Uniting church allowed paedophile priest to deliver sermon and posted it online
Exclusive: church promoted John Aitchison’s involvement while he was on trial on further child abuse charges
The Guardian. April 19, 2019
The Uniting church allowed a paedophile priest who had been jailed twice to deliver a sermon in Sydney and then posted it online, because he signed a piece of paper saying that he would not harm more children.
The church also promoted John Aitchison’s involvement in a church event while he was on trial in 2018 facing further serious child abuse charges, removing his name from the line-up only when he was convicted.
In April 2018 Aitchison, 67, was found guilty of five charges of rape and eight acts of indecency against then 13-year-old Georgie Burg in Canberra in the 1980s. The former Anglican priest was sentenced to nine years in jail, having already served prison time twice for child abuse that occurred in the United Kingdom, Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
While he was on trial for abusing Burg, the Pitt Street Uniting church in Sydney was promoting Aitchison’s attendance at a “Behind the Scenes Organ Tour” scheduled for 6 May 2018. The event was described as “child friendly”.
Until two weeks ago a video of Aitchison delivering a sermon at the Pitt Street church was available on YouTube. The video was recorded in 2016, when Aitchison was a known and convicted paedophile. A survivor of Aitchison’s abuse, who cannot be named, approached the church at the time and asked them to remove the 24-minute video, a copy of which has been obtained by Guardian Australia.
The video had still not been removed last month, when Burg came across it. At the time the sermon was delivered, charges had been laid against Aitchison for offences against Burg. At the end of the sermon, Aitchison refers to the church’s support.
The YouTube video shows Aitchison wearing a purple stole. He tells the congregation that religious people tended to “like the idea of being hugged by the heavenly father”.
“I suppose it might be rather nice to be hugged by God, but I find when I pass through times of crisis, and I’ve experienced more than my share of crises these past six months, I need real hugs from real, live, flesh and blood people, not hugs from God,” he said.
“And I might mention in passing the Pitt Street people are superb at giving hugs – verbal hugs, letters in the post hugs, and email hugs as well as physical hugs, and hugs that are sensitive and appropriate, hugs that are sensitive without being invasive.”
On 20 March, Burg met two representatives of the church. They told Burg that Aitchison was not employed by the church at the time, but received a stipend. They denied that anyone else had complained about the YouTube video, but told Burg they would remove it. It has since been taken down.
Burg said they did not answer questions about whether representatives from the church had visited Aitchison in jail.
“They told me he wasn’t allowed to be around children, aside from overseeing choirs,” Burg told Guardian Australia. “They said he had done his time and they trusted him. They said the Uniting church were the real victims in this because Aichison had been grooming them as well.
“I said, ‘Hang on a minute. You knew he’d gone to jail twice for child abuse offences and you welcomed him in.’”
Aitchison was at Pitt Street church from at least 2013, records show. Burg’s husband, Phil Burg, was also at the meeting. He said they told him and his wife the church had asked Aitchison to sign a piece of paper promising not to abuse more children.
“They said they had a document he signed, that everything had been in the past, a long time ago, and he agreed to certain conditions around his conduct, such as no unsupervised contact with kids,” he said.
A Uniting church spokeswoman told Guardian Australia Aitchison “had a role within the church as one of several ad hoc organists” but he “no longer has that role”. She did not describe the video as a sermon but as a “reflection”.
“These reflections are often uploaded, the reflection containing the individual in question was removed once it was brought to our attention by the survivor,” she said. “We have met with the survivor and expressed our regret at any distress that may have been caused.” The spokeswoman did not refer to Burg or Aitchison by their names.
Georgie Burg said the church’s response was unacceptable. “If it’s not a sermon, why let the guy wear priestly garbs?,” she said.
“He looks like a priest. Church newsletters say he routinely played the organ every two weeks, so it was not ad hoc. He was their organist.” Guardian Australia has seen those newsletters.
The church did not respond to questions from Guardian Australia about the piece of paper Aitchison was reportedly asked to sign.
Asked whether Aitchison had been routinely playing the organ, a church spokeswoman said: “Thank you for raising the issue about the frequency of the individual in question’s role as an organist. Upon further investigation, this appears to be correct.”
Burg was a talented violinist when Aitchison began sexually abusing her. The first assault took place at All Saints Anglican church in Ainslie, Canberra, after she had finished violin practice. He went on to abuse and rape her multiple times over the years, including at the church and in her mother’s home.
Three decades later she said she was still scared of Aitchison and angered by those who protected him, and thought about his other victims “every single day”. Despite being told by many musicians she had the potential to be a professional violinist, she no longer plays the instrument as it reminds her of the abuse.
“We were the kids on the other end of the abuse fighting for our lives,” she told Guardian Australia.
“I was sure he was going to kill me, it was that violent. He was a sadistic rapist. This is a bloke who was incredibly dangerous, he is up there with the worst.
“The support the Uniting church were giving him … it’s horrific.”
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