Joanne McCarthy is the brave journalist who spearheaded the Newcastle Herald’s “Shine the light” campaign which, arguably, brought about the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Abuse, and an earlier NSW special enquiry. She interviewed about 200 victims of sexual abuse, many of them scarred by alcohol, drugs and depression. She uncovered no less than 12 suicides or drug overdoses among former students of a priest called John Denham. McCarthy is the current holder of Australia’s highest journalism award, the Gold Walkley.
“My first involvement was in June, 2006. A man rang me, out of the blue,” McCarthy tells Eternity. “I had been raised in a Catholic family and my parents still went to church.
“He was a victim of a Catholic priest called John Denham. He contacted me. For a lot of male victims, I was a mother figure, that woman who writes about her sons and the cars breaking down and that sort of stuff.”
The man on the phone asked McCarthy why no media had reported on the fact that John Denham had been convicted five years earlier.
He told her that Denham was working in Sydney for a Catholic organisation, located close to a school.
Denham had taught at Newcastle’s St Pius X School. He was convicted in 2010 and 2015 for crimes against 57 boys, aged from five years old.
“That was my first real contact with survivors of abuse … It had a real impact on me, to the point where I actually needed professional support.”- Joanne McCarthy
“I checked it out; he had been convicted.” Other victims of John Denham then read he had been convicted and that became “a ticking timebomb,” McCarthy recalls. The next year, an editor asked her to write an article on why Catholic primary school enrolments were going down.
“I said to him that sounds seriously boring,” McCarthy remembers. But it led to a major escalation in the abuse story. “On the second phone call, the person I rang said ‘something, something, something … oh, it might have something to do with the child sexual abuse.’”
That led her to the paedophile priest Vince Ryan, and the cover-up by a senior Catholic official, Monsignor Patrick Cotter.
“It was there in black and white. I had the transcript of Patrick Cotter’s interview with police. I had proof that the police were considering charging him with the offense of concealing a serious crime. I was in the deep end from day one and that was September, 2007.”
McCarthy’s story revealed that Ryan had abused boys for two decades, and that Cotter, who escaped charges partly on account of his age, had orchestrated a cover-up for 17 years. During this time, McCarthy reported in her 2007 story that there had been repeated complaints to the Monsignor.
“In a lot of cases, I think Jesus would be the one standing with me going ‘seriously guys, this is not on.’” – Joanne McCarthy
“I wrote a lot of stories. They went on the front page because those stories not only showed the extent of Church knowledge about Vince Ryan, they also exposed the fact that Michael Malone, who was the bishop, at the time, had not been telling the truth.
“It was almost like a dam broke,” says McCarthy, remembering 2007. “I wrote a bunch of stories that ran over about a week. I got a phone call from a man who had worked for the diocese. He said ‘I am going to give you a name.’ I said, ‘Okay, off you go.’ He said the name ‘McAlinden.’ I asked him to spell it and what the first name was. He said, ‘You won’t need a first name.’”
It was Denis. McAlinden had abused children as young as four and five for 40 years. The Catholic Church had “extensive knowledge dating back to the 1950s” about that, the 2013 NSW Commission of Inquiry was told.
“His victims were young girls, aged between about 4 and 12. That was my first real contact with survivors of abuse. And it was overwhelming. It had a real impact on me, to the point where I actually needed professional support.”
“I remember one woman. She rang me on a Saturday, and the minute she started talking she started sobbing and I was so used to it by that stage, and she said ‘you have validated my life’ – I will never forget that.
“It provided her with the truth of her life, that she had been sexually abused as a child, and here was the diocese conceding decades later that he was a serial child sex offender.”
In 2012, one of John Denham’s victims, a man named John Pirona went missing. “He was a NSW firefighter, a lovely man, married with two daughters. Because he had identified himself publically as an abuse survivor we were able to identify the missing person as victim of John Denham. He left a letter and the final words were ‘too much pain.’”
“Just because you say you do not believe in God, it does not mean to say you do not admire the principles of Christ – and try to live by them.” – Joanne McCarthy
“After his funeral I woke up in the middle of the night. This article just started writing itself. It was quite annoying because I became seriously awake.
“In that piece I wrote, ‘there will be a royal commission because there must be.’ It was just too much for just a journalist working at a regional newspaper.”
By that time in 2012, McCarthy and the Herald had also reported on serious child abuse in the Anglican Church. Newcastle, along with regional centres in Victoria, clearly was an epicentre of clergy child abuse.
“Child sexual abuse has hotspots, areas where there seem to have been a concentration of abusers.
“You have to look at leadership and whether it failed. If you had a leadership that did not prioritise child protection, then you were going to have problems. We know that from an Anglican theological college – Patrick Parkinson (Law Professor of Sydney Uni) did a report in 2009 for the Anglican Church and, as part of it, they did a statistical analysis.
“Even though the data was not complete, he wrote to the Anglican Primate at the time and expressed concern about what appeared to be a disproportionate number of abuser priests from that theological college.”
McCarthy is the oldest of eleven, raised Catholic, all of whom have left the church. Her journalism about clergy abuse came after she left the church.
“There was an Australian Story done on me and the only reason I agreed to do that was because I wanted to put on the record why I was doing it. I had had many people saying I was just anti-churches.”
“I am not anti-church at all. I think churches are a necessary part of community.
“I apply the ‘what would Jesus do?’ test. Just because you say you do not believe in God, it does not mean to say you do not admire the principles of Christ – and try to live by them.
“The nuns were successful somewhere along the way. In a lot of cases, I think Jesus would be the one standing with me going ‘seriously guys, this is not on.’”