Peter Hollingworth's predecessor as Australian Governor General was the widely admired Sir William Deane, a decent, self-effacing man who spoke up for the alienated and the dispossessed. He was a hard act to follow, but no one imagined that his successor would step aside in disgrace less than two years into his term of office.
The choice of Dr Hollingworth, the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, was controversial. The Prime Minister, John Howard, was criticised for appointing a religious leader to an office that is supposed to represent all Australians. The fact that Dr Hollingworth was a close friend of Mr Howard and his wife, Janette, both keen Anglican churchgoers, did not escape notice.
Ironically, it was events in his church background that came back to haunt him and plunged the vice-regal office into one of the most serious controversies of its 102-year history.
Just eight months after Dr Hollingworth was sworn in, he was accused of covering up a string of incidents of child sexual abuse in the Brisbane diocese. Somehow, he managed to ride out the storm. Then, 10 days ago, the report of an inquiry into the affair was published. It was scathing about his decision to allow a priest who serially molested a schoolboy to remain in the ministry, and not to report him to police.
A week later came the astonishing revelation that he was being sued by a 57-year-old woman, Annie Jarmyn, who claimed that he had raped her at a church youth camp in the 1960s. Dr Hollingworth has denied the allegation and the case is still making its way through the legal system.
Even if that most serious of allegations is not proved in court, it is inconceivable that Dr Hollingworth will resume his duties as the Queen's representative. Public and political support for him has crumbled. Mr Howard left a conspicuous question mark over his long-term future yesterday.
Australia is now floundering in a situation that is without precedent. At no time in the history of the Commonwealth has a Governor General been forced to resign, even temporarily. There are established contingency measures; the longest-serving state governor, Tasmania's Sir Guy Green, will deputise for Dr Hollingworth. But the legal action could take months to complete.
That leaves Australia, a constitutional monarchy that reaffirmed its links with the Queen in 1999 by voting "no" in a referendum on becoming a republic, in an uncomfortable limbo. As of yesterday, the Governor General – who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the power to dismiss governments – is an obscure dignitary known by few outside Tasmania.
The last constitutional crisis to engulf the office of Governor General was in 1975, when Sir John Kerr sacked the Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam, to break a parliamentary deadlock. Those events were dramatic and shocking, but Sir John – for all that he was reviled by many Australians – never faced personal allegations of such gravity.
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