Australian scandal hits church and hits state
Queen Elizabeth's visit to Australia today puts a spotlight on child-abuse allegations.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — When the Most Rev. Peter Hollingworth was named to the symbolic post of governor general of Australia last year, he held a news conference - and promptly declared it would be his last until he left the job.
But just eight months into his five-year term, Mr. Hollingworth hasn't been able to keep that promise. In recent weeks, the former Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane has been using media appearances to fend off claims he covered up child abuse allegations against priests while in his old job - and to fight growing demands from Australians that he resign.
Despite its unique political impact, Hollingworth's case fits into an emerging international pattern, as church officials in nations ranging from Spain to Ireland to the United States have been caught up in allegations of sexual abuse. American Catholics have been riveted by an unfolding scandal involving priests accused (and in one case, convicted) of child abuse - and an alleged cover-up by Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law. In Poland, allegations that the archbishop of Poznan sexually harassed seminarians and priests have spawned a Vatican inquiry and shocked residents of the famously devout, 90 percent- Catholic country.
This means Australia's imbroglio is adding fuel to an international debate about the way organized religion polices - or protects - its own members, and the bonds of trust that keep communities intact. But because of Hollingworth's unique role as Australia's titular head of state, his case is different from the rest. It's directly shaking Australia's constitutional and political foundations.
Now swirling around what is technically the highest office in the land is a controversy that has prompted even Prime Minister John Howard to warn of a possible "constitutional earthquake." The claims come at a particularly awkward moment for Hollingworth: As Queen Elizabeth's representative in Australia, he will greet the monarch when she arrives in Adelaide at the start of her five-day visit today.
Mr. Howard appointed Hollingworth to the post and is the only person who, in real terms, can fire him (by recommending his dismissal directly to the current British monarch). But to date he has backed away from doing that, despite opinion polls showing two-thirds of Australians want to see Hollingworth step down. This makes the embattled governor general the least popular since 1975 when Sir John Kerr dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam.
"It's an awkward situation for all of us," Howard told reporters this week.
"But I do ask people to stop and pause and think for a moment."
Hollingworth, who has refused to step down, says he regrets not doing a better job in handling the allegations of abuse while he was Archbishop. Victims claim he dismissed allegations too easily and he has also been accused of protecting loyal aides facing allegations of abuse.
But what fueled the most recent controversy was his claim last week during a televised interview that a case involving a 14-year-old girl and a 30-year-old priest did not constitute abuse.
"My belief is that this was not sex abuse," Hollingworth said. "There was no suggestion of rape or anything like that. Quite the contrary, my information is that it was, rather, the other way around."
The governor general has since apologized for the comment. He claims he misheard the question although a transcript of the interview casts doubts on that claim.
But since then, politicians and pundits on all sides have lined up to call for Hollingworth's resignation, and everywhere from the backyard barbecue to the AM bands of talk radio the governor general has been taking a bashing.
If Hollingworth were a simple politician that might not be a problem: He could be voted out at the next election.
However, the role of governor general is considered beyond politics in Australia, and that's one reason why this case is particularly complicated. Technically, the governor general is the commander in chief of the military and, as the Queen's representative, has the power to dissolve Parliament, approve laws, and fire governments.
In the past, when Australia had closer ties to Britain, that power meant something, and it wasn't until 1930 that an Australian was named to the role.
But according to Sarah Joseph, a constitutional-law expert at Monash University, in recent decades that power has diminished considerably. In real terms now, the governor general has no more political power than the Queen does in Britain. He is a rubber stamp for the government of the day whose primary duties are ceremonial.
"To be brutally honest, a lot of people don't think about the governor general," Ms. Joseph said. "But the office of governor general is not supposed to be divisive. It is supposed to be one of universal respect."
And by expressing views on child abuse at odds with those in the wider community, experts like Joseph say Hollingworth has undermined the people's trust for a role one former prime minister likened to being the conscience of the nation.
There are also questions about his ability to be apolitical. The opposition Australian Labor Party, for example, has called for his resignation.
Polls show it hasn't had much effect on people's attitudes toward the Queen or Australia becoming a republic independent of the British monarchy. But according to John Warhurst, professor of politics at Australian National University, Hollingworth has also made life uncomfortable for the prime minister, who after his reelection to a third and probably final term is now managing his legacy.
"John Howard's personal concern is probably his place in history at the moment and wanting to have as few strikes as possible against him," Mr. Warhurst says. "This could eventually be seen as one of his weaker moments."