While the Anglican Church decides whether to defrock the disgraced former governor-general over allegations related to sexual abuse, the parliament will consider a bill to scrap his $600,000-a-year package. By Mike Seccombe.

The painful legacy of Peter Hollingworth

Peter Hollingworth at the memorial for Peter Reith in November 2022.
Peter Hollingworth at the memorial for Peter Reith in November 2022.
Credit: Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

The year was 2001 and then prime minister John Howard, having seen off the republic referendum, was keen to be rid of another head-of-state annoyance, Sir William Deane.

Deane, a highly regarded former justice of the High Court, who had been appointed governor-general in the dying days of the previous Labor government, was coming to the end of his five-year term.

Howard didn’t much like Deane, who cared deeply about social justice and was outspoken in support of progressive issues. He was also, as one long-time observer puts it, “the last G-G who spoke for the country” during times of crisis. Howard wanted a conservative, establishment figure who would look the part and not say much. He thought he had the perfect man.

In April he named the then Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, to be Australia’s 23rd governor-general. Hollingworth was sworn in two months later, the first churchman to fill the role.

This week, Hollingworth was the subject of proceedings by the independent complaints body for the Anglican Church, Kooyoora, over his handling of sexual abuse matters, including one claimed to be the longest-running abuse case in the world. He could be defrocked. In federal parliament, moves are afoot to have him stripped of his generous ongoing entitlements, which are reckoned to have cost taxpayers $12 million since he quit the governor-general post in disgrace after less than two years.

Hollingworth was barely six months into the job when his past began coming back to haunt him. On December 6, 2001, the Brisbane diocese was ordered to pay $834,800 damages to a woman sexually abused as an 12-year-old child by a boarding master at a Toowoomba school in 1990. Her abuser, Kevin Guy, had been charged but killed himself, leaving a suicide note confessing that he had “loved” 20 girls at the school.

In awarding damages, the Supreme Court ruled that the Anglican diocese of Brisbane, under Hollingworth, had failed in its duty of care. As a media storm grew, the new governor-general was forced to make his first embarrassing public statement.

He denied suggestions of a cover-up and allegations that he had shown “a lack of concern or a disinterest”, although he did say he was “sorry that legal and insurance considerations to some extent inhibited our taking a more active role and more overtly expressing the church’s concern for the physical, emotional and spiritual welfare of those affected by the actions of Mr Guy”.

Howard also defended Hollingworth, saying suggestions of a cover-up were “ridiculous”.

More damaging stories followed. One alleged that Hollingworth had reappointed a choirmaster to a church sexual abuse committee despite an allegation of abuse against him. Another was that he had allowed a priest, John Litton Elliot, to continue working despite the fact he had abused two boys some 20 years previously, and admitted as much, directly to Hollingworth. The archbishop decided the man was unlikely to reoffend, despite being told otherwise by a psychologist. Some eight years later, after Elliot was charged with and pleaded guilty to other historical offences – which he had not confessed to Hollingworth – his licence was finally revoked.

Among the numerous other allegations aired in the media, perhaps the most extraordinary was the subject of an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story on February 18, 2002. It related to the sexual abuse of a girl in the mid-1950s.

Beth Heinrich’s family lived on a farm a long way from town, so at age 14 she was sent to board at St John’s Hostel in Forbes, which was run by the church. Donald Shearman, the assistant priest in Forbes, ran the hostel along with his wife. In 1954, when Heinrich was just 15, he seduced her.

“From then on,” she told the program, “Padre Shearman would have sex with me at every opportunity. He was always talking about our future and he used to say, ‘What will your parents say when I tell them I want to marry you?’ ”

A couple of years later, after Shearman’s wife gave birth to a child, he turned on Heinrich and expelled her. She says the consequences have blighted her life ever since.

“That was it,” Heinrich tells The Saturday Paper. “I couldn’t get back to school, you know, and I wanted to be a professional. I wanted to be a geography teacher. And he started a rumour that I was promiscuous.”

Her schooling and employment hopes might have ended there but their relationship didn’t, as Heinrich’s solicitor, Dr Judy Courtin, recounts.

“Shearman keeps in contact with her for the next 40 years, off and on, promising her that they will get married, he loves her, et cetera. She’s got hundreds of letters.”

Meanwhile, says Courtin, Heinrich had “a lot of troubles” in her life, including a violent marriage. She returned to Shearman for help, Courtin says, and he rekindled the relationship. The man who groomed her as a vulnerable child was again gaslighting her as a vulnerable adult. “So 40 years later, she makes a complaint to the Anglican Church and they hold a mediation.”

By this time Shearman was nearly 70 and a semi-retired bishop – still permitted to conduct occasional services – and Hollingworth was the archbishop of Brisbane. He attended the mediation sessions, which failed. “Basically, she wants Shearman to have his holy orders removed, Hollingworth doesn’t agree,” says Courtin. “Beth crashes again.”

Five years go by. Hollingworth becomes governor-general, the Brisbane Supreme Court judgement comes down, and amid a welter of media stories alleging inadequate responses by Hollingworth to child sexual abuse, he speaks to Australian Story about Heinrich’s complaint.

“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 round.”

Heinrich was devastated. The day after the program aired, the then Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, Phillip Aspinall, ordered an inquiry into the handling of child sex abuse cases. Hollingworth subsequently released a 4600-word statement attempting to justify his actions in her case and many others, and a public apology to Heinrich.

State and federal Labor members, including then Queensland premier Peter Beattie, called for the governor-general’s sacking.

Howard defended his man. In a lengthy press conference, mostly devoted to addressing the revelation that his government had lied to the public by claiming asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, he said of Hollingworth: “He had a high public reputation. He continues, in my view, to have a very high public reputation.”

Howard stood by Hollingworth for another 15 months, despite the Aspinall inquiry finding Hollingworth had failed in his duty of care in the Elliot case. Howard was unmoved by further allegations against Hollingworth, including that he had raped a young woman at a church youth camp 40 years previously. The claim was denied by Hollingworth and ultimately dismissed by the Victorian Supreme Court, which found that, as “a matter of forensic reality”, the allegation could never be proved.

On May 28, 2003, Hollingworth announced his resignation. About nine years later, then prime minister Julia Gillard called the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It identified 1115 complaints of child sexual abuse received by the Anglican Church between 1980 and the end of 2015, and 4444 alleged instances of abuse within the Catholic Church over the same period.

Hollingworth’s legacy is still being determined. Over four days this week, the church’s professional standards body considered the case to have him defrocked. We know little about it, because it was held in secret. Among the matters before it – the only one we know anything about – was Heinrich’s case.

“It’s probably the longest-running case of child abuse in the world, and possibly one of the most expensive,” says Professor Chris Goddard, a University of South Australia academic. “And she’s still not got resolution.”

The process has taken five years to get to this point, having been deferred and delayed multiple times. Proceedings initially excluded Heinrich herself. In a submission to the board, her legal team argued the hearing should be public, given Hollingworth “has been the recipient of a considerable pension and other financial benefits, at the expense of the public (taxpayers). This amount is estimated at about $12 million, that is $600K per year for 20 years.”

That was rejected, but Heinrich was allowed in to read a witness statement, which has been provided to The Saturday Paper. It runs to 14 hand-written pages, with a supplementary statement of another four. It describes a continuing impact on her mental and physical health, her relationships – particularly with her estranged daughter – from initial abuse by Shearman, who died in 2019, and secondary abuse by the church. All, she says, “made worse by Dr Hollingworth’s conduct in the media”.

After the Australian Story episode, “in which he blamed and defamed me”, she claims a story was leaked that her daughter had contacted the governor-general’s office to apologise for her conduct. Heinrich says it was his office that initiated contact. Her indignation, her fury, her determination to have Hollingworth held accountable is clear down the phone line.

It is expected to be a couple of months before the church board comes down with a decision.

Defrocking would be a big symbolic win for her, but what about the money?

Former governors-general receive a lifetime pension, set at 60 per cent of the salary of the chief justice of the High Court, now worth $357,000 a year, plus staff and travel entitlements that lift the cost to the taxpayer to about $600,000. A surviving spouse also receives a pension.

In 2018, a broad coalition of sexual abuse survivor groups wrote to then prime minister Scott Morrison urging him to strip Hollingworth of his taxpayer-funded pension and entitlements. Nothing happened.

On Thursday this week, Greens Justice spokesman David Shoebridge gave notice that he would reintroduce a bill first brought to parliament in November 2019 by then senator Rachel Siewert and never debated. Known as the Governor-General Amendment (Cessation of Allowances in the Public Interest) Bill, it was intended “to stop paying standard allowances to former Governors-General, and their spouses, when they have engaged in serious misconduct”, which would include not only actions taken but also the failure to act.

“No one, whatever their current or former role, is entitled to a blank cheque payable each year by the public regardless of their conduct,” Shoebridge says. “We have seen how politicised the office of the governor-general can be and it is an appropriate response to seek to ensure this office is not above the law and basic decency.

“The Anglican Church inquiry into former governor-general Peter Hollingworth will conclude this week so it’s timely to have this bill ready to close this accountability loophole.”

Beth Heinrich’s story offers a powerful argument for its passage.

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2023 as "Howard’s $12 million man".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription