Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

A Question of Resignation for Archbishop Roger Herft

This week has been an awful one for Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft.

This week has been an awful one for Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft. On Monday and Tuesday he faced sustained questioning at the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse about his leadership of the Diocese of Newcastle at a time when many allegations were made that clergy and lay leaders had sexually abused children.

The Newcastle Herald’s reporting (Day 10 MondayDay 11 Tuesday) is as good as anyone’s. Here are their video reports at the end of the day:

The big question that is being asked around Anglican circles now (and indeed was asked by one of the counsel at the Commission but ruled out of order by the judge) is whether Herft should now resign. At first sight the case for a resignation may appear strong on a number of grounds.

Herft’s testimony was full of lapses of memory. I think it is fair to say that much of his answering was in the form of “I don’t remember” and he only appeared to agree with or recall things when there was third party evidence to confirm it. So stark did this appear that the Newcastle Herald ran this front page on the Tuesday morning:

In particular, Herft claimed not to be able to recall meetings in which specific allegations had been made. It’s one thing, his critics will argue, to not remember the events of a meeting 10 year ago about ordering stationery, but surely one will remember when shocking allegations about child abuse are made?

In addition the evidence seems to suggest that Herft did not deal appropriately with allegations when made, in one instance receiving a written complaint but not passing it on to the police. It’s been pointed out to me that not reporting a criminal offence may itself be a crime, according to the NSW Crimes Act 1900.

Sect 316 (1) If a person has committed a serious indictable offence and another person who knows or believes that the offence has been committed and that he or she has information which might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender for it fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of a member of the Police Force or other appropriate authority, that other person is liable to imprisonment for 2 years.

That’s not to say that a charge will be brought, I wonder if it would be in the public interest, but the repeated failure to act (and particularly since Herft was well aware of the existence of the “yellow paper envelope file” containing details of a large number of allegations of sexual abuse) places him in a difficult position.

Further, there were suggestions that some responses by Herft to complainants about allegations made were “legalistic”.

Hence the question of resignation. On the other hand one might argue that these events were in the past and in a previous role and nothing can be gained by a resignation now. To some extent that’s perhaps true. It’s also clear that Herft has undergone a learning and grieving process through this,

Herft said he was “much more careful about attributing such a high level of privilege and grace to human beings, knowing my own frailties, but also acknowledging that people with high levels of spirituality need also to be attentive to the greater sins that are around us. So I’ve come to a much more realistic view, I think, of the priesthood and about those who serve in the priesthood.”

Herft has told the royal commission that Graeme Lawrence’s abuse had “shocked me deeply and it has contributed significantly to the way I acknowledge and respond to things”.

At the end of his testimony he asked to make a brief statement where he acknowledged and apologised for “letting down the diocese”.

Senior Anglican figures that I’ve been in contact with over the past few weeks speak consistently of Herft as an honourable man and “one of the good guys”. He was, by all accounts, generally well-liked when Bishop in Newcastle. While it is clear that he has made some serious mistakes there is also a degree of sympathy; his failings were errors of judgement rather than malicious actions.

So should Herft resign? I think he will have to. What persuades me is the following:

Then Governor General of Australia, Peter Hollingworth, resigned from that position in 2003 in large part because it became clear that previously as Archbishop of Brisbane he had failed to properly deal with allegations of sexual abuse and also allowed a known paedophile to continue to function as a priest. Again, there was no suggestion of malice on the part of Hollingworth but that simply, by his own admission, he was not “up to” the job.

By any reckoning the failings of Herft, by his own testimony at the Commission, were of a much greater number and impact than those of Hollingworth. If Hollingworth had to go, it’s hard to argue that Herft should not, however sorry we feel for him.

Does this mean there is no place for grace? Of course not! By Herft’s own words he is clearly contrite about what happened. Repentance is the pathway to genuine forgiveness.

Some resignations are matters only for shame, but some are actions of men of honour who make no pretence about what has happened and seek only to acknowledge accountability. I would imagine that an early resignation by Herft, driven by a recognition that his position was untenable, and a personal concern that he been seen to take responsibility for his failings would be met with a large degree of support.

It would be a sad end to his service (and lead to the election of a far more theologically liberal replacement in Perth), but I can’t see how it’s not the right thing to do. We, the Anglican Church of Australia, need to take our failings in this area very seriously and if Herft is the man of honour that so many people tell me that he is then he will surely lead by example. I, for one, would commend him for it.

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