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Winter 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Editorial Comment

The Political Assassination of Dr. Hollingworth

When Dr. Peter Hollingworth, the Governor-General, announced on 25 May 2003 his intention to resign he succumbed to one of the most unpleasant, politically-inspired witch-hunts of recent years. For some time he had been under distasteful attack by a coalition of Labor politicians and their supporters in the popular press (and especially in The Australian and The Age).

It will be recalled that Dr. Hollingworth, who had for many years had charge of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence (where his work for the poor was universally praised), later became Archbishop of Brisbane. In the latter position he was embarrassed to find that there had been child abuse by a small number of priests. (Unfortunately this has occurred in a number of denominations, although steps have now been taken to overcome this problem.)

Dr. Hollingworth found himself in an impossible position. On the one hand he was obligated to care for his Church and its ministers. On the other hand he was faced by several groups of opponents. Some were pro-republic, and wished to see a governor-general humiliated. Some were political: Mr. Simon Crean to his own discredit perceived an opportunity to attack Mr. John Howard, the Prime Minister,1 and Mr. Crean was backed by a miscellany of Labor, Green, Democrat and other groups of the Left who took no account of Dr. Hollingworth's meritorious works and the difficulties that he faced. Other opponents included the child-abuse lobby, the leaders of which were apparently more concerned to obtain personal publicity and advance themselves before the public than to care for those who had suffered abuse. In this latter respect they have predictably been assisted by cynical lawyers who see an opportunity for fees and profit.

The alleged "error of judgment" of Dr. Hollingworth on which his opponents relied was of course very minor. The present Archbishop of Brisbane, Dr. Philip Aspinall, has been accused of metaphorically throwing Dr. Hollingworth to the wolves. Without any need to do so, Dr. Aspinall set up a so-called Board of Enquiry comprising Mr. Peter O’Callaghan, a Victorian Q.C., and Professor Freda Briggs, to examine the past handling of cases of abuse.

In its report in May 2003 the Board cleared Dr. Hollingworth of all but one of the various complaints that it considered, and was critical of those who had been fomenting unpleasantness against him. The minor exception related to one John Elliot, a priest who more than twenty years previously had been involved in abuse, long before Dr. Hollingworth came to Queensland. In fact, Dr. Hollingworth was not told of the abuse, which he regarded as an isolated occurrence, until 1993, and he thereupon took steps to ensure that Elliot had no further contact with children, and placed him under supervision. Elliot did not offend again.

The criticism made of Dr. Hollingworth, who had consulted other bishops on the matter, is that he did not do enough and should also have removed Elliot from the ministry. However it is by no means clear that Dr. Hollingworth should have also taken this step. The matter concerned was many years in the past, without any later offences, and Dr. Hollingworth was entitled to take the view that the priest had reformed and, in religious terms, repented of his earlier conduct. The Anglican Church believes in repentance and absolution, as do many other churches, and from a theological viewpoint it was certainly open to Dr. Hollingworth to conclude that incidents from the past were, as a matter of internal church law, dealt with adequately by putting the priest on limited duties not involving further contact with children and placing him under supervision.

As a matter of internal church law it cannot properly be said that Dr. Hollingworth acted incorrectly. However, even if it were supposed that he had not acted correctly as a matter of church law, that fact would not have justified the campaign that was waged against him: that he had committed an "error of judgment", and should be dismissed from office. Even if there had been an error of judgment, that error would have arisen in the context of a life devoted to service of the needy and for his church.

All persons continually commit errors of judgment. Medicos, barristers, politicians and particularly journalists commit every day errors of judgment. If a plethora of serious errors of judgment were a basis for the removal of individuals from office or from positions of responsibility, no judge could avoid calls for his dismissal, and no surgeon or barrister could continue with his profession or politician remain in office. But, as has been pointed out above, Dr. Hollingworth does not appear even to have committed an error of judgment.

The low quality of the popular newspapers such as The Australian has become too obvious to require stressing here.2 But on this occasion a singular campaign was carried out against Dr. Hollingworth by the media generally. A characteristic example was the large front-page headline of The Australian on 2 May 2003: "G-G protected sex abuser". The article beneath the headline did not mention the fact that the priest in question had not offended again after incidents taking place many years previously and had been carefully removed by Dr. Hollingworth from all contact with children and put under supervision, but it was careful to include a statement by Mr. Simon Crean that Dr. Hollingworth "was diminishing the office of the Governor-General" and should quit or be sacked. The article also referred to an unmeritorious "anti-child abuse advocate", one Hetty Johnston, as stating "He's an embarrassment to the position of Governor-General", but carefully omitted to mention that the same Ms. Johnston had herself been criticised in the report of the Board of Inquiry.

The media — and especially The Australian and The Age — took full advantage of a much-publicised claim by a woman with psychiatric defects, who had received extensive psychiatric hospital treatment, that Dr. Hollingworth had raped her at a church camp in Bendigo some forty years previously. It emerged immediately that Dr. Hollingworth had never met the woman and had not been present at the church camp in question, and that her claim had been fabricated in the expectation of being bought off for a substantial amount. Nonetheless this meretricious claim was given extensive front-page prominence in The Australian and in The Age.

As usual, it was left to Mr. Andrew Bolt to provide a proper perspective. In the Herald Sun of 12 May 2003, he expressed his horror at the damage being inflicted by Dr. Hollingworth's "sanctimonious and pitiless enemies", whose objective was "to hound a Governor-General out of his job with the most vile and far-fetched accusation you could hurl at a decent man, without giving him a chance to properly defend himself".

Mr. Bolt drew attention to the fact that Mr. Lindsay Tanner, a Labor Party member of parliament, had acted to bring the spurious rape allegation into public knowledge. He commented:

"Whatever drove Tanner, such a mean deed cannot go rewarded. Nor can the other barrow-pushers, backstabbers, assassins, professional victims and vultures get to claim Dr. Hollingworth's corpse for their disreputable causes, or have him fall to their disreputable attacks."

The political assassination of Dr. Peter Hollingworth, an honourable and conscientious man, is a matter for shame for all Australians.


1. Mr. Simon Crean's unmeritorious use of Dr. Hollingworth's difficulties for the purpose of attacking Mr. John Howard was a shameful act and indeed casts grave doubt on whether Mr. Crean has moral qualities to fit him for high office.

2. It is of interest that on 26 May 2003 Professor John Morgan of St. John's College Brisbane (perhaps Australia's most respected head of a university college) had an article published in The Australian in which he criticised at length the motives of the various groups who had sought to force Dr. Hollingworth out of office: the self-advancement of some of the professional leaders of anti-sex abuse movements, the wish of many bishops to provide a scapegoat so that they could walk away, the envy of many of those who were jealous of his position, and the proponents of militant secularism, amongst many others. Characteristically of The Australian that paper published on the same page an article with a large headline, written by one of their less able staff journalists, Mr. Glenn Milne, criticising Dr. Hollingworth largely by reference to an incorrect construction of a letter that he had written to Dr. Philip Aspinall and demonstrating yet again that paper’s distasteful bias.


National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003