbishop Herft said he did not recall important conversations, including conversations with Rushton himself. Counsel assisting asked how that could be possible.
“It sounds like on three separate occasions, you spoke to him about allegations. Why do you have no recollection?” he was asked.
Archbishop Herft said he recalled some conversations but not others. Counsel assisting said that was not good enough.
“In 2003, when you were told (Rushton had) abused a child, weren’t you on high alert?” Archbishop Herft was asked.
“I was on high alert,” he said, despite failing to act on the report.
“Couldn’t you proactively pursue the matter?”
“In hindsight there are a lot of things I could’ve done, including speaking to Peter Rushton about these matters.”
Archbishop Herft was asked why, given the nature of the reports, he did not report the matters to police. He said he was tricked in to believing the priest had turned a corner. He said he wanted to believe Rushton and took his word for it when he denied the allegations.
“I was deeply fooled into believing that this person had suffered (after it was revealed he owned child pornography),” Archbishop Herft told the commission.
“There was compassion. I seriously believed he had changed, (but) that does not preclude the need for me to look seriously at his past record and deal with it.”
Rushton’s record is littered with complaints of sexual assault spanning 40 years. Earlier this month the commission heard Archbishop Herft explain his frustration at not being able to put a stop to the abuse.
“It was insidious in the sense that one couldn’t get to the bottom of what was happening. And I looked back every day to ask myself the question: how did I miss this?”
Asked how he missed it, he replied: “I have no idea, ma’am.
“I have asked myself a number of times: why was I not more alert? Why weren’t the people around me more alert? Why weren’t the other archdeacons outside of the particular group that we have spoken about more alert?
“I struggle to find an answer for that. But I agree with you that, at that particular point of time, I should have acted more effectively and well and I did not.”
The public hearing will on Tuesday continue inquiries into the experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy associated with the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.
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