Third Hearing – Week Two (Or: Just A Joke)

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Image: Anglican Church lawyer, Philip Roland (Source: Foott, Law and Co.)

Pat Comben, former registrar of the Grafton Anglican Church diocese and former Education Minister in the Queensland State Government, made a very (melo?)dramatic move outside the Royal Commission before giving evidence. He signed the “letter of holy orders relinquishment,” in public.

“Fifty years in the Church and I do not know if I can even say I am a Christian. Some of us have some guilt and take some responsibility for this,” Mr Comben said, outside the commission today, after he had completed two days of evidence. Mr Comben claimed that, if he did not take the line he did and keep compensation low, he would have been sacked.

As a former politician, Mr. Comben has been in receipt of a generous parliamentary pension. After he left parliament, he was director of the Wildlife Preservation Society, consultant for the Rowland Company and an environmental reporter for Channel 7 television (see http://www.crikey.com.au/2005/03/12/when-generous-pensions-are-not-enough/).

Since retiring recently from his job with the Anglican Church, he has operated the Koala Villas Caravan (trailer) Park at 539 Pacific Highway, Boambee NSW 2450, in the Grafton area. Apparently, he has had some property investments. A testimonial he provided for his local real estate agent reads, in part, “We have dealt with (redacted) over a number of years to buy and sell properties In some difficult situations we have encountered with tenants, (redacted) has dealt with the issues calmly and effectively leading to positive outcomes for all.”

Counsel Assisting, Simeon Beckett, put it to Mr. Comben that “You were in possession of serious allegations of child sexual abuse made against a number of people, some named, and some unnamed. You did not provide that information to police. Why was that?” Mr. Comben simply replied that “I have no idea.”

Mr Comben told the commission he went to the media because he perceived the church was being bullied. One press release was in response to a story in the Northern Star newspaper, about the allegations. In the release, which was recalled after a legal threat by the solicitor for the claimants, Mr Comben said he saw “these matters as being a challenge to the very community of Lismore”. His press release also said some of the complaints raised “are a potential affront to all those individuals who willingly gave their time and money to the home”.

In reply to commission chair Justice Peter McClellan, Mr Comben said he was “at pains to ensure people understood there were two sides to the issue.”

The chairman asked if Mr Comben stood by that response. “What do you think now, on reflection?” he asked. “Oh, I was wrong,” Mr Comben responded.

Justice McClellan also asked him whether a more sensible approach to a meeting with Mr Harrison (see previous posting), the victims’ lawyer, would have allowed a result that was satisfactory to both sides. “Neither of us appeared to be likely to give way and nor was there a middle course,” Mr Comben said. When the chairman pushed him further, saying “I have the sense… that you approached this meeting on the basis that there was no hope of achieving anything by way of a reasonable settlement. Is that right?” Comben replied that “I think that’s probably putting it a bit high, but I was pretty dubious.”

Justice McClellan asked: “Did it occur to you perhaps you shouldn’t be talking in an argumentative way until you had been able to talk to these people.”

Mr Comben said the diocese was responding to a very argumentative view – “a very bullying view from the solicitors acting from the other side”.

Justice McClellan said: “So once into the fight, you stayed there, is that the way it looks.” Mr Comben said it was, and on reflection, “I was wrong”.

At one stage, it became clear that Mr. Comben may not have been taking the proceedings very seriously.

Mr Comben spoke of how he and other senior Anglican clerics jokingly referred to the official directory of serving priests as a “stud book”. He then told the enquiry that “I became aware that Reverend Kitchingman, as he was, was still in the stud book … I got a shock to find he was there. I remember getting up from my desk, walking in to the bishop and saying ‘Kitchingman’s still in the stud book’.” When asked about his use of “stud book” – which lists a horse’s pedigree for breeding purposes – to describe the Anglican Directory of serving priests, Mr Comben immediately apologized to the commission. “It is totally inappropriate in these proceedings, I apologize,” he said.

Mr Comben also told the commission that he subsequently took no disciplinary action against Reverend Kitchingman or another alleged pedophile priest at the home, Campbell Brown. “I did nothing at all (about Kitchingman),” he told the commission. “I think we were too busy to take him on, and it was before my time.” He was dealing with dozens of claims of physical and sexual abuse at the Children’s Home at which Reverend Kitchingman had previously been employed, and this took priority. This involved money (see yesterday’s posting).

Another church witness, lawyer Philip Roland (pictured above), also gave the impression of not taking the hearing particularly seriously.

During what the media reported as “a tense exchange”, Counsel Assisting the Commission, Simeon Beckett asked Mr Roland the motivation behind offering compensation. Mr. Roland told the enquiry that financial offers to victims were for the “inconvenience” of attending meetings, which prompted the chairman to ask “So in fact this was not making any offer of payment for the hurt and suffering that people had experienced, is that right?” Mr. Roland replied “That would appear to be correct, yeah.”

The enquiry heard the Anglican Church, through Mr. Roland, still denied responsibility for abuse at the home, even after paying the compensation. As part of the 2007 agreement an apology was to be provided. A draft of the apology referred to the home as a “community-based facility”. Mr Roland was asked if that was appropriate, given the victims wanted the Church to take responsibility. “Perhaps it could have been worded more sensitively,” he said. He told the Commission he still believes that the Children’s Home was not run by the Church.

At one stage, Counsel Assisting, Simeon Beckett, asked Peter Roland why he was smiling during questioning. “Do you remember Reverend Comben also saying at one stage in relation to the commencement of proceedings, using the words ‘bring it on’?” Mr Beckett asked. After a brief pause, Mr Roland told the hearing he did not recall that. Mr. Beckett again interjected, saying “Mr Roland, you’re smiling again. Is that because that was indicative of Reverend Comben’s attitude?” Mr. Roland responded that “It wasn’t at all, and I’m sorry if my response created that impression,” and possibly avoided censure by the Commission.

[Postscript: Just before the commission adjourned today, the disgraced former Bishop of Grafton, Keith Slater (see previous posting) took the stand and confirmed that the Professional Standards and Protocols set up by the Anglican Church to deal with allegations of child sex abuse were not followed properly in the Grafton diocese. The commission resumes tomorrow with Bishop Slater in the witness box.]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: What ex-Bishop Slater said

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

 

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