The Altar Boys: Horrific abuse and cover-up in Australia’s Catholic Church

Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland]

May 28, 2021

By Oliver Farry

Suzanne Smith’s account of sexual abuse is notable for the church’s lasting coldness

Book Title: The Altar Boys
ISBN-13: 9780733340178
Author: Suzanne Smith
Publisher: ABC Books/Harper Collins
Guideline Price: £8.99

Irish people will find much familiar in Australian journalist Suzanne Smith’s account of the decades of horrific sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and Marist brothers in the New South Wales diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. There’s the flagrant sadism meted out by clerics to children in their care and the long-running cover-up by a church that chose to move known offenders to new parishes rather than take punitive action. Many of the protagonists – abusers, facilitators, survivors and victims alike – have Irish names; the local Catholic community, mainly concentrated in the mining and industrial city of Newcastle, were largely the descendants of immigrants from Ireland, as well as Scotland and the north of England.

You wonder if this familiarity, not to mention the similarity to other abuse scandals elsewhere, might hinder Smith’s chances of getting the attention of readers in this part of the world. But the Australian story was in some respects even more egregious than the church’s cover-up in Ireland, in that it went on for much longer, even after cases of abuse were matters of public record. Smith, herself a lapsed Catholic and who reported on many of the cases in her time as a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, notes that Ireland’s bishops issued guidelines in 1996 for allegations of sexual abuse to be referred to the police. The church in New South Wales, by contrast, would continue to fudge the issue for another decade, even persuading the police to agree to a compromised system of referrals of crimes known as “blind reporting”, where names of victims and other vital details were withheld.

The church, under Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Michael Malone, would make noises about having reformed while continuing to prevaricate, promote known offenders and treat one whistle-blowing priest, Glen Walsh, himself a victim of abuse, with unconscionable cruelty, even as his health failed.

Three boys

Walsh is one of three figures Smith centres her narrative on. All were altar boys and pupils at Catholic schools in Newcastle. Walsh’s schoolmate Steven Alward would later become a journalist and colleague of Smith’s at ABC; much to his later regret, he wrote a reference letter for his former teacher Fr John Denham in 1997, no doubt swayed by Denham’s apparent open-mindedness on gay rights. Denham would become known as the most notorious abuser of all the New South Wales clerics, being convicted on multiple counts of rape and abuse. Steven Alward was himself abused by another priest, something he kept hidden until late in life.

Fr John Denham
Fr John Denham

The third boy, Andrew Nash, killed himself aged 13 in 1974 after being abused by Br Coman Sykes; Nash’s family suffered further when three Marist brothers from his school turned up at the house soon after his death, asking if he had left a note. Pupils at the school were repeatedly told by teachers that Andrew’s suicide was a freak accident or a “prank gone wrong”.

Much of the exposure of the abuse in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese was the work of local newspaper the Newcastle Herald, particularly reporter Joanne McCarthy. This was all the more remarkable, given a brother of the paper’s editor-in-chief Roger Brock was a chief target of the investigation (though charged with 22 child sex offences in 2008, Fr Peter Brock never stood trial before he died six years later). It was a rare breach in the institutional tightness that protected abusers in the church, who had links with figures in government, business, academia and even New South Wales Rugby League.

Lack of contrition

The extent of the abuse was staggering and the human cost massive. About 964 Catholic institutions in Australia are believed to have been implicated and it is estimated that at least 60 of the victims took their own lives, including Fr Glen Walsh in November 2017, and Steven Alward, weeks before he was due to marry his long-time partner, Mark Wakely, in 2018.

There continued to be a notable lack of contrition shown by both the abusers (from his jail cell, John Denham would decry an anti-Catholic witch hunt led by the Newcastle Herald and the “virago” Joanne McCarthy) and the church itself. Glen Walsh was never forgiven for reporting paedophile priest Jim Fletcher to the police in 2004; until his death he was perennially denied a ministry and treated as a pariah. At a Chrism Mass in Newcastle in March 2015, he was taunted and verbally abused by other priests, and even his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican a year later appears, in Smith’s telling, to be an elaborate attempt at witness interference, ahead of his testimony in the trial of Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson, charged with failing to report Fletcher’s crimes.

Since the acquittal on appeal last April of Cardinal George Pell on charges of sexual abuse, Australia’s Catholic Church has further retreated into a persecution complex, and you wonder how much introspection it has really undergone as a result of the decades of harm it inflicted on so many of its faithful.

Glen Walsh
Glen Walsh
Andrew Nash
Andrew Nash
Steven Alward
Steven Alward

Suzanne Smith is on Twitter @suzipeep