Father Thomas Knowles. Photo: Angela Wylie
A LEADING Australian priest who sexually preyed on a disabled and vulnerable woman for 14 years has been allowed to return to preaching and running community groups at one of the nation's busiest churches.
The recent decision by the Catholic Church to allow Father Tom Knowles to return to his full duties at St Francis' Church in Melbourne's CBD after around 16 months of ''administrative leave'' has outraged his victim and victims' groups.
Father Knowles' reinstatement comes after the church apologised to Jennifer Herrick, paid her $100,000 in compensation and acknowledged ''the harm that can be caused to vulnerable people in such a case''.
Ms Herrick's story highlights a rarely exposed facet of church abuse: vulnerable adult parishioners targeted by their priest for a sexual relationship. Psychologists say such relationships may be compared to a doctor who has sex with a vulnerable patient, and Australian Catholic University professor of theology Neil Ormerod believes there may be hundreds of similar cases yet to emerge.
Ms Herrick was a shy 19-year-old from NSW, who suffered from bilateral congenital hip dysplasia - which caused her to walk with an highly abnormal gait - when her family's priest, Tom Knowles, cultivated a relationship with her. Ms Herrick's later psychological reports say she was being groomed.
When Ms Herrick turned 22, Father Knowles, who was then 30, unexpectedly initiated intercourse with her, an act she describes as unpleasant and painful but one she felt powerless to stop due to his position. It was the first time Ms Herrick had ever had sex.
For the next 14 years, Father Knowles - who as a Catholic priest is meant to be celibate - maintained a secret sexual relationship with Ms Herrick.
''I now understand that my very severe vulnerability allowed him to exploit me by abusing his priestly powerful position for nearly two decades for his sexual needs,'' she said.
In 2011, after she lodged a formal complaint, a confidential church investigation found his conduct to be highly inappropriate. Ms Herrick allowed Father Knowles to have sex with her during the 14-year period and told no one about it. She says the sex was often hurried, aggressive and sometimes painful. She withdrew from friends and family and grew increasingly anxious, ultimately having a breakdown and losing her career as a high school teacher.
''You feel you can't say anything to anybody because he was a priest. When a young, disabled woman is caught up with a priest, you are trapped,'' she said. ''I was denied an opportunity to develop normally as a young adult. I could never test out other relationships or have a family. It was a personal and pastoral betrayal.''
In a report, Ms Herrick's psychologist, Ana Grant, said the priest's conduct had caused Ms Herrick serious post-traumatic stress disorder and fell ''within the criteria for clergy perpetrated sexual abuse''. On September 27, 2011, Father Knowles' boss, Father Graeme Duro, wrote to Ms Herrick acknowledging she had ''endured a great deal of emotional and psychological pain and suffering and that Fr Knowles' inappropriate conduct was to your detriment''.
But in December 2012, a senior NSW church official, Michael Salmon, advised Ms Herrick's lawyer in writing that Father Knowles had ''committed to a prolonged, regular and very intensive and personally confronting program of therapy'' and he would ''return to full community life, and to public ministry''.
Ms Herrick described the decision as ''extremely distressing''.
Fairfax Media photographed Father Knowles preaching to parishioners last week at St Francis', which hosts 10,000 parishioners a week. In his career, Father Knowles has been appointed as the head of an order and held other senior roles in NSW and Victoria.
Ms Herrick's lawyer is Peter Karp, who has acted for many clergy sexual abuse victims. ''Vulnerable people in Jennifer's position give their trust to a priest on the understanding that this trust will be returned,'' he said. ''In this instance, the victim is so aggrieved, you would think that justice would demand that he be stood down permanently.''
Father Duro said in a statement this week that: ''We express our deep regret at the hurt suffered by the complainant and the harm Fr Knowles' behaviour has caused his fellow religious and the church; we believe everything … to alleviate the complainant's suffering and to address Fr Knowles' responsibility for his actions has been done and it is appropriate for him to return to public ministry.''
Ms Herrick's case falls outside of the royal commission on child sex abuse because she was 22 when the sexual relationship began.
"The adult victims [of clergy abuse] are voiceless victims," Mr Karp said.
Professor Ormerod, who has supported Ms Herrick, said that in reinstating Father Knowles, the church sent a "signal to the victim that her situation wasn't serious" when in fact the abuse of trust by the priest had been extensive.
He said he suspected the number of adults abused or in inappropriate relationships with their priests might be greater than the child abuse scandal.
Victims' advocate Chris McIsaac, of Broken Rights, said: ''A psychiatrist who targeted a patient sexually could face deregistration, so why not a clergyman?''