Bronwyn and Rafe's story

‘In many ways, even worse than the abuse has been the way the Church has handled it’, Bronwyn told the Commissioner.

As a boy, Bronwyn’s son Rafe was subjected to ongoing sexual abuse by a leader of the Church of England Boys Society (CEBS) group he belonged to. For the past 20 years, Bronwyn has been Rafe’s advocate and champion, pursuing redress from the Anglican Church.

The CEBS leader, Stephen Pendlewhite, was a friend of the family and a highly regarded member of the Sydney Anglican Church community in which they were actively involved. The abuse began when Rafe was 11, and Pendlewhite offered to look after him for a weekend while his family was away.

Pendlewhite sexually assaulted Rafe that weekend. And he did so again and again until Rafe was 14 or 15 and refused to attend his local CEBS anymore. The abuse included masturbation, oral sex and penetration and took place at Pendlewhite’s home, in his car, at CEBS meetings and CEBS camps.

Rafe didn’t tell his parents about the abuse until he was about to turn 21, in the 1980s. Discussing plans for his birthday party and ways to keep alcohol consumption to safe levels, Bronwyn suggested they ask Pendlewhite to come along to serve the drinks.

‘I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said it’, Bronwyn said. ‘And the whole story tumbled out. Just tumbled out. It was terrible. And I think I sat there stunned.’

Before he told his parents, Rafe had spoken of the abuse only once before, to a friend. He had thought his parents wouldn’t believe him. ‘That was always going to be the problem’, he said. ‘That all of us who were abused probably had behavioral issues, and he didn’t. He was perfect.’

‘But I did believe him. Totally’, Bronwyn said.

Rafe reported the abuse to police the following year. He found them supportive and sympathetic. But it was a different experience when he visited his church minister, John Mitchell.

Mitchell had recently overseen Pendlewhite’s dismissal from his role in CEBS, prompted according to Rafe by another complaint of abuse. ‘He didn’t have firsthand knowledge of what had happened to me, but I knew he knew about the abuse of this boy and I knew that there were others he knew about as well.’ Rafe told Mitchell he planned to press charges against Pendlewhite.

‘He told me to leave sleeping dogs lie and not to proceed’, Rafe said. ‘And when the police contacted him he refused to cooperate.’

The court process dragged on for over two years, and in the end the charges were dismissed. The magistrate found the matter shouldn’t proceed to trial because Rafe had made his complaint too long after the abuse occurred and there was no evidence to corroborate his story. Rafe and Bronwyn attributed this bewildering decision to the magistrate’s lack of experience and Pendlewhite’s superior legal representation.

Twenty years later, more boys had come forward to make statements against Pendlewhite. The police pressed charges again, and this time matters went differently. There were four or five complainants, of whom Rafe was one, and Pendlewhite pleaded guilty to a single offence against each. He was jailed for eight years.

The guilty plea meant none of the victims had to give evidence. It also meant Pendlewhite was convicted for just some of the many offences he committed. The evidence Rafe had given at the previous hearing eventually proved to be of value, as it was used by police to block Pendlewhite’s application to adopt a child in the Philippines. ‘The Church had done nothing’, Bronwyn said.

Throughout all these years Rafe was struggling. He suffered severe depression and attempted suicide several times. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and requires ongoing psychiatric support.

‘The abuse that Rafe sustained from that CEBS leader totally ruined his life. Totally’, Bronwyn told the Commissioner. ‘Up until that stage he’d been a straight A student and he was in the top 2 per cent of the population IQ wise but he has never achieved to that potential.’

‘It took me 10 years to get a three year degree, because of the depression’, Rafe said. ‘I’ve been medicated constantly since 1998. I haven’t worked fulltime really – ever, probably.’

He is socially isolated. ‘Longterm depressed people don’t have close friends’, said Bronwyn.

Bronwyn continued to press the Church for adequate compensation. In the early 2000s she met with Robert McArthur, a senior member of the Anglican clergy.

‘I decided the Church needed to know, and the only way I would know the top knew is if I spoke to them. And so I wouldn’t see anyone else.’

The meeting came after enormous persistence on her part, and after many other meetings where she felt stonewalled and attacked. In contrast, McArthur was genuinely moved by Rafe’s story, she thought.

‘I said “What happened to Rafe is in the police statements”. I couldn’t verbalise it, I couldn’t sit and discuss it with a man I didn’t know but I handed him the police statements and I said “If you were to read them” – which he did, and was I felt visibly distressed. They’re not pretty. None of them are.’

Then he got up and wrote Rafe a letter of apology, with an invitation to meet.

But McArthur’s distress didn’t translate into an offer of compensation that Rafe and Bronwyn felt was adequate. And it didn’t seem to be shared by others in the Church organisation. Bronwyn vividly recalled the outburst from one Church representative when they rejected an offer of $75,000.

‘“You know our barristers will come out” – and this was the words – “guns blazing and tear strips off you and Rafe”. That’s what he said to me. If we were to pursue it through the courts.’

She still goes to church, she said. But she’s ‘disappointed’.

The question of compensation is yet to be settled. Rafe’s main needs are secure accommodation and ongoing psychiatric support. Mediation has taken years so far and the Church continues to be obstructive. ‘They wouldn’t return the solicitor’s calls and they wouldn’t return his letters. It was just terrible’, Bronwyn said.

‘So, that’s our story. We’re still trying; I don’t know when it will be but I would hope soon because I’m feeling it’s taking a lot out of me, and I want to be able to help Rafe’, she told the Commissioner.

She continues to be his main support and advocate. ‘I wouldn’t be here today, I’m sure of it, without her’, Rafe said.

Bronwyn’s husband Glen died a year or so ago and she misses him badly. ‘I’m managing but finding as I’m getting older it’s harder. And it’s harder without Glen’, she said. She worries about what lies ahead for Rafe.

‘It’s going to be very hard when I’m gone.’

Content updating Updating complete