STEVE Smith calls it an ambush – the day he walked into a Newcastle courtroom to give evidence against an Anglican priest only to be blindsided by a judge’s attack against him, in a trial where three key players had undisclosed associations with the church.
Seventeen years after the case against the priest collapsed, Mr Smith has written to Attorney General Mark Speakman seeking an apology from the State of NSW.
“I expected to get beaten up by the defence but I had a judge attacking my credibility in court. He was basically calling me a liar in court, that I was fabricating it. I remember thinking, someone say something,” Mr Smith said.
“I spent years in the wilderness, despairing about what happened. I spent years thinking, I should have just shut my mouth. So the state should apologise. I just want some acknowledgement it was wrong. I want the state to take responsibility for that because it was devastating. It was soul-destroying. It’s unfinished business for me.”
The late Judge Ralph Coolahan exploded in court in September, 2001 and described the prosecution of priest George Parker for child sex offences in the early 1970s as a “disgrace” and a “real farce”. Judge Coolahan slammed Mr Smith as “truly ridiculous” for not reporting the abuse for two decades, despite evidence Mr Smith had repeatedly reported the abuse to the church from 1975.
“So, (he has) waited 20 years… well, that is just ridiculous. It is truly ridiculous. The fact that someone is brought to trial, 26 years after an alleged offence, is in itself a disgrace,” said Judge Coolahan, despite NSW judges from 1981 being required to direct juries that delayed complaint in sexual assault cases did not necessarily mean an allegation was false.
Judge Coolahan did not disclose he had worked for the diocese as a lawyer in a matter several years before the trial, and Parker’s lawyers Keith Allen and Paul Rosser did not disclose they held significant positions in Newcastle Anglican diocese – in Mr Rosser’s case, deputy chancellor.
It was nearly 10 years before Mr Smith knew.
The trial collapsed in 2001 after a parish register was produced by the defence during the trial despite the prosecution subpoenaing all records from the diocese months earlier. The register, which contained “a number of irregularities”, was “pivotal” in having the case withdrawn, the royal commission noted. Parker’s close friend, the diocese registrar and later convicted fraudster Peter Mitchell, issued a public statement incorrectly saying Parker had been acquitted.
Mr Smith’s life fell apart.
“I was powerless in that courtroom and it was as if I was that powerless kid being abused all over again,” he said.
“The judge was using the power of the bench to slap me down. If I’d known the way I was going to be treated I’d never have walked into the courtroom. People need to be encouraged to do it, not intimidated out of it.”
In Newcastle Courthouse in late 2016 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed how systemic issues, ineffectual bishops and powerful lay people allowed a group of child sex offenders to operate almost unchallenged in the diocese for more than 30 years.
The commission strongly criticised Newcastle bishops Alfred Holland, Roger Herft and Richard Appleby. Newcastle Anglican Diocese has referred the three men for church disciplinary proceedings.
The commission found Judge Coolahan’s comments about Mr Smith were “intemperate and ill-conceived”. It noted that “reasonable minds may differ about whether it was appropriate for Judge Coolahan to recuse himself (from presiding at the Parker trial) on the basis of an appearance of bias” after he acted as advocate for the diocese in a 1998 matter.
During evidence Mr Allen confirmed he did not raise the judge’s work for the diocese with the judge during the trial. Mr Rosser did not apply to Judge Coolahan to recuse himself. The judge did not raise the issue.
The commission found Mr Allen showed a “callous disregard” for another Anglican child victim raped by a Newcastle diocese priest, and a “complete lack of insight into the gravity of child sexual assault”.
The commission found Mr Rosser provided advice in 1998 to then Newcastle Anglican Bishop Roger Herft that allowed the bishop to remain “wilfully blind to the criminal misconduct of his clergy”. It found Mr Rosser had a “clear conflict of interest” representing Parker in the 2001 trial while, as deputy chancellor, advising Mr Smith the diocese was prepared to offer “as much help as the circumstances require”.
Mr Smith said he was grateful to professional standards director Michael Elliott who disclosed Judge Coolahan, Mr Rosser and Mr Allen’s associations with the diocese to him in 2009, although it “crushed the life out of me”.
“When you go into a court you expect the legal system to be impartial, but anyone who saw what happened to me that day would have run a mile from ever taking something up in court,” Mr Smith said.
“It’s something I’ve been angry about ever since. I knew nothing during the trial about Rosser having a position at the diocese. I knew nothing about Allen having a position with the diocese. I knew nothing about the judge having worked for the diocese. Why would I even think that would be the case? That’s why people have to disclose conflicts of interest.”
In December, 2016 Newcastle Detective Acting Inspector Jeff Little reinstated the no-billed 2001 offences against Parker and charged the priest with 20 fresh offences, including five counts of buggery, against Mr Smith and another boy. Parker, 79, died two weeks later.
Mr Smith praised Mr Elliott and Detective Little for extraordinary work both investigating his allegations and providing care and support over an extensive period.
“Michael has really paid the price for standing up for survivors despite what we now know was going on within the diocese. Jeff Little took the time to look at what I was saying and really went above and beyond to try and get justice,” he said.
“The police were great, both back then and now, but it all came a cropper in the court. It was part of the apparatus that failed us, the justice system itself. I want an apology from the state for that, and I’m not letting this go.”
Mr Smith, who was the last person to give evidence at the royal commission, received a settlement from Newcastle Anglican Diocese after taking legal action.
Mr Speakman’s office has been contacted for a response.