Inside story: Broken Rites knew about these two abusive priests

By a Broken Rites researcher

In 1993, Broken Rites Australia began researching sexually-abusive Catholic priests, including Fr Ronald Pickering and Fr John Stockdale. Eighteen years later, in September 2011, another clergyman (Archbishop John Hepworth) revealed in the media that Pickering and Stockdale were among three priests who sexually abused him, beginning in 1960 when he was aged 15.

For many years now, Fr Pickering and Fr Stockdale have been featured in articles on the Broken Rites website (see links at the end of this article).

In his September 2011 statements, Archbishop Hepworth alleged that he was also sexually abused in the 1960s by a third Catholic priest, who (he said) is still a clergyman in the Adelaide archdiocese in South Australia.

Archbishop Hepworth (born in 1944) says he encountered these three priests in South Australia when he was studying in the 1960s to join the Catholic priesthood. But, he says, when he complained about this abuse in the 1960s and early '70s, the Catholic authorities threatened to make like difficult for him if he revealed the matter to anyone. That is, it was a cover-up.

John Hepworth left the Catholic priesthood in the 1970s. He later joined the Anglican Church and, eventually, became Archbishop Hepworth in a new Anglican breakaway group, the Traditional Anglican Communion.

How it all began

John Anthony Hepworth grew up in Adelaide, with the ambition of becoming a Catholic priest.

In 1960 when he was 15, he entered a minor seminary, doing a qualifying course (which included completing his secondary schooling Years 11 and 12) as an aspirant for the priesthood. He says the sexual abuse began a month after he entered this minor seminary.

After finally completing the whole seminary course, he was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1968 for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Abuser #1: John Stockdale

Archbishop Hepworth says that at the Adelaide minor-seminary, aged 15, he was sexually abused by an older seminary student, John Stockdale. He says this included Stockdale committing buggery on Hepworth.

John Hepworth says he was later warned by a prefect at the seminary that he would be expelled if he revealed the matter.

Hepworth says that Stockdale abused him again on a number of occasions for about two years.

Father John Peregrine Stockdale later worked as a priest in the Sandhurst Catholic diocese, which has its headquarters at Bendigo in northern Victoria. Broken Rites has ascertained that, in Victorian parishes, Stockdale became a habitual sexual-abuser of boys.

The Broken Rites website has reported how, on 31 December 1995, Stockdale died while celebrating New Year's Eve in a sex-cubicle at a males-only club in Melbourne.

Broken Rites has interviewed victims who were sexually abused by Father Stockdale when they were boys in northern Victoria.

There is a full article about Father John Peregrine Stockdale on the Broken Rites website.

Abuser #2: Ronald Pickering

Archbishop Hepworth says that, as a seminary student, he was also sexually abused by a Melbourne priest, Father Ronald Dennis Pickering, who was visiting Adelaide.. Hepworth says Pickering coerced him into sexual activity. The Pickering incidents continued on later occasions, including in Melbourne.

In 1993, Broken Rites learned that Father Pickering had suddenly fled from Australia to England, where he hoped to be out of reach of the Australian police. Research by Broken Rites has demonstrated that, both before and after his escape, Father Pickering was protected by the Melbourne Catholic hierarchy.

The Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese, which had long known about Pickering's liking for boys, has admitted that Pickering was an offender and it has made civil settlements with some of his victims, so as to limit the church's financial liability.

Broken Rites has interviewed Melbourne victims who were abused by Father Pickering when they were schoolboys.

It has been reported that Pickering is dead, although Broken Rites has been unable to find any trace of a death notice or funeral notice.

There is a full article about Father Ronald Pickering on the Broken Rites website.

Abuser #3: Another priest

Archbishop Hepworth said that, after being ordained at age 24, he began working as a priest in Adelaide. He alleges that he was then sexually abused by an Adelaide priest who (he alleged) is still located in the Adelaide archdiocese.

However, this Broken Rites article is confined to the two earlier priests — Fr Stockdale and Fr Pickering.


Hepworth says that, on several occasions, he tried to report the three priests to the church authorities.

  • Firstly, while in the seminary, he spoke to the seminary administration but he was warned that any mention of sexual experiences could disqualify him from ordination.
  • Later, he spoke to senior clergy in the Adelaide Catholic archdiocese, including Most Reverend Philip Kennedy, who became an auxiliary bishop. He says Kennedy warned him about speaking out about the abuse.
  • Father Hepworth also spoke to Most Reverend James Gleeson, who became the archbishop of Adelaide. Gleeson, also, warned Hepworth about speaking out.

That is, according to Hepworth, the culture of cover-up was flourishing in the Catholic Church in Adelaide.

In the early 1970s, Father Hepworth spent a year being in charge of the Glenelg parish in Adelaide. After this, Hepworth and the Adelaide Catholic archdiocese parted company. The reasons for his departure are not fully clear. He says now that he left because he was upset by the Catholic Church's cover-up of his sexual abuse.

Anglicans and Catholics

Later in the 1970s, John Hepworth was accepted as a minister for the Anglican Church in the Ballarat diocese (in western Victoria). From 1977 to 1978 he was the assistant priest in the Colac parish and, from 1978 to 1980, was in charge of a parish at Sebastopol. After that, he evidently quit the Ballarat Anglican diocese, in which he was accused of mismanagement of the Sebastopol parish funds.

In 1992, John Hepworth joined a body called the "Anglican Catholic Church" in Australia. In the late 1990s he became an assistant bishop — and then a full bishop — in this splinter group. In 2002 he became the worldwide primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion — this communion has become involved in discussions with the Vatican with view to becoming associated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic authorities are now considering ways of accepting the former Anglicans into an "Anglican Catholic Ordinariate" within the Roman Catholic Church (this could be a kind of special diocese in Australia, similar to Australia's Lebanese Maronite Catholic diocese).

It is not clear whether Archbishop Hepworth's revelations in September 2011, about church sex-abuse, will help or hinder his re-admittance into the Roman Catholic clergy.

Slow response in Adelaide

Archbishop Hepworth says that his reason for going public in September 2011 about church sex-abuse is that he wants the Catholic Church authorities (in Rome and Australia) to be aware of why he fled from Catholicism in the 1960s. He hoped that the recognition of his 1960s pain might help the mainstream Catholic Church to accept him and his Traditional Anglican Communion back into the Catholic Church in the future.

Archbishop Hepworth says that, between 2007 and 2011, he contacted the Adelaide Catholic archdiocese leadership several times, giving them information about how he was sexually abused, by three older churchmen, beginning at the age of 15 when he was a minor-seminary student in the full-time care of the Adelaide archdiocese.

At this stage, Hepworth says, he was assuming that all the abuse (from the age of 15 onwards) was the responsibility of the Adelaide archdiocese.

However, he says, Adelaide seemed to be slow to begin acting on this matter and, furthermore (he says), Adelaide seemed reluctant to accept responsibility for the totality of the abuse — by all three priests — even though all three of them abused Hepworth in Adelaide while he was training and ministering in the Adelaide archdiocese.

Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese

Archbishop Hepworth says that, in mid-2010, he contacted Peter O'Callaghan, QC, who is retained by the Melbourne archdiocese to receive (and adjudicate on) complaints about Melbourne priests. Within a couple of hours, Hepworth says, O'Callaghan had phoned back.

Hepworth gave O'Callaghan all the documents that he had previously given to Adelaide. O'Callaghan then investigated what Hepworth calls "the totality" of Hepworth's youthful abuse. In mid-2011, acting on behalf of the Melbourne archdiocese, O'Callaghan returned a decision, declaring that John Hepworth had indeed suffered church-related sexual abuse.

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart (who became the archbishop of Melbourne in 2001) then gave Archbishop Hepworth a written apology regarding Fr Pickering (the Melbourne priest). Hart wrote:

  • "We cannot change what has happened . . . You may never be rid of the memories or the hurt . . . On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father Ronald Pickering."

(Fr John Stockdale, however, did not come under the jurisdiction of the Melbourne process. After being trained at the Adelaide seminary, he ministered in the Sandhurst diocese in northern Victoria.)

More background

In September 2011, Archbishop Hepworth evidently allowed the story of his abuse to be told in The Australian newspaper on 10 September 2010 — in an article by Tess Livingstone and an article by Christopher Pearson.

Pearson, a former Anglican from Adelaide who has converted to Catholicism, knows Hepworth personally. Person describes a culture that existed among some seminarians and priests in Adelaide (including Fr Ronald Pickering, who used to visit Adelaide from Melbourne). Pearson writes:

  • "...I had occupied one of the flats in the large North Adelaide house where he [Hepworth] had been periodically abused all those years ago. The house belonged to James Govenlock, the [Catholic] cathedral organist, who entertained a coterie of guests, some of whom were predatory homosexuals. Govenlock had tested the waters to see if I could be recruited in my first year out from university and he introduced me to some of his regular guests. They included bishop Philip Kennedy and paedophile priest Ronald Pickering, both deceased, and other clergy.

    "At the time I was a regular communicant at Christ Church [Anglican], North Adelaide. My father had just been ordained as an Anglican priest. I had spent enough time in the company of seminarians not to be flummoxed by the phenomenon of same-sex-attracted clergy and was trying to come to terms with my own sexuality.

    "That homosexual clergy should prefer one another's company was generally seen as perfectly understandable, but even in the mid-1970s we expected that they'd do their best to live up to their vows of celibacy. By the time I moved out of the flat I had stopped going to church and — to Govenlock's dismay — become politicised as a gay activist. I've followed his and his guests' subsequent careers closely enough via newspaper reports..."

A journalist from Fairfax media, Martin Daly, obtained further information from Hepworth about these priests and seminarians (published in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, on September 17, 2011).

  • "... In evidence already accepted as fact by the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne, Hepworth has previously described a separate priests' sex ring that indulged in fine foods and drank wine from crystal glasses as they listened to the great symphonies in the Dandenongs [a mountain range in Victoria], Melbourne and Adelaide, and then raped him...

    "He met the notorious paedophile Father Ronald Pickering at the Adelaide home of a member of the gay circle to which the priests belonged. Pickering quickly became Hepworth's abuser at various locations, including his presbytery at Warburton [in the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese], as well as raping him violently in a hotel...

    "Throughout the abuse, says Hepworth, he felt violated, fearful and confused. He liked the circle in which his abusers moved. There was money, and talk of music, the arts and culture. So he went along with it, but not, he says, by choice. He had been only 15 when it all started in Stockdale's rooms at the Adelaide seminary where he had been given alcohol and then violently raped.

    "In some way, he says, he knew no other life. And he was afraid of their threats that if he revealed what went on within the circle he would be expelled from the seminary. His parents would find out. There would be shame and ruination..."

Broken Rites research

Here are articles by Broken Rites about two of the priests who are the subject of Archbishop John Hepworth's complaint: