A WOMAN taking ground-breaking legal action against the Catholic Church after a 14-year sexual relationship with a priest hopes it opens the doors for other women struggling after secret relationships with clergy.
Jennifer Herrick, 60, was 19, sexually naive and had a severe physical disability when Father Tom Knowles, then 27, suddenly grabbed her in her parents’ home and kissed her after a church event. She was 22 when he initiated sex.
He ended the relationship in 1989 when she was 35 and he was 42, allegedly telling her ‘‘I’m surprised you hung on as long as you did’’, she said in a statement of claim filed in the NSW Supreme Court last July.
Ms Herrick, of the Central Coast, lodged the breach of trust claim after her complaint to the priest’s order, the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, in 2011 resulted in Father Knowles being stood down for 16 months and a Church probe that confirmed the long-standing sexual relationship.
His order acknowledged the priest’s ‘‘inappropriate conduct’’ meant Ms Herrick had ‘‘endured a great deal of emotional and psychological pain and suffering’’.
Father Knowles, a high-profile priest who presided over Melbourne’s prominent St Francis’ Church, was reinstated in December 2012 with no public explanation of his 16 months’ ‘‘administrative leave’’.
He was stood down again in February last year after media exposed the sexual relationship, and led victims’ groups to question why Catholic priests who have sexual relationships with women are not subject to the same penalties handed to doctors who have sexual relationships with patients.
‘‘A psychiatrist who targeted a patient sexually could face deregistration, so why not a clergyman?’’ said Broken Rites spokeswoman Chris McIsaac.
In a statement of claim Ms Herrick outlined a relationship that included the priest becoming close to her parents in the early 1970s before he initiated sex with her.
‘‘Tom Knowles’ status as a Catholic priest gave him ready access to my family, and to me,’’ she said.
Her condition, bilateral congenital hip dysplasia, which caused her to walk highly abnormally, left her self-conscious but ‘‘suddenly here was a charming and charismatic priest, who was interested in visiting me and didn’t seem to worry about how I walked’’.
The end of the relationship, after years when she thought he would leave the Church to marry her, was devastating and left lasting consequences, she said.
Ms Herrick’s solicitor, Peter Karp, said her claim was ‘‘testing the legal waters’’.
‘‘Is the concept of a breach of trust by a priest something she can seek legal redress for?’’ he said. ‘‘She’s blazing a trail, legally.’’
Secret sexual relationships between priests and adult women were ‘‘a big problem and a big sleeper issue for the Catholic Church’’, and had to be addressed, he said.
Father Knowles and the Blessed Sacrament Fathers are defending the claim, which returns to court in April.