Sylvia and Jonathan Brown are pastors at an independent church in New South Wales, and came to the Royal Commission to talk about child sex abuse by several elders there. They had attempted to manage a difficult situation as best they could – requiring the perpetrators stand down from their roles in the church, and reporting them to police – but the process had left them concerned and uneasy.
The Browns joined the church as lay ministers around five years ago. They quickly found themselves invited to take on expanded roles, and were soon appointed elders. The pastor, Bruce Connell, came to depend on Jonathan. When he retired a year or so later he passed leadership of the church to Jonathan and Sylvia. The other elders – James and Prudence Plymouth, and Kenneth and Barbara Wishart – all agreed with Connell’s decision.
The following year, James Plymouth confessed to Jonathan that he had sexually abused his own daughter for several years when she was very young. He told Jonathan he had ‘walked through a process of healing’ with another ministry he had disclosed the abuse to, from which he’d been seeking accreditation as a minister. He felt he’d dealt with everything he needed to as a result of this process, and the matter was now in the past.
Jonathan and Sylvia were shocked. They sought advice from the church’s oversight body, in Melbourne. They asked Connell if he knew about the abuse and he said he knew nothing. They stood both James and Prudence Plymouth down from their leadership positions and told James he should report the abuse to police. They said if he didn’t, they would.
At about the same time, Sylvia was approached by a 16-year-old relative of Kenneth Wishart. She told Sylvia that in the past she’d been sexually abused by Wishart.
Not long after this a couple in the congregation asked for a private meeting with the Browns. At this meeting and successive ones, the couple shared allegations made by their disabled son Brenton, then a teenager, that he had been sexually abused by Wishart, Plymouth and Connell.
As they’d done with the Plymouths, the Browns immediately stood down the Wisharts from their roles as church elders. Kenneth Wishart conceded there was truth in his relative’s claims of abuse but, like James Plymouth, felt he had dealt with it already, both within his family and at a church level.
‘What we encountered was just bizarre mindsets. Such bizarre thinking’, Sylvia said. Jonathan agreed. ‘They couldn’t understand why we would stand them down’, he said. ‘The biggest issue was losing their leadership position … They then went and told us that we’re not loyal to them. So we thought, does loyal mean covering up, is that what loyalty means? Because that’s a little sad.’
Neither Kenneth Wishart nor James Plymouth went to police. Sylvia and Jonathan did. But they didn’t find them very helpful.
‘When we went to police I think they thought the whole church must be full of these people – I think they thought we were involved. And so they had to be a little bit careful’, Jonathan said.
The investigation was set back at the start when Wishart’s relative and Plymouth’s daughter both refused to give statements to police. Brenton gave evidence but it was confused in parts and as a result, the Browns feared, easily discounted.
The Browns asked the police for advice in managing the situation. ‘They said a couple of things’, Sylvia recalled. ‘Like make sure you continue supporting the family – Brenton’s family – but do not disclose anything to anyone.’ The Plymouths and the Wisharts had left the church after being stood down, but Connell was still a much-admired member of the congregation, active in home prayer group and other activities. Sylvia and Jonathan were ‘terrified’, she said. ‘[Was] he connecting with other young people in the life of the Church?’ All [police] said to us was “Watch him”. And that was impossible.’ They said “You’re not allowed to alert him”.’
Eventually a letter arrived from DOCS, written to warn the Browns that allegations had been made against Plymouth, Wishart and Connell – as they already knew. The Browns were able to use this letter as a way to prise Connell out of the congregation. He and his wife left the church. The police-imposed confidentiality meant the Browns couldn’t explain what looked like exile, and as a result many other longstanding church members left too.
‘The thing is I suppose, we have never told the story. Our senior leaders know but our church doesn’t … we haven’t gone back to these people and said “This is why we did it”’, Jonathan said.
The Browns have no idea how the police inquiries are proceeding, or whether they’ve come to an end. ‘We haven’t been told that they have or they haven’t because police haven’t contacted us.’
And there’s another problem arising from confidentiality, as Jonathan explained.
‘I think the hardest thing has been, because we haven’t spoken about it, people don’t know that we know, and they don’t know what we know. And so I think what we find is a lot of cases come out where people hear “This has happened to this person” and then a lot of other people come forward … Nothing’s happened with these guys and it probably won’t.’
Meanwhile the work of rebuilding the church is underway, with new child-safe policies put in place.
‘There’s been a very strong culture shift from a church that when we took it on there had been no checks in place – no training in place, no awareness’, Sylvia said. They have done their best to shut down every possible risk, and even have a new respect for gut instincts. ‘It’s like “No, you’re not working with the children”.’ As a result: ‘There’s an awareness out there that above all else, protection of the vulnerable is the most important thing.’