I write in defence of the memory of the Australian Jesuit priest Patrick Stephenson and in support of my friend Charles Moore’s campaign to honour the life of the British Anglican bishop George Bell. Both men have been accused, decades after their deaths, of sexual impropriety with unnamed minors.
I knew, but did not like, Father Stephenson (1896-1990) when I was a student at Xavier College, Melbourne, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I always regarded the Irish-born “Stevo”, as we all called him, as a bit of a snob with undue admiration for judges, surgeons, lawyers, doctors and the like. Moreover, he was a truly dreadful teacher. Stevo’s geography classes, which we termed “townography”, consisted of teaching and learning the names of countries, states, cities, rivers and so on throughout the known world. They are accurately, and wittingly, described in Paul Henderson’s 2005 book Xavier Behaviour.
Yet, unlike some of his Jesuit colleagues, Stephenson was a gentle man. He was committed to good works focusing on the less successful Xavier students as well as the poor and the oppressed outside the college’s gates. Perhaps because he was neither a scholar nor a sportsman, Stephenson devoted his life on the Xavier campus to counselling students. He invited students to his room for discussions about how they were faring and showed genuine interest in them and their families.
I have never been into “deep and meaningfuls” with priests or psychologists and soon ignored Stephenson’s invitations “to come up and see me sometime, boy”. What’s more, I did not much like the fact that he sat on a chair and grabbed the top of my knee during the discussions.
Stevo was also inclined to grab students on the shoulders during class. But many of my schoolboy colleagues liked Stevo and remained in touch with him after they left school.
In my entire time at Xavier College, and subsequently, I never heard any present or former students state or imply that Stephenson had acted inappropriately towards them. Yet, in recent times, his name has been removed from the Stephenson Centre, which has been renamed the Xavier Sports Centre. The story was carried by ABC news, the Guardian Australia online and The Herald Sun on March 23.
The previous day, Father Chris Middleton (the rector of Xavier College) wrote to what is called the Xavier community advising of the decision to rename the Stephenson centre. The news was conveyed in the eighth and ninth paragraphs of a 10-paragraph letter.
In his letter, Middleton wrote that a “small number of complaints” have been received that Stephenson engaged in “inappropriate touching while he was interviewing students”. Middleton added that the Jesuit Province in Australia “does not believe that the complaints made against Fr Stephenson have been substantiated” and acknowledged that “there is room for genuine misunderstanding as to his intentions, as is explicitly acknowledged by one complainant”. Yet because there have been some cases at Xavier College of child sexual abuse in previous decades, the contemporary Jesuits have accepted “that it is appropriate to change the name of the Stephenson Centre”.
As Middleton has conceded, the decision was made for its “symbolic importance”. That is not a compelling reason.
During his career at Xavier College, which spanned six decades, Stephenson would have been involved with about 10,000 students. Apparently there have been four anonymous complaints of “improper touching” — all of which occurred at least more than a quarter of a century ago at a time when such matters were viewed differently than they are today.
Whatever its intention, the removal of Stephenson’s name from the Xavier Sports Centre effectively condemns him as a paedophile. Obviously, the dead cannot defend themselves. But the decision appears to have been made without a case for the defence having even been heard.
Consequently, Stephenson will be remembered as some kind of paedophile while his time spent writing to soldiers on active duty and visiting inmates at Pentridge Prison will be forgotten. In The Australian Dictionary of Jesuit Biography (1999), Father David Strong refers to Stephenson’s support for the St Vincent’s De Paul Society and how he encouraged students “to visit the sick and the poor”. This, too, will be forgotten.
It’s much the same in Britain where the name of George Bell (1883-1958), who ended his distinguished clerical career as the Bishop of Chichester, has been removed from buildings of the Church of England. Yet, as Moore has written in Britain’s The Spectator and The Telegraph, Bell is one of the heroes of the Anglican church.
Widely regarded as a holy man, Bell was one of the few influential Englishmen in the 1930s to oppose Adolf Hitler’s regime and all attempts to appease it. He supported Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prominent critic of the Nazi regime who died for his beliefs, and advocated for the entry into Britain of German Jews and Non-Aryan Christians.
Bell has been accused by one person, a certain “Carol”, of some form of sexual impropriety which allegedly took place six decades ago. There is no supporting evidence. Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham, recently acknowledged that the Church of England is not convinced that Bell engaged in any sexual impropriety at any time. Even so, it has acted against Bell’s memory and paid financial compensation to his accuser. It seems that the Anglican hierarchy’s move against Bell has also been undertaken for its “symbolic importance”.
Regrettably, undocumented allegations against the likes of Stephenson and Bell have a certain credibility because of what we now know about past child sexual abuse in institutions.
Yet we also know that some people have clear “memories” of events that never happened and that not every allegation is necessarily true. Memory is a fallible thing.
The likes of Moore and fellow journalist Peter Hitchens are willing to support the Bell until evidence emerges to the contrary. In Australia, my position on Stephenson is the same, despite the fact that I was never a member of the Stevo Fan Club.