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

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

Fr John Denham

Fr John Denham

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.

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