IN 1989 a couple travelled to an isolated farmhouse in the southern highlands for time alone.
The mood was strained.
For the previous year the woman had been recovering from major surgery to correct a serious physical disability involving her hips and legs.
The man was distracted and aloof. Although that had been a feature of their relationship since he first suddenly and forcefully kissed her in her parents’ house in 1976 when she was 22 and he was 30, and a few months later had sex with her, the woman sensed there was something more as they settled in for their four-day getaway.
They had sex over that four days, despite the discomfort that was a consequence of the surgery. But he had never let her discomfort stop him from having sex, she said in a statement to her lawyers many years later.
On the last day the woman tried to break through his distraction.
‘‘Was something wrong?’’ she asked.
There was, he said. The relationship was over. He could not continue to carry on with ‘‘a public and a private life’’.
The man was Catholic priest Father Tom Knowles. The woman was Jennifer Herrick. In 1989 he was 42 and she was 35. He was on his way to becoming Australian head of his order, the Blessed Sacrament Fathers.
On that weekend away Herrick was starting to realise the ‘‘special relationship’’ he had groomed her for since she was a shy, sexually naive, physically disabled teenage only child of a devout couple, would never end with him leaving the church to marry her.
‘‘I asked him what he thought he had been doing all this time,’’ Herrick said.
‘‘He responded ‘Experimenting’. It was more than I could possibly comprehend. I still at this point did not and could not recognise what had been really going on.
‘‘Finally, as he departed, and realising I was having enormous difficulty with the ‘let’s still be friends’ approach, his parting shot was ‘I’m surprised you hung on as long as you did’.’’
JENNIFER Herrick is 60.
In 2011 she lodged a formal complaint with the Catholic Church, saying her relationship with the priest was covert and contrary to his vows and he had groomed a highly vulnerable parishioner and her family.
The sex was planned and initiated by him, and often hurried, aggressive and sometimes painful for her, she wrote in the complaint.
After a confidential church investigation the head of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Father Graeme Duro, acknowledged the factual content of her complaint was ‘‘largely true’’.
She had ‘‘endured a great deal of emotional and psychological pain and suffering’’ and the priest’s ‘‘inappropriate conduct was to your detriment’’.
Father Duro acknowledged ‘‘the harm that can be caused to vulnerable people in such a case’’.
She was paid compensation of $100,000. Parishioners were told the priest was on ‘‘administrative leave’’.
Sixteen months later, in December 2012, a senior NSW church official, Michael Salmon, advised Ms Herrick’s lawyer that Father Knowles had ‘‘committed to a prolonged, regular and very intensive and personally confronting program of therapy’’ and he would ‘‘return to full community life, and to public ministry’’.
The reason for his ‘‘administrative leave’’ was not made public until Herrick spoke to the media. It was only a matter of weeks after the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Herrick’s story about the priest who had a secret sexual relationship with her for years, was stood down for a short time and then reinstated, made front-page news.
She represented the tip of the iceberg of another previously hidden story of the Catholic Church – the secret women of its publicly ‘‘celibate’’ priests.
‘‘Sexual abuse by priests is not confined to children,’’ Herrick said.
‘‘He betrayed me both personally and professionally, and when I went to the church it defended him and took the attitude we were both consenting adults. But there was no acknowledgement of the power imbalance, or the fact he preyed on someone like me who had a physical disability and thought no man would be attracted to me.’’
After a public outcry the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, withdrew Father Knowles’ right to ministry in his archdiocese in February last year, although Knowles is still entitled to call himself a priest and can, theoretically, apply for permission to act as a priest outside Melbourne.
In July last year Herrick launched legal action in the NSW Supreme Court against Knowles, his order and several of its most senior members.
In a statement of claim she described herself as a devout child who was an active youth group member, music leader and Catholic Youth Organisation president who ‘‘was in awe of and accepted the church and her priests as the spiritual authorities they taught her they were’’.
The priest had made her feel like she was his ‘‘sexual servant as he began to increase in his status in the order and became more confident but remained secretive’’, her statement of claim said.
Sex occurred in her parents’ home, at her premises, at the home of her friends and in his office at his order’s headquarters, she said.
‘‘He owed her a duty not to touch her because she was a young, vulnerable female lay parishioner, and he breached that duty, as a result of which she suffered injury, loss and damage,’’ her solicitor Peter Karp said.
In April the Supreme Court will consider whether a deed of release signed by Herrick in 2011 should be set aside to allow a full hearing of her claim.
Herrick said the church’s response that she was a consenting adult, and not a child, failed to acknowledge the power imbalance in the relationship, or the impact of being forced to keep it secret.
In 1979 the priest officiated at Herrick’s father’s funeral after he died suddenly, aged 60, when she was only 25. Her father and mother never knew about the relationship.
‘‘As an only child and with him combining these two forms of interaction – grief counselling and sexual interaction – I was left confused, unsure, grieving and being advanced on sexually, all at once. I did not know what to make of it all, even as he continued to declare that ‘we’ should not be doing this.
‘‘He continued to use his power over me in this way and want it. He would pull up when bringing me home from somewhere in a lonely park near a harbour backwater and start the sexual interaction and intercourse. Again I felt trapped and so complied. For some reason I tried not to show what I was feeling.’’
Mr Karp said the case was ‘‘blazing a trail’’ to test whether priests have the same obligations as other professions, including doctors, not to pursue a sexual relationship.
‘‘In this area, so far, legally, there’s nothing, although we know there are many women who have been in secret sexual relationships with Catholic clergy,’’ he said.
Father Knowles and the Blessed Sacrament Fathers are defending the matter, arguing that a deed of release signed by Herrick in 2011 was a binding document.
SYDNEY Archdiocese Chancellor Father John Usher wrote a letter to a Hunter man in March 2009 after the Hunter man wrote about his sister’s sexual relationship with a priest.
She was a teenager from a very devout Catholic family when the priest, then in his late 30s, groomed her. The secret relationship occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.
The relationship was sexual abuse, and an abuse of power by an older man who could show no public affection and insisted on complete secrecy, the woman’s brother told Father Usher.
‘‘The most alarming aspect of the story is the way the priest used his power and his position of trust to gain a young girl’s affection and then betray that trust by sexually abusing her,’’ Father Usher wrote in response.
‘‘She does not need to defend her story. No such relationship ... should be described as consensual. The whole matter needs to be redefined as sexual abuse.’’
In an interview last year, Australian Catholic University professor of theology Neil Ormerod said he believed there may be hundreds of similar cases yet to emerge.
He criticised the Catholic Church’s response to reports of priests and women in sexual relationships.
‘‘I have long felt that the major cause of this lack of institutional response lies with the spontaneous identification of priests and bishops with the perpetrator of abuse. They are all members of the same club,’’ Professor Ormerod said.
‘‘They all had the same formation experiences, live with the same stresses and strains, and have the same temptations.’’
A priest who said ‘‘the poor man, struggling with his celibacy’’, on hearing reports of another priest who had sexual relations with a number of young women was typical of clergy, he said.
‘‘There is no sense at all of the trail of destruction caused and the faith damaged.
‘‘Immediately it became a problem of personal spirituality, narcissistically appropriated, ‘Poor me/him’. Not anger at the spiritual violation of another person.’’
In the wake of the child sexual abuse scandal in Ireland a rebel Irish bishop, Pat Buckley, said an ‘‘extremely conservative’’ estimate was that one in 10 of Ireland’s 5000 Catholic priests ‘‘enjoyed regular sex with women’’.
‘‘From the top down it is hypocritical,’’ Bishop Buckley said.
‘‘We are preaching compulsory celibacy but very few are living it.’’
In Ireland and America, support groups have been launched to help women who had been in secret sexual relationships with priests.
The Hunter man whose sister remained committed to the older priest until his death in 2006 said the secret relationship had had a significant impact on her life.
‘‘Tragically, my sister had her first intimate relationship with someone who was not available to her, and who would never become available,’’ the man wrote to Father Usher.
‘‘Her life options were so narrowed by this relationship that things like family, social acknowledgement and displays of public intimacy were always denied her.’’