Faith is what’s kept Reverend Peter Underwood going, through some very difficult times.
‘Faith – in a person, not an institution. And the true knowledge that I was called’, he told the Commissioner. ‘I went out to do my best. I went out to give my all, to those whom I was called to serve. I’m very clear on that.’
Peter explained that he is a victim not of child sex abuse but of reputational damage and ostracism by the Anglican Church, which ultimately brought his career of more than 20 years in the clergy to an end. In the early 2010s he was asked by the bishop of his diocese to resign. He contacted other bishops, seeking another position.
‘No one replied. No one was interested. Out in the cold.’
Peter described how he’d been targeted by the Church hierarchy because of the concerns he raised about child sexual abuse by clergy, and his efforts to get the Church to acknowledge the problem.
He first encountered this abuse in the late 1990s. Settling into a new parish he found the parishioners would engage ‘socially but not spiritually’. When he learned that his predecessor had been a serial abuser – later jailed for his offences – he understood he was seeing ‘the effects of, the aftermath of paedophilia’.
Parishioners tried to report the abuse to the Church but no action against the priest was taken. ‘I was never told about it when I went to the parish. I was never forewarned. It just wasn’t discussed.’
In the mid-2000s, Peter was moved to a parish in a New South Wales regional town. On arrival he was told a previous appointee has been ‘colourful’, but no details were given. ‘I didn’t realise what he was alluding to’, Peter said. Bit by bit he heard more – ‘Only whispers, initially’ – including a suggestion that the priest, Father Allingham, had been part of a paedophile gang.
One afternoon Peter was visited by a parishioner. He was one of Allingham’s victims. ‘He just broke down and wept. He started to recount the horrors of being an orphaned child in the parish … And what he had to say was horrific.’
Allingham had died by then. When Peter and his wife Trina went on a brief holiday, they came back to find that the bishop had organised for Allingham’s ashes to be interred in the parish church. Peter tried hard to convince the bishop this would be ‘inappropriate’.
‘I was treated with disdain’, he recalled. The bishop listened, just long enough so that no one could say he hadn’t. ‘But he would always imply that you’re being the nuisance.’
Over the following years Peter heard more stories of sex abuses committed by Allingham. The stories were deeply shocking. Hearing them affected his health. He began to suffer from violent headaches and was often ill. Eventually he spoke to his archbishop.
‘I said “Look, I have a suspicion that this fellow Allingham has been a very sick man and caused a lot of damage. Am I imagining this?” And he said “No”.’ The archbishop has since retired, and lives on a ‘say nothing do nothing’ income from the Church, Peter said.
As more parishioners opened up to Peter about their abuse by Allingham, he organised an event at which victims could meet with the bishop one on one. ‘At the end of the day the bishop was white and disbelieving’, Peter’s wife Trina told the Commissioner.
Peter had also pressed the bishop to lead a special service, as a way to ‘cleanse’ the church and acknowledge what had happened in the parish. The bishop delivered what Trina described as a ‘Clayton’s job’.
‘He came and did a service which nobody really understood and the word paedophilia was never used. He talked about the abuses of power – it could have been anyone or anything’, said Peter.
Throughout this time Peter was under a great deal of pressure. ‘Spurious allegations’ were made against him, investigated and found to be false. ‘It was quite horrible. It is, for a priest – to have your work called into question, when you know the opposite is true.’ He heard that he had a reputation for being ‘high maintenance’. At functions, attended by 60 or 70 members of the clergy, he would find himself sitting alone.
‘I was beginning to be completely and utterly isolated from the Church.’
In the late 2000s his health was suffering and he took some sick leave. By now he was at a different parish. When he returned to work he found he’d been ‘white-anted’: several Church officials were ‘suggesting the parish was in decline, suggesting I was not mentally up to the task, that basically I was washed up and finished’. The opposite was true, Trina said: ‘We’d rebuilt this parish from ashes.’
‘People were really returning to their faith – not their Church, their faith, and I make a distinction – and the generosity and the outpouring of goodwill within the place was just becoming huge’, Peter recalls.
Peter’s efforts to support parishioners in their attempts to report abusers to the Church had been ongoing. By now he was certain that the hierarchy and its determination not to acknowledge or act on the issue was the problem. At a Church council meeting he tried to add the matter to the agenda so it could be openly discussed. ‘I was so proud of him’, Trina said. But he was shut down.
A few years later a pretext was found that allowed the bishop to ask Peter to resign, and he did. The decision came after an ongoing campaign against him, he said, of whispers, smears and a lack of support from the Church hierarchy. He has since been diagnosed with PTSD, and is on long-term sick leave. ‘[The doctor and psychologist] are saying “You have post-traumatic stress and you will not or you should not have to ever work again”, because it’s damaged his whole system’, Trina said.
Peter said that he’d been told by a member of the Church’s professional standards committee that he’d been the only person able to speak out about child sex abuse by the clergy. ‘They all knew but they could never do it’, he was told.
They were held back by fear, Peter said. ‘Fear of being shut down and closed out. What’s happened to me.’