This clergyman commits crimes against children but he opposes having women priests

An Australian court has heard about a sexually-abusive Anglican priest, Wilfred Edwin Dennis, who left the mainstream Anglican Church to join a breakaway group, called the "Anglican Catholic Church". This group comprised former Anglicans who were opposed to the ordination of women as Anglican priests.

Although Father Dennis was opposed to women priests, he had no objection to committing sexual crimes against young boys.

Dennis has been jailed three times for these crimes. His latest jail sentence was given on 2 February 2011, when he was aged 75, He will be 80 before he becomes eligible for parole.

The Dennis story brings public attention to the phenomenon of the "Anglican Catholic Church" (more about this church later in this article).

Background

Wilfred Dennis was born on 1 May 1935. He was ordained in 1961 as a priest of the Anglican Church and he ministered first in Brisbane, Queensland.

In 1965 he moved to Adelaide, South Australia.

In 1970, he was sentenced to six months jail for assaulting an altar boy but was allowed to resume being an Anglican minister. He continued ministering in Anglican parishes until he resigned in the 1980s. He then joined the "Anglican Catholic Church" — a group of Anglicans who were opposed to the ordination of women.

In 2003 the South Australian Police established a pedophile taskforce, and in 2005 this unit investigated certain complaints against Father Dennis. The Dennis case — involving alleged offences against two boys in Adelaide parishes in the 1970s — reached the South Australian District Court in 2009.

Court case in 2009

A trial was held before a judge alone (with no jury). Dennis, then aged 74, pleaded not guilty to all charges.

On 1 October 2009 Judge Sydney Tilmouth found that Dennis was:

  • GUILTY of committing an act carnal knowledge against a boy, aged between 15 and 16, in the mid-1970s (the act was penile penetration of the boy's anus); and
  • NOT GUILTY of committing three acts of indecent assault (that is, indecent touching) and one of gross indecency (that is, performing an indecent act in the presence of a child), committed against another boy aged between 10 and 12, in the early 1970s.

These were not the only incidents reported by the alleged victims. These were merely the incidents chosen by the prosecutors for court purposes.

The two alleged victims were from different parishes.

Anglican Catholic Church

The 2009 hearing was told that the incidents involving the two boys occurred while Father Wilfred Dennis (known also as Father Wilf Dennis) was a priest in the mainstream Anglican Church. In June 2002, long after Dennis had switched to the Anglican Catholic Church, one of his former altar boys (from the early 1970s) wrote to Dennis, complaining that he was still feeling hurt by sexual abuse that was allegedly inflicted on him by Dennis. In his letter, the alleged victim described "years of emotional turmoil because of what you did to me". The alleged victim said he had been dysfunctional and in pain and was receiving therapy. The writer wanted compensation to help repair his damaged life. He threatened to notify the police about the crimes.

After receiving the letter, Father Dennis contacted Archbishop John Hepworth, who in 2002 was the head of the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia, living in Adelaide.

[Archbishop John Anthony Hepworth was originally a Catholic priest in Adelaide in the late 1960s but left the Catholic ministry and joined the Anglican Church of Australia in 1976. In 1992 he joined the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia. In 2002 he became the primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion; this communion has been involved in discussions with the Vatican with view to becoming associated with the Roman Catholic Church.]

At the time of his discussion with Archbishop Hepworth in 2002, Father Dennis was safe from any possible police prosecution, because at that time South Australia's criminal law system had a Statute of Limitations that put a time-limit on initiating sex-abuse prosecutions. South Australia removed this time-limit in 2003, and this made the 2009 court case possible.

During the 2009 criminal court case, the prosecution called Archbishop Hepworth to give evidence. The court was told that Archbishop Hepworth first met Father Dennis shortly after late 1974 and they became associated after Hepworth became a leader in the Anglican Catholic Church, the court heard.

According to Hepworth, Dennis admitted to him in their June 2002 conversation that the child-abuse complaints against Dennis were true. Archbishop Hepworth said that he therefore suspended Dennis from parish work.

Giving evidence in court, Dennis denied all the allegations that had been made against him.

Convicting Dennis, Judge Tilmouth told the court that Dennis' testimony during the trial had been unconvincing.

Jailed in 2010

After the 2009 convictions, Dennis was brought back to court for sentence proceedings. In April 2010, Judge Tilmouth sentenced Dennis to 20 months jail, with a 12-month non-parole period.

The judge said the offence was a gross breach of trust and a prison sentence was needed as a deterrent to others.

Dennis had already served a six-month sentence in 1970 over the assault of another altar boy. Judge Tilmouth said Dennis remains in self denial in 2010 despite his 1970 conviction.

Judge Tilmouth said it had not been explained why Dennis was allowed to return to the priesthood after his 1970 conviction.

Jailed again, 2011

As a result of the court proceedings in 2009 and 2010, further victims of Reverend Wilfred Dennis spoke to the South Australian Police child-protection unit. In the Adelaide District Court on 2 February 2011, Judge Paul Rice added another nine years to Dennis’s sentence for the crimes committed against the additional victims in the 1970s.

The charges comprised four counts of unlawful sexual intercourse and three of indecent assault. The victims were members of an Adelaide church youth group which Dennis had organised.

At the time, the boys were aged between 14 and 16, while Dennis was aged in his early 40s.

In sentencing, Judge Rice said that the victims were in Dennis' care and protection for spiritual guidance, "not to be preyed upon or abused".

"Their feelings of guilt and shame which caused psychological and emotional trauma have been part of their daily lives ever since," he said.

"You breached their trust, that of their parents and the Anglican Church."

Judge Rice said it was unclear how the church came to the conclusion that Dennis should be reinstated in the ministry after being convicted in 1970 for similar offences against altar boys.

"Somehow you were seen as rehabilitated but clearly you were not," Judge Rice said.

"How the church hierarchy managed to get to that position is unclear."

Judge Rice extended Wilfred Edwin Dennis’s existing 12-month non-parole period to six years, making parole possible in 2016 when Dennis will be 80.

Footnote

Meanwhile, a number of former Anglican colleagues of Wilfred Edwin Dennis are in discussions with the Vatican in 2011, with a view to being accepted (as a group) into the Roman Catholic Church, where they will be safe from such horrors as the ordination of women priests.

By a Broken Rites researcher  Article updated 18 March 2012

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