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Australian Governor General to Stand Down Temporarily to Fight Rape Allegations - 2003-05-11

Australia's governor general, the British Queen's representative, will stand down temporarily to fight rape allegations made against him. Peter Hollingworth has vigorously denied assaulting a young woman at a church camp in the 1960's. Dr. Hollingworth had already been under pressure to resign because of an earlier scandal.

Peter Hollingworth is Australia's nominal head of state, a role that is largely ceremonial. His vice-regal office has been thrown into turmoil by allegations that he committed rape, and on Sunday, he stepped down temporarily while a court investigates the case.

In a civil suit launched in the southern state of Victoria last year, a woman said Dr. Hollingworth attacked her during a youth camp organized by the Anglican Church in the mid-1960's.

The governor general made an unprecedented appearance on national television denying the allegations, insisting he had never met the woman and had never raped anyone. He insists he is the victim of mistaken identity.

These explosive claims follow a report by Australia's Anglican church that Dr. Hollingworth ignored child sex abuse reports while he was Archbishop of Brisbane in the 1990's. The report said he allowed a known pedophile, who is now in prison for molesting boys, to continue working as a priest.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has steadfastly supported the governor general, who was appointed as Queen Elizabeth's personal envoy in June 2001. Opposition politicians and many activist groups have demanded that Dr. Hollingworth resign. His decision to step aside will relieve pressure on the prime minister, who has faced repeated calls to dismiss the governor general.

Prime Minister Howard said Dr. Hollingworth will make a decision on his future with the best interests of the country in mind. "The governor general has told me in giving consideration to the longer-term tenure of that office that he will place the dignity and the protection of the office above all other consideration," he said.

The matter has overshadowed Mr. Howard's recent trip to Australia's allies in the Iraq war, the United States and Britain. It also has eroded some of the public support he garnered for sending troops to Iraq.

Tasmania's governor, Sir Guy Green, will stand in as governor general until the Victorian Supreme Court rules on the allegations against Dr. Hollingworth.

It is not yet known if there is enough evidence for the matter to go to trial. The 56-year-old woman who claimed she was assaulted committed suicide two weeks ago, making a complicated case that stretches back almost four decades even more complex.