MELBOURNE, Australia, SEPT. 9, 2011 (Zenit.org).- A decade of systemic sexual abuse at the hands of priests and an older seminarian was what drove Father John Hepworth to flee Australia and the Catholic priesthood in the 1970s, the leader of the Traditional Anglican Communion has revealed.
Archbishop Hepworth, 67, is primate of the traditionalist communion of Churches that separated itself from the Anglican Communion in 1991, and formally expressed a desire to reunite with the Holy See in 2007.
In an exclusive interview published today in The Australian, the archbishop broke the silence regarding more than 12 years of abuse he suffered as a seminarian and young priest until he finally “fled in fear” to England.
“I never wanted to leave,” he acknowledged. “The Church is full of sinners, … but it is God’s gift to the human race through Jesus Christ. … I have never lost the sense of vocation of being a priest.”
In 1960, at the age of 15, John Hepworth entered Adelaide’s St. Francis Xavier Seminary. He said the abuse began a month after he entered, and he was threatened with expulsion if he spoke of the forced sexual encounters.
He named his initial abuser as John Stockdale, who at the time was an older seminarian. The priest, who died at the age of 57 inside a “men-only” club, has also been accused of sexual abuse by several altar boys who served in his parishes.
Hepworth said that after two years, he was “passed on” to another abuser, Father Ronald Pickering of Melbourne. In 2002, the Archdiocese of Melbourne admitted that the late Father Pickering had sexually abused boys throughout his 36-year career as a priest. Some estimate he abused more than 100 boys.
Later, Hepworth said he was raped by a third priest during a trip to a seaside town. This priest — unnamed in the interview — remains in active ministry in South Australia.
The archbishop charged several senior churchmen with covering up his abuse, including Adelaide’s then Auxiliary Bishop Philip Kennedy, and then Archbishop James Gleeson, who are both deceased.
Bishop Kennedy warned Hepworth that if he accused any of his friends, the bishop would “destroy” him. Archbishop Gleeson told the young priest that if he brought up charges of abuse, he would have to leave the archdiocese.
It was at that point that Father Hepworth left for Britain.
In 2008, Archbishop Hepworth wrote a letter to Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide in an attempt to heal his rupture with the Church. He wrote that he felt “deeply cheated of a priestly life.”
After four years, the archdiocese has yet to take action on the accusation, or to investigate the priest who is still engaged in active ministry.
Hepworth also approached the Archdiocese of Melbourne regarding the abuse he suffered at the hands of Father Pickering. Last month, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart issued an apology and offered compensation of 75,000.
“We cannot change what has happened,” Archbishop Hart stated. “You may never be rid of the memories or the hurt. … “On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologize to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father Ronald Pickering.”
Hepworth told The Australian that he has suffered many side-effects of the abuse, including panic attacks, insomnia, and at one point, thoughts of suicide.
The archbishop has been divorced and remarried, and he has three children.