Queen's Man In Limbo

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It would be a harsh outcome, but in years to come Australians will probably remember their 23rd vice-regent only for a televised appearance in which he denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a young woman in the mid 1960s. "I did not rape her," Governor-General Peter Hollingworth said in a prerecorded statement on May 8. "I deny absolutely that I have ever raped or in any way sexually assaulted any person." With duties mostly ceremonial, the behavior of the Queen's representative in Australia seldom makes much impression on the public, although in recent times the role has been filled by a popular saint and a derided sinner. So in the nation's mental newsreel of vice-royalty, the sad image of Hollingworth's denial may well follow the footage of Sir John Kerr's sozzled stumble at the Melbourne Cup in 1977.

Although Hollingworth has not been charged with any offense, the rape claim added fuel to a heated debate about whether he should remain in office: a recent opinion poll indicated that 3 out of 4 Australians thought he should resign. Hollingworth's public ordeal began with accusations that during the 1990s, while Archbishop of Brisbane, he had mishandled allegations of child sexual abuse perpetrated by clergymen. Last month, a church board of inquiry criticized Hollingworth for allowing a priest to remain in the ministry after he had admitted sexually abusing a child. The inquiry also found that Hollingworth had been unsympathetic and lacking in compassion in two child sexual abuse matters that came before him.

After the church's report was tabled in Queensland's Parliament on May 1, Hollingworth conceded that he had made "a serious error of judgment." Prime Minister John Howard argued that the findings had no bearing on Hollingworth's performance as Governor-General, and rejected calls for his dismissal or resignation. "I do not regret the appointment," he said.

But last week, several days after questions were placed on notice in the Federal Parliament by Labor Opposition M.P. Lindsay Tanner, Hollingworth asked the Victorian Supreme Court to lift a suppression order in a civil suit against him and the Anglican church by Rosemarie "Annie" Jarmyn (who died last month). Jarmyn alleged that Hollingworth had assaulted her at an Anglican Church youth camp in Bendigo, Victoria, almost 40 years ago. The court's decision allowed the Governor-General to air - and deny - the rape claims.

Hollingworth has been under attack since soon after Howard announced his appointment in April 2001. The choice of an ordained minister was criticized as blurring the church-state boundary. "It's absolutely clear that there has been a witch hunt," says friend David Flint, chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, adding that the Diocese of Brisbane inquiry cleared Hollingworth of most of the complaints it investigated. "The whole campaign," says Flint, "has been highly selective, has been based on rumor, on allegations, on matters which are completely irrelevant."

Whether his refusal to quit stemmed from righteous stoicism or mulishness, the Governor-General became trapped in a vortex of lurid claims, political opportunism, public hysteria and febrile op-ed commentary that was sucking the life out of his tenure. Many Australians believe he now lacks the popular approval - enjoyed by his celebrated predecessor Sir William Deane - to represent Australians overseas or to serve as their touchstone in times of crisis. Without the support of the Opposition, the Governor-General's legitimacy as a constitutional umpire is also compromised, say some legal experts. According to Professor George Williams, of the University of New South Wales, "[Hollingworth] is no longer able to fulfil his constitutional duties."

Groups representing victims of child sexual abuse argue that the controversy over Hollingworth is damaging the vice-regal office, and that by remaining in office he is sending the wrong message to both perpetrators and victims. The Rev. Peter Powell, director of Sydney's Pastoral Counselling Institute, says Hollingworth's track record suggests he is more concerned about public perceptions of child abuse among the clergy than with defending the cause of victims. "What the victims are hearing is [that his] energy is going into protecting the office, protecting the Church and protecting himself." Hetty Johnson, executive director of the Bravehearts sexual-abuse survivors' group, which supported Jarmyn in her suit against Hollingworth, says that although the issue has reached the "bizarre stage," she will not end her crusade to oust him: "We'll continue to campaign for as long as he stays there."

According to John Warhurst, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, the crisis over Hollingworth has revealed the weakness of the constitution. "The system for appointing and removing a Governor-General is grossly undemocratic and inadequate," he says. Despite the frenzy of rumors and allegation, Howard stood by Hollingworth, supported - at least in public - by most of his Cabinet. David Flint said last Friday that he did not expect Howard or Hollingworth to buckle. "The Prime Minister has correctly stated that there has to be misbehavior in the office of Governor-General or moral turpitude [to justify dismissal]. There's none of that, so why should he be called upon to resign?" But the pressure did not let up. On Sunday, Howard announced that Hollingworth would step aside pending the resolution of the Jarmyn case.

- With reporting by Michael Fitzgerald and Daniel Williams