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Suffer the little children

Written on 16 May 2003

Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun makes several strong arguments in favour of laying off (presently standing-aside) Governor General Peter Hollingworth. One that particularly appeals to my baser instincts is of the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend class: Hollingworth's critics should not be granted a victory.

In laying out his arguments, he clearly indicates that he is not really a Hollingworth supporter for several reasons, including that Hollingworth

showed an appalling error of judgment and, as recently as last year, was still suggesting -- to my horror -- that one 14-year-old victim of abuse had asked for what she got.
Minor point: according to the Church's enquiry, she was fifteen at the time. Regardless, I think it is important to challenge the notion implicit in virtually all the commentary in this issue: that a fifteen year old girl must of course be utterly innocent in any sexual encounter with an adult male.

I hasten to add that I have no way of knowing what the precise feelings, actions and situation of the particular girl was in this case. She may, indeed, have had her innocence violated by a predatory seduction.

Having said that, the idea that it is impossible for a 15 year old girl to have sought or welcomed a sexual relationship for her own reasons is ridiculous. It is fair to say that the great majority of girls do not, and of those that do, most would be seeking a relationship with a male somewhat closer to her own age. (The poor quality of the Anglican report makes it difficult to be precisely certain of how old this priest was at the time, but I calculate from the scattered dates that he was probably around 30). These considerations merely cut the 15/30 year old consensual relationship proportion down to a small number, not to zero.

My own grandmother, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago, married my grandfather when she was sixteen and he was 26 -- ages that are verging towards those of this unfortunate pair. They remained happily married until his death half a century later.

We are thinking about these issues now, in 2003. The events in question took place in 1956. In 2001 the median age of marriage for brides was 28.6 years, and on an upwards trend. In 1954 it was 22.6 and on a downwards trend (21.4 in 1971).

These changes in social patterns affect how we think about young people. Today we think of a 15 year old as a child. Then they were frequently considered as young adults. My own parents both left school at 14 years of age (admittedly over a decade earlier), and by 15 my father was working in a coal mine, my mother at a milliners.

Regarding this particular case, was it reasonable for Hollingworth to think that, just maybe, the bad priest's advances were welcomed? What seems to have upset most people was Hollingworth's Australian Story statement that he thought the complainant had encouraged the priest Shearman. Here's what he said:

The great tragedy about this situation is that the genesis of it was 40 years ago and it occurred between a young priest and a teenage girl who was under the age of consent. I believe she was more than 14. And I also understand that many years later in adult life, their relationship resumed and it was partly a pastoral relationship and it was partly something more. My belief is that this was not sex abuse. There was no suggestion of rape or anything like that. Quite the contrary, my information is that it was, rather, the other way around. And I don't want to say any more than that.
What does this mean? Prior to reading this interview, I had the impression from various compressed media quotes that 'it was ... the other way around' meant that he was alleging that the complainant was the instigator of the relationship. But reading the whole quotation it seems to me that 'the other way around' refers to any 'suggestion of rape'. No, not that she raped him, but that the relationship was consensual rather than coerced.

Let's look at the information he had available. Part of the complainant's description of the 1996 mediation was:

[Shearman] also used the opportunity to state that I had encouraged him, citing two occasions when I was a schoolgirl in his care. My response was to state that at the time I was a minor and he had a formal duty of care to look after me. I also posed the question as to the purpose of his presence in the girls' dormitory anyway? [p.304]
Notice something here? She did not deny the possibility that she may have encouraged him. She instead argued that this was irrelevant, that he had a duty to her.

In this she was perfectly correct. No adult should take advantage of a 15 year old's possible curiousity about sex, especially as hormones are doing strange things to many people at that age. This responsibility increases by several orders of magnitude when the adult is professionally and morally responsible for the young person. Further reading of the report suggests that Shearman had, prior to the sexual liaison, also engaged in the 'grooming' behaviour (pp.301-302) that seems to frequently precede abuses. Shearman is to be condemned.

But how about Hollingworth? On the basis of his likely, and proper, understanding of the wide range of behaviours and desires exhibited by all people, including fifteen year old girls, and on the basis of him being present when Shearman alleged the complainant had encouraged him and she apparently failed to deny it, his conclusion seems to me to have been reasonable, whether or not it was actually correct.

Of course, had he any political sense at all, he would never have said as much.

© 2003 - Stephen Dawson