Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
An SBS News investigation that uncovered multiple allegations of child sexual abuse within Australia’s Coptic Orthodox Church has led to an apology and the suspension of an accused teacher who had gone on to teach at another parish years after clergy were told of the allegations.
In correspondence seen by SBS News, a senior clergy member from one of Australia’s two main dioceses wrote to Hanna (not her real name) after she revealed to the Church last month via email that she was one of the anonymous alleged survivors in the investigation.
The clergy member responded, acknowledging a “deficiency” in the diocese’s child safety training and expressing their “sincerest regret for any injury or offence that may have been caused to you during your service in the church”.
“Though I have not had the blessing of meeting you, I personally unreservedly apologies [sic] to you and seek your forgiveness,” the email to Hanna read.
“I can only assure you that the safety and welfare of all people, particularly children in the church's care, are of utmost importance to all of us.”
The lay teacher from Hanna’s former church - who she said repeatedly sexually abused her from the age of seven - had a valid Working with Children Check, the email said. They had moved to another parish interstate to teach after the allegations were raised with the Church by Hanna and have now been suspended.
Hanna says she was seven when the alleged abuse started. Source: SBS
“We have written to the parish directing them to immediately suspend the person of concern from any contact with children,” the email to Hanna said.
“This situation has highlighted deficiency in the Diocese Child Safe training. To close this gap, we have contracted with an external Child Safe Organisation to deliver Child Safe Training for all the Diocese clergy and then to all servants.”
Hanna said the email and the removal of her alleged abuser was a “positive step” and reassured her that the Church can now “appropriately deal with cases of child sexual abuse”, but more was needed.
“It is encouraging to see the Child Safe policies now available on the Diocese website,” she added, but “for these policies to make a material difference, they must be accompanied by an effort to realise cultural change and greater awareness about the reality of this issue within our community”.
Alleged abuser still teaching
A legal expert has questioned why the Church did not conduct a full investigation prior to 2019, particularly after SBS News revealed senior clergy in the Church were told in writing of allegations of child sexual abuse relating to the teacher as far back as 2016, and again in 2019.
Angela Sdrinis, a senior lawyer based in Melbourne who specialises in institutional responses to child abuse, said she was taken aback by the revelation that the alleged abuser was found to still be teaching children.
“In a post child abuse Royal Commission world, I must say I do find it shocking,” she said.
Ms Sdrinis said the Working with Children Check only worked if institutions properly followed up allegations of abuse in the first instance.
“There’s an acknowledgment about cracks in the system … but of course, they’re going to have a valid check if the allegations aren’t properly investigated.”
Ms Sdrinis said in her view “based on the investigation, it seems the Church knew about these allegations and so more should have been done so as to potentially protect others.”
“I think what this reporting shows is a serious cultural issue within the Church around tackling these issues, and that needs to change.”
Hanna (not pictured) told the church she was one of the anonymous alleged survivors in the SBS News investigation. Source: SBS
spanned three states across Australia. As well as Hanna, two other women came forward to allege they were abused as children by Coptic Orthodox Church staff between 2008 and 2016.
One of the women said she was raped by a priest, the other said she was sexually abused by a lay teacher.
The Church said some of the allegations in the original report have been referred to the Australian Federal Police.
The clergy member who sent the apology to Hanna told SBS News in a statement the diocese had "zero tolerance to any form of child sexual abuse or abuse of any kind" and that the issue required “eternal vigilance”.
“[We need] ongoing education and training … policy development and review, cultural change, and empowerment of the vulnerable,” they said, adding that all staff, including lay staff, required approvals to work with children.
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