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Survivors and lawyers have condemned the “cruel” and “dysfunctional” delays in a case to potentially remove Peter Hollingworth, former Australian governor-general and former Archbishop of Brisbane, from office for failing to act on allegations of child abuse in the Anglican church.
A secret hearing to decide Hollingworth’s fate at the church will begin on Monday, more than five years after complaints were first made through the Kooyoora Diocese of Melbourne’s grievance system.
The lengthy process, started by complaints in 2018, has now lasted longer than the entire Royal Child Abuse Commission, which held 8,013 private sessions and made 2,575 referrals to authorities in the same time.
The royal commission found that in 1993, when Hollingworth was Archbishop of Brisbane, lay clergyman John Linton Elliot admitted to abusing two boys. Hollingworth spoke to one of the survivors, BYB, who told him that “Elliot was a pedophile and Elliot had abused him over a number of years,” the royal commission found.
Hollingworth then sought the opinion of a psychiatrist, John Slaughter, who “formed the opinion that Elliot was a paedophile and that his personality type was untreatable,” according to the royal commission.
“We are satisfied that the information that Dr Slaughter passed on to Dr Hollingworth around September 1993 was sufficient to alert him to the fact that Elliot posed a continuing risk to children,” the royal commission said.
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Despite this, Hollingworth allowed Elliot to continue in his role as Dalby’s headmaster until he finally retired five years later.
The royal commission described it as a “serious error of judgement” and Hollingworth has apologized for his handling of the case.
Hollingworth served as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane for 11 years from 1989 and later served as Governor-General from 2001 to 2003. He resigned after his handling of sexual abuse allegations led to repeated criticism, including over his comments about survivor Beth Heinrich.
An analysis by the Royal Commission of abuse complaints in the 23 Anglican dioceses from 1980 to the end of 2015 showed that the diocese of Brisbane had by far the highest number of complaints, with 33% of all complaints, and a total of 371. Adelaide, the diocese with the second highest number of complaints received less than half that number.
Following the end of the royal commission five years ago, complaints about Hollingworth were made through the Anglican complaints procedure, Kooyoora.
The complaints went through a complicated, multi-step process that included investigation by Vincent Lucas, Kooyoora’s director of professional standards at the time. The ABC reported that in 2018, Lucas told a survivor that there was “more than enough justification to prove [Dr Hollingworth’s] unfitness to hold the ordination”.
The case has not been concluded in the five years since and is now before a standard professional tribunal, conducted behind closed doors and otherwise shrouded in secrecy.
The Guardian understands that the tribunal was supposed to hear the case in December 2021. The repeated hearing delays were first reported in the Australian.
Child protection expert and advocate Hetty Johnston said it was “unbelievable that this process has taken so long”.
Related: George Pell: what the five-year royal commission on child sexual abuse has found
“It has to end next week,” she told the Guardian on Friday.
“The churches need to remember the adage ‘justice delayed is righteousness denied’. The same applies to the tribunal, as it does to the courts. This tribunal must not operate in a way that shows it is above the law.
“The interests of justice and those of the survivors are denied by the tribunal’s current trials. It is cruel, ignorant, inexplicable and pompous.”
One complainant, requesting anonymity, described the disciplinary process as “dysfunctional and not fit for purpose”.
“Six years of delay has been torture,” said the complainant. “They tell us nothing at all. They haven’t even responded to many complainers. They cancel the procedure at the last minute, leaving everyone in trouble.”
“One complainant missed an operation because the church did not communicate what was happening.”
The Diocese of Melbourne said the complaints process was “completely independent” and had “no influence” on the investigation.
“The grievance process in relation to Bishop Hollingworth is, rightly so, wholly independent of the Diocese of Melbourne,” a spokesman said. “The diocese has had no influence on the investigation and the archbishop cannot comment on the process.”
But the complainant rejected the claim of independence.
“The process is not separate from the diocese, it is the diocese,” said the complainant. “The diocese wrote the dysfunctional procedures, the diocese funds the process, the diocese can hire and fire the staff, and many of the people on the decision-making council are members of the diocese, they are clergy and other senior personnel.”
Kooyoora director Fiona Boyle was unable to comment on the specific case, but said the organisation’s aim in general was to support “equitable, rapid and low-cost resolution of complaints”.
“Complaints we handle are typically resolved within six weeks to 12 months,” said Boyle. “In complex cases, this can take longer. We recognize that delays can be upsetting and frustrating for those involved in the process.”
Boyle said support was also provided to complainants.