The church is forced to apologise to a woman victim

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article posted 4 December 2016

An Australian "celibate" Catholic priest, Father Thomas Knowles, sexually targeted a vulnerable 19-year-old woman (Jennifer) who was suffering from a physical disability - and he entangled her in a secret sexual relationship for next 14 years. Now, in 2016, the church has been forced to offer Jennifer a written apology for this sexual abuse. On Sunday 4 December 2016, this apology was publicly read out to the congregation by a church leader during Mass at the prominent St Francis's church in central Melbourne. Thomas Knowles was formerly a priest at this parish.

The apology includes the news that Thomas Knowles is no longer a Catholic priest. It says he has been "laicized" by the church. That is, he has been totally removed from the priesthood and has been returned to "lay" status.

Thomas Knowles was a priest belonging to a Catholic religious order, called the Blessed Sacrament Congregation. The Blessed Sacrament Fathers operate St Francis's church on behalf of the archdiocese of Melbourne.

Jennifer, now aged 62, was 19 years old when she met Father Tom Knowles in the 1970s at a parish in Sydney (Our Lady of Dolours, in Chatswood). Jennifer was suffering from bilateral congenital hip dysplasia, which caused her to walk with an highly abnormal gait. Knowles instigated a friendship with her and her family. The sexual abuse commenced three years later and continued for more than 14 years.

Psychologists believe that a sexual relationship between a "celibate" Catholic priest and a parishioner is a breach of professional ethics, and it may be compared to a doctor who takes sexual advantage of a vulnerable patient.

Jennifer bravely fought for this public apology. The Blessed Sacrament Congregation did not offer to make it of their own accord.  Jennifer sought the apology as part of a civil settlement that took five years plus  to reach.  Jennifer’s main concern was that there be accountability and that the matter not be covered up.

An official announcement of the laicizing of a Catholic priest is rare. It means that an ordained priest has been officially removed from the priesthood.

Thomas Knowles violated his vow of "celibacy" and failed to exercise his priestly duties in keeping with accepted professional standards.

Jennifer was never informed as to any decision made about Knowles.She found out about the laicization by accident.

Thousands of cases of sexual abuse by priests have been reported to Broken Rites. Apart from cases of child abuse, many church cases involve vulnerable adults -- women and men.

Broken Rites is unaware of the number of priests who have been totally laicized because of sexual abuse but we understand it to be very few. Usually a bishop merely refuses to allow an offending priest to have another parish or the bishop mrely removes the right of an offending priest to operate in a particular diocese (for example, the Melbourne archdiocese). Media outlets sometimes refer to this as being "defrocked" but this is not laicisation.

Vulnerable people who attend church congregations can easily be targeted by an offending priest. Women, when experiencing bereavement, marriage breakdown and family crisis, are particularly vulnerable. Most adult victims tell Broken Rites that they formerly loved their religion, had respect for the clergy and would not have wished to give up their commitment to their church.  Having been abused by a priest, they no longer feel they are part of (or belong) to that community   These female victims were often much younger than the priest who abused them, further creating a paternal father-figure . They were susceptible to the power play and became innocent offerings to the inappropriate sexual advances of a priest they were powerless to act against.

Broken Rites believes that the church needs to open the window and give the church a good airing. Failing to address the matter, and keeping it a secret, helps no one. Sexual abuse of adults causes enormous harm not just to the victim but also the victim’s family and the church community. It is time that church authorities looked at the process where such abuses are reported. It should no longer be a church person who the victim tells of their experience. Nor should it be the bishop or the head of a religious community who decides what should be done. 

Jeniferr’s experience of church response testifies to this.

Broken Rites usually does not reveal the name of any victim, but Jennifer has authorized the media to publish her full name which is Jennifer Herrick.