Priest, mentor, paedophile

The Australian

August 15, 2020

By Suzanne Smith

Father John Denham blighted the lives of the boys in his care – including a protégé who went on to become a high-flying journalist.

It was a normal day at the office in 1997 when ABC journalist ­Steven Alward received a phone call from his old school teacher Father John Sidney Denham. After the usual pleasantries, Denham said he needed a favour. There had been a big misunderstanding: the police had charged him with sexually abusing a former ­student. Denham said he would get off because the boy was 17 at the time, the relationship had been consensual and they’d been very much in love. According to Denham, this was an attack on a gay man and his 17-year-old lover. He wanted Steven to write him a reference on ABC letterhead.

It sounded plausible to Steven, because at the time NSW law discriminated against same-sex relationships regarding the age of ­consent: for heterosexual relationships it was 16, whereas for homosexual relationships it was 18. There was a campaign underway by the Council for Civil ­Liberties and other groups to reform the law. In this context, Denham was presenting ­himself as a victim of homophobia. The call ­worried Steven, but in the end he felt obliged to do something, so he came up with a ­compromise and wrote a ­personal reference without the ABC letterhead. He believed he was defending gay rights.

At St Pius X High School in Newcastle, ­Denham – the school’s ­Master of Discipline – had been a mentor to Steven. The teacher embodied all the traits of a bumptious, slightly camp ­academic. He talked as though he was a superior intellectual with a penchant for classical music, highbrow ­literature and fine wines. To the boys he admired, like Steven, he was the most attentive and ­encouraging teacher at the school. Even after ­Steven finished school in 1978, Denham had stayed in touch and they remained close friends.

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