Back in the pulpit: Catholic priest who abused a woman for 14 years gets re-instated

FOR 14 years – from the age of 22 – a young disabled woman in Australia endured sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest.

Then, in 2011, Jennifer Herrick lodged a complaint against Father Tom Knowles. The Church accepted liability. Father Knowles’s superior, Father Graeme Duro, wrote to Ms Herrick acknowledging that she had:

Endured a great deal of emotional and psychological pain and suffering and that Fr Knowles’s inappropriate conduct was to your detriment.

The victim was paid $100,000 in compensation, and Knowles was put on “administrative leave”.

But, to the horror of clerical abuse victims and their advocacy groups, Knowles is now back in the pulpit after a senior NSW Church official, Michael Salmon, advised Ms Herrick’s lawyer in writing that Knowles had:

Committed to a prolonged, regular and very intensive and personally confronting programme of therapy.

'Reformed' abuser Father Knowles is free once more to deliver mumbo-jumbo  Photo: Angela Wylie

‘Reformed’ abuser Father Knowles is free once more to deliver mumbo-jumbo. Photo: Angela Wylie

That, said Salmon, was good enough for the Church to return him:

To full community life, and to public ministry.

The decision to allow to allow Knowles to return to full duties at St Francis’ in Melbourne’s central business district was described by Ms Herrick as:

Extremely distressing.

Ms Herrick was a shy 19-year-old with bilateral congenital hip dysplasia – a condition causing her to walk with a highly abnormal gait – when her family’s priest, Father Knowles, cultivated a relationship with her at his church, Our Lady of Dolours, in Chatswood. Ms Herrick’s later psychological reports say she was being groomed.

When Ms Herrick turned 22, Knowles, who was then 30, unexpectedly initiated intercourse with her, an act she describes as unpleasant and painful but one she felt powerless to stop because of his position. It was the first time Ms Herrick had had sex.

For the next 14 years, Father Knowles maintained a secret sexual relationship with Ms Herrick.

Said Ms Herrick:

I now understand that my very severe vulnerability allowed him to exploit me by abusing his priestly powerful position for nearly two decades for his sexual needs.

Ms Herrick allowed Father Knowles to have sex with her during a 14-year period and told no one about it. The sex was often hurried, aggressive and sometimes painful.

She withdrew from friends and family and grew increasingly anxious, ultimately having a breakdown and losing her promising career as a high school teacher. She said:

You feel you can’t say anything to anybody because he was a priest. When a young, disabled woman is caught up with a priest, you are trapped. I was denied an opportunity to develop normally as a young adult. I could never test out other relationships or have a family. It was a personal and pastoral betrayal.

In a report, Ms Herrick’s psychologist, Ana Grant, said the priest’s conduct had caused Ms Herrick serious post-traumatic stress disorder and fell:

Within the criteria for clergy perpetrated sexual abuse.

Knowles was photographed preaching to parishioners last week at St Francis’, which hosts 10,000 parishioners a week. In his career with the church, he has been appointed as the head of an order and held other senior roles in NSW and Victoria.

Father Duro said last week:

We express our deep regret at the hurt suffered by the complainant and the harm Fr Knowles’s behaviour has caused his fellow religious and the church; we believe everything … to alleviate the complainant’s suffering and to address Fr Knowles’s responsibility for his actions has been done and it is appropriate for him to return to public ministry.

Professor Ormerod, who has supported Ms Herrick, said that in reinstating Father Knowles the Church sent a “signal to the victim that her situation wasn’t serious” when in fact the abuse of trust by the priest had been extensive.

Professor Ormerod said he suspected the number of adults abused or in inappropriate relationships with their priests might be greater than the child abuse scandal.

A victims’ advocate, Chris McIsaac of Broken Rights, said:

A psychiatrist who targeted a patient sexually could face deregistration, so why not a clergyman?

Hat tip: John C