Paying for the sins of our fathers

Next time you read someone whining about the church being under attack from a heartless secular society, think of what’s happening in Bungwahl, New South Wales.

You’ve probably never heard of Bungwahl.

It’s one of those blink-and-you-miss-it hamlets on the mid-north coast. It’s not like one of those towns that had a hey-day but fell into ruin after the freeway detoured it. Bungwahl has never amounted to much. It was always just a dot along the road that hugs the edge of the Myall Lakes between Bulahdelah and Seal Rocks.

In 1870 or thereabouts, a canny Scotsman named Alexander Croll established a sawmill in the area to service the shipbuilding industry of Port Stephens. He owned Croll & Sons, sawmillers, until his death in 1917 at the ripe old age of 82.

Back in those days, wealthy Christian businessmen were inclined to build amenities for their community, especially when most of that community was in their employ. So Alexander Croll built a small church on the hill above the lake and in 1888 gifted it to the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.

It’s called St James Anglican Church and it’s nothing to look at really. Just a neat little weatherboard chapel but with sweeping views of Myall Lakes through the trees.

In fact, none of us would ever have heard of St James church in Bungwahl unless the Newcastle diocese decided to sell the property recently. Although even that wouldn’t have been big news except for the reason for the sale.

The Anglican Diocese of Newcastle is going broke paying compensation to the victims of child sexual assault by their priests.


The recent Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse found widespread pedophilia within the diocese. Newcastle received the fifth highest number of complaints of any Anglican Diocese in Australia. It also ran the infamous St John’s seminary in Morpeth, the school that educated more pedophile priests than any other Anglican college in the country.

The commissioners damned the leaders of the diocese as being at times weak, ineffectual, and even complicit.

The bill to compensate their victims is currently estimated to be around $10 million.

So, little country churches like St James in Bungwahl are going under the hammer. And the locals are hopping mad.

Far from the church being an object of derision or suspicion, the community of Bungwahl have rallied to save their church. Even those locals who never attend St James are fighting to keep it from being sold. They claim it belongs to Bungwahl, not the Anglican Diocese, since Alexander Croll built it himself on his own land for the community. Some local people have tried to intimidate potential buyers. Signs like this one started going up around the town.

None of that washes with Bishop Peter Stuart. He has to raise $10 million so he got each of the 63 parishes that make up the diocese to agree to hand over 25 per cent of any moneys raised from selling real estate to the redress fund.

But that hardly made a dent.

Since 2010, 18 churches have closed and 11 of them were sold, pulling in around $5 million. But the percentage that went to the redress fund was less than $1 million, and the average compensation payment is $180,000 per person. That means the sale of 11 local churches compensated just five victims. At that rate, the whole diocese would have to be sold to support their victims.

Bishop Stuart had to take more drastic steps. He announced he would be “more courageous” about flogging small churches and that he was upping the chunk that would go to the redress fund to 40 per cent. He then listed St James, Bungwahl for sale.

But Newcastle isn’t the only diocese breaking parishioners’ hearts to compensate their victims. The Bishop of Bathurst, Ian Palmer plans to sell more than a dozen churches in his diocese to pay more than $2 million in redress to victims of child sex abuse. The small parish community of St Aidan’s Anglican Church at Black Springs in Oberon was shocked when Bishop Palmer wrote to them informing them their church would be one of those closed down and sold.

The same story is happening right across the country. Small, local churches are being forced to pay for the past sins of pedophile priests.


Too bad, some might say. The church is responsible for the behavior of the priests and ministry workers in their employ, especially when proper oversight wasn’t exercised or pedophiles were merely moved around parishes whenever a complaint was received. So what if the church goes broke paying compensation to its hundreds of victims!

I admit I can feel this way about the whole shameful saga of child sexual assault in our churches. Hold an ecclesial fire sale. Sell everything and give it to the people whose lives we’ve ruined.

But then I remember the saddened folks of little postage-stamp-sized towns like Bungwahl and Black Springs and I realise the implications of selling everything: the grief of a congregation; the disappearing face of the church; the severed connection between church and neighborhood; the removal of a community facility; the loss of history; the psychological and spiritual effect on struggling rural communities.

Of course, none of that compares to the unspeakable damage done by child sexual abuse.

I’m yet to be convinced that Australians are any more anti-church or irreligious than they’ve ever been. But before we complain about Christianity being under attack or religious speech being curtailed, can we just acknowledge we’ve brought so much of our own demise on ourselves.


If the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle goes broke and closes down it will be their own fault, not the prevailing headwinds of secularization and the “left-leaning mainstream media”. We are all now paying for the sins of our fathers, men who betrayed their calling to serve the church, who inflicted dreadful suffering on their victims and whose crimes will be paid for by congregations like those at St James, Bungwahl for years to come.



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3 thoughts on “Paying for the sins of our fathers

  1. Hi Mike
    It may come as no surprise to you that the media were not entirely truthful in the way they presented the story. The sale of st James and the redress issue are not directly related. Although it is true to say that for the time being a percentage of all property sales is quarantined for redress.

    The diocese is by no means ‘broke’ but we can no longer fund redress out of existing cash reserves. Personally I believe we should keep paying until our last cent is gone but I doubt that it will come to that.

    The Anglican church, unlike our Baptist siblings has traditionally seen itself as a church by association rather than membership. This caused us to feel the necessity to have a presence in every town, suburb and village. This worked well in the 19th century when most of our churches were built and transportation was limited, and while priests were prepared to subsidise this model through poor pay and conditions. The real issue for st James is that just not enough people go to church there. As I listened to the interview the old adage ‘God has no grandchildren’ came to mind. There is a very active congregation less than 30 minutes away for anyone who feel so inclined and the community hall provides adequate resources for community gatherings.

    The issue for us now is how we redeploy resources to meet the needs of this era not the one which has now passed. It is also worth noting that the unit of the church in Anglican ecclesiology is the Diocese not the parish or congregation. It is the whole diocese that needs to take responsibility for the sins of the past. That includes st James.

    With every kindness

  2. Hi Mike,
    I see your point and agree – the old reaping what you sow is coming to pass. And I’m definitely sick of hearing christians winge about how the world is treating them… we’ve got a lot of
    But I think Rod makes a good point above too.
    There’s a little Anglican church at the end of our street that was built in 1921 – it’s located at about the point that I regain mobile phone reception! It hasn’t been used for at least the past 20 years as the local congregation has moved twice and is now located in a new building 5 minutes away (coincidentally built by a company I used to work for, on a street where the Catholics, Anglicans, & Christian Israelites reside, which is minutes away from the baptist church, the evangelicals, the uniting church etc). My point, our area really has no shortage of “churches”.
    There was a community push to save the one I mentioned, for use as a community centre or memorial for WW1 & 2, however it too was sold to a nice family whose kids go to school with mine, who have commenced restoring it to live in – and it is looking better than ever. I feel for the family as they’ve had to endure a horrible range of abuse from a few locals who somehow see them as desecrating a “community owned” site. In many ways, that family is bringing life a place that had long since died… but maybe I just have no sense of history?

  3. […] Australia, Michael Frost, in an article called Paying for the Sins of Our Fathers, writes about how “the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle is going broke paying compensation to […]

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