Joanne McCarthy – Change Instigator for the Common Good

This is a condensed version of an essay on how Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy played a major role in bringing about the Australian Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse.

The unabridged essay can be downloaded here.

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For journalist Joanne McCarthy the events of 2006 was a foretaste of a drama she would never forget.

What the 45-year-old mother of three didn’t know was that this year would be the start of the most difficult but also the most rewarding time of her career at the Newcastle Herald. She would find her work condemned by powerful people, praised by those without power and would lead to her being awarded the 2013 Gold Walkley – Australia’s version of the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. All this from someone who never intended to become a journalist.


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St Pius X Catholic High School, situated in Adamstown, a suburb of Newcastle, was initially opened in 1959 as a Catholic boys’ school in nearby Tighes Point. The move to a larger site was completed in 1961 with the purchase and refurbishment of the Lustre hosiery factory. The factory had been built only ten years earlier but the coming of synthetics meant the business was struggling to survive.

Instead of being staffed by trained teachers, such as the Marist Brothers or Christian Brothers, the teachers were secular priests from the Diocese of Maitland. While they were well educated, they were not trained teachers. It wasn’t until 1984 that the first lay Principal was appointed.

When 13-year-old Tim Smith (not his real name) came to St Pius X as a student in 1978, the headmaster was Fr Tom Brennan. Fr John Denham was one of the teachers. Denham had joined the college staff in 1973, his first appointment after becoming ordained to the priesthood. Denham’s behaviour was no secret within the school. Students would pass the message amongst themselves to steer clear of Denham saying, “Keep your back to the wall”, not always realising that some of their fellow students were being sexually abused. One day in late 1979 Tim Smith’s mother overheard her son passing on a warning to another student about Denham. After quizzing him, she contacted the school administration who promised to take care of it. Fr Brennan, the headmaster, seemed to do nothing about it and so John’s mother moved him to a state High School for the start of the following year.

In 1997, some twenty years after being at St Pius X, Tim Smith contacted the New South Wales Police and made a complaint of sexual abuse by Denham when he was a student at the school. The complaint was investigated, charges were laid in 1999 and in 2000 a jury convicted Denham of two counts of indecent assault. The judge gave him a two-year jail sentence which was suspended.

The case was not reported in the media. It’s not uncommon for suppression orders to be made in cases such as these so as to protect the privacy of victims and sometimes to protect the perpetrator from harm. In this instance it appears it simply escaped the notice of the media and as a result the case went unreported.

McCarthy first heard about this when Tim Smith called her early in June 2006. He had found out that Denham was still a priest at large and wanted to know why his conviction of two child sex offences in 2000 had not been reported in the media. He was concerned about the danger of Derham being let loose in the community.

McCarthy set about responding to Smith’s call by confirming that, indeed, there was no mention in the media of Denham’s conviction with the only article being a brief report in the Newcastle Herald that simply said “a Catholic priest charged with the indecent assault of a Hunter high school student has had his case adjourned until February 11.”

A long article entitled, In the Name of the Fathers, was published as a cover story in The Herald on 10 June 2006. It not only mentioned Derham but covered the issue of secrecy with two other priests as well. Tim Smith, the ex-student, was quoted as saying:

They knew all about it 28 years ago when my mother first raised it, and they failed to do anything but move him on. Their basic procedure was to move the problem on to somewhere else, and obviously it takes some time to raise its ugly head again, and then they move it on again.

Tim Smith was right to be concerned. Two years later, in August 2008, Denham was charged with 30 sex offences involving 18 boys. By December the number of charges had been increased to 134 involving 39 boys over two decades. Denham pleaded guilty to some of charges and was sentenced to jail for a maximum of 20 years in 2010. But that wasn’t all. In 2015 he was convicted of a further 18 charges. A judge remarked, “No safeguards were ever put in place to protect the community from this obviously dangerous individual.”

Unbeknown to McCarthy her article had planted seeds in the minds of other victims of clergy abuse to tell what happened to them. At first it would be just a trickle of people telling their families and making complaints to the police but eventually it would be a flood of complaints. This would some considerable time to become apparent. In the meantime, several of the families of victims of child sexual abuse were contacting McCarthy to tell their stories.

McCarthy continued to report cases as they came up. Sometimes it got personal. In October 2006 she reported 19 charges of sexually assaulting four teenagers in the late 1980s brought against Fr Paul Evans. He was later to be convicted and jailed for 15 years.

Up till this time the media in Australia was reporting horrific cases of sexual abuse as they came up sporadically, one after another. However the Broken Rites organisation in Melbourne had been tracking clerical sexual abuse cases since the early 1990s and had built up a large database. They had obtained information in 1996 that Monsignor Patrick Cotter had covered up the crimes of one of Australia’s worst paedophile priests, Father Vincent Gerard Ryan. This report was noticed by McCarthy when it was eventually placed on the Broken Rites website in 2007.

McCarthy didn’t waste any time. On 22 September and in the following week The Herald published a collection of articles on clerical sexual abuse and the effect on victims and their families with the lead article under the headline, “I decided to say nothing”, referring to the Cotter’s behaviour in covering up abuse.

What McCarthy was now trying to do was to focus on the institution and the system that allowed these crimes to continue. She wasn’t doing this to convict anyone – that was up to the police and the courts.

After the appearance of the series of articles about the Ryan-Cotter disclosures, McCarthy received a tipoff suggesting she should check out a fellow by the name of McAlinden. She had never heard of him but quickly found out that Fr Denis McAlinden had been acquitted in a Western Australian court in 1992 of three indecent assault charges involving a 10-year-old girl.

In 1993 a warrant was issued for the arrest of McAlinden, then aged 76. It wasn’t until October 2005 that the police were told by the diocese that McAlinden was in an aged-care facility in Perth and was dying of cancer. He was interviewed by police but died shortly after without being charged.

In an article dated 29 September 2007, McCarthy identified Philip Wilson, the Archbishop of Adelaide, and previously Maitland-Newcastle vicar-general, as one of three senior clerics who knew about McAlinden.

Publication of this new information was a public relations disaster for the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese. Six days later an apology was issued admitting the “distress and lifelong impact of Father McAlinden’s actions on all those affected has not been publicly acknowledged until now.”

It was after her piece about McAlinden was published in The Herald that the calls came in. Only then did McCarthy begin to appreciate the extent of McAlinden’s crimes:

I was overwhelmed. And it was women and some of them mature women, sobbing. It quickly became apparent that McAlinden was a completely opportunistic child sex offender with victims and his target age range was little girls aged between about five and 12. And he was a piece of work. He had a terrible temper. He liked to push his weight around. And he molested hundreds of little girls over four decades. And so many of these women had lived with that all their lives. And there was this trail of destruction after Denis McAlinden: women with alcohol problems, women just leading these quietly desperate lives.

No one knows the full extent of the offending by McAlinden against young girls.


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World Youth Day (WYD) is a big event for the Catholic Church. It was initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985 and is held internationally every two or three years. In 2008 it was Sydney’s turn. Running from July 15-20, it culminated with an open-air Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on the last day. There were 3,000 priests in attendance at the Randwick Racecourse and an estimated audience of 400,000 pilgrims, many from countries around the world.

For the Church to be celebrating youth was ironic to McCarthy since the many victims and the families she was in contact had nothing to celebrate. In the lead up to the event McCarthy received calls saying the Pope should apologise for the sexual abuse by priests and religious. McCarthy was behind The Herald’s campaign that followed, called ‘Say Sorry’.

Other calls for an apology came from around Australia. Bishop Malone from the Maitland-Newcastle diocese stated publicly there should be an apology and an opportunity for victims to be able to meet with the Pope. McCarthy personally phoned or emailed 14 bishops. Including Bishop Malone, there were only three who in support. The other bishops remained silent.

On 19 July the Pope did make an apology in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney to a congregation of bishops, priests, seminarians and novices.

The apology was delivered without any victims present. It was kept a secret at the time but after the Pope had left the country it was revealed that the Pope had met privately and celebrated Mass with four hand-picked victims – two men and two women.

At least now there was one bishop that had broken ranks and was speaking out. Over several articles McCarthy praised Bishop Malone for his stand in supporting the call for an apology, for the changes he was putting into place and for his acknowledgement that he had ‘stuffed things up’ in many ways in the past.

Bishop Malone believed the Pope’s words during the apology was a clear message to bishops and priests for change. In a lengthy piece written by McCarthy, Bishop Malone confessed his frustration with his fellow bishops for their silence and inaction. He said bishops did respond when issues with priests were discovered but he challenged the bishops to be more proactive.

One story that kept popping up during the 2010-12 period was the question of what the police were doing in following up on the alleged cover ups by senior clergy. McCarthy had supplied relevant information to the police as she came across it.

By April 2012 even some NSW politicians were calling for an inquiry since the Victorian Government had announced a parliamentary inquiry into the ‘Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations’.


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It was now six years since McCarthy had been delving into the issues of child abuse. And the articles weren’t all about the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church in Newcastle were part of it as well. Later the Salvation Army would be in the spotlight.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in New York, says stories that spring from a journalist’s sense of injustice is the future for investigative journalism. He contends this form of journalism “can make a difference and change the world.”

One of the most disturbing series of stories McCarthy wrote about in this period was that of a couple in the Hunter region who were charged with sexual abuse of two of their four children – a son, 12, and a daughter, 11. Their mother, 30, was arrested and later charged with “16 offences including seven counts of aggravated sexual intercourse with her son and daughter.”

The work was taking its toll. It would have been much easier if she had had not become absorbed to such a degree. But she couldn’t walk away from it. Victims and their families were trusting her with their stories and she was retelling them with dignity but at the same time pointing out the systemic problem behind these stories. She estimates she’s interviewed 200 victims. Many of them said she was the first person they had spoken about it. In such instances she would connect them with support people who she knew could help – lawyers, police officers and support groups.


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The first Herald readers read that 45-year-old man, John Pirona, was missing was on Tuesday 24 July 2012. It was reported that police were concerned about his welfare and were desperately seeking information from the public about his whereabouts. His description and the make of his car were given and anyone with information asked to contact Lake Macquarie police.

Early on the Friday police found the body of John Pirona in a car in bushland north of Newcastle. He had ended his life overnight after having dinner with his family.

Normally the media statement says “there were no suspicious circumstances” and it’s left to family and friends to grieve and no more is heard. This case would be very different, the reason being that John was only one of many of Fr Denham’s victims. The extended Pirona family believed they owed it to the other survivors for John’s story to be shared and to expose the truth about the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse issues over decades. In fact, John’s suicide was one of 30 suicides of victims of sexual abuse by church institutions in the Hunter region. At least 12 of these were former students of St Pius X.

John’s death had a big impact on many people in the region and it was no different for McCarthy. Over the previous year John had called her several times to chat. They knew each other well. They had something in common in coming from big Catholic families. John was one of eight children of Pamela and Louis Pirona – four girls and four boys. Louis was a well-known Newcastle solicitor. The parents had already experienced the loss of one son, Matthew, to cancer. Now they faced another tragic loss.


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It was at 2 am on an August morning that McCarthy found herself unable to sleep. She couldn’t get out of her mind what had happened over the last 10 days. She then started to write from the heart and the words came tumbling out explaining why a royal commission into church sex abuse was needed. This piece would be recognised as one of the most outstanding pieces of journalism for 2012. She submitted it to the paper electronically with the date-stamp showing “3.58 AM 3 August 2012.”

The article printed in The Herald on the following day was called Too much pain to ignore any more. In the article McCarthy summarised the many years of inaction by the Church hierarchy and what the Herald was trying to do about it.

A profound change had happened to McCarthy along the journey. She was no longer the journalist writing stories in her usual professional and detached way – she was now clearly at the activist end of the journalism spectrum and part of the story.

The next move by The Herald was to sponsor a public forum in Newcastle on the need for a royal commission. On 16 September more than 400 people attended and heard moving speeches from John Pirona’s widow, Tracey, and from his father, Louis. Joanne McCarthy spoke of the consequences of the Church’s failings.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox had come to the meeting just to listen. He had no intention of speaking as to do so without authorization was forbidden for members of the police force. He was reflecting on the words Peter FitzSimons had used in quoting Edmund Burke, ”All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” He suddenly jumped to his feet and came up to the microphone.

Fox had spent 34 years in the police force and around 20 years in building up an understanding how the Catholic Church was dealing with the criminality of certain priests. He told the meeting he was sticking his neck out by speaking, but he said he was aware the Church was alerting offenders, destroying evidence and moving priests to protect the “good name” of the Church. He also surprised the audience by saying the police did not have it “under control” as was being stated by the then Premier of NSW, Barry O’Farrell. He said he had lots of information he could disclose at a royal commission. Fox received a standing ovation at the meeting for his forthrightness.

In an open letter published in The Herald on 8 November 2012, Fox appealed directly to the state Premier, Barry O’Farrell to initiate a royal commission.

Peter Fox would pay a heavy price for his public comments.

Senior police had no love for McCarthy either and so it was no real surprise that, when Premier Barrry O’Farrell next day announced the appointment of a Special Commission of Inquiry, a major part would be devoted to the investigation into collusion between Fox and McCarthy.

When the inquiry got underway a year later the barristers for the NSW Police Force were relentless in trying to “stitch-up” both McCarthy and Fox. McCarthy was in the witness box for five days of questioning. Fox had to endure 14 days of interrogation.

Commissioner Margaret Cunneen’s findings were published on 30 May 2014 in a four-volume report. McCarthy was exonerated.

The findings against Peter Fox meant it was the end of the career for one of the best investigators in the NSW Police Force.


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Johanne McCarthy normally works from home down the coast and rarely visits The Herald offices. On the day she was meeting with the editor, Chad Watson, someone said, “Take a look at the TV.” On the screen was Prime Minister Julia Gillard. McCarthy didn’t know what was going on but then heard the words, “child sexual abuse.” She broke down and cried. The six years of work had at last paid off. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was a bittersweet moment, though, because that same day many staff at The Herald were being made redundant.

Julia Gilliard’s announcement of the creation of a national royal commission into institutional responses to instances of child sexual abuse on 11 November 2012 was a watershed in that, for the first time, the issues would get the attention they deserved.

When McCarthy interviewed the Prime Minister a few weeks later, Gilliard acknowledged that The Herald’s ‘Shine the Light’ campaign was the trigger for the decision to initiate the Royal Commission. ‘‘When we look back, one of the things that will be most important, and most remembered in this part of the nation’s history, will be the royal commission into child abuse,’’ she said. “It will be nation-changing.”

The Royal Commission held its first public hearing on Monday, 16 September 2013, exactly twelve months to the day the Newcastle forum had met to demand a royal commission.

Although McCarthy is widely acknowledged for being responsible for bringing about the Royal Commission she doesn’t agree. She says the credit is due to the bravery of the victims and their families who came forward with their stories that brought it into the open, not just in the Hunter, but throughout Australia. The books written by Chrissie Foster and Pat Feenan were valuable in explaining firsthand the suffering of victims and families. The response of the community to the suicide of John Pirona was significant in bringing on the demand for a royal commission. And finally, Peter Fox was a key player in convincing the NSW government on the need to hold an inquiry.

In 2013 McCarthy received the 2013 Graham Perkin Award as Australian Journalist of the Year, the NSW Gold Kennedy Award and the Gold Walkley Award for her work on child sexual abuse within institutions including the Catholic and Anglican churches and the Salvation Army.

There is no question that McCarthy was the sustained voice of victims in their search for justice. She learned from listening and reflecting on what each survivor told her. She lived with the heartbreak of their stories and persevered without wavering in her strength. And she led with compassion and empathy in translating their stories into the demand for recognition and justice.

When she saw the movie, Spotlight, a few weeks ago she couldn’t help being moved by what she saw. “Watching Spotlight was like watching my life for the past 10 years,” she said. To her, the parallels of the Boston experience and Newcastle were amazing.

We will remember Joanne McCarthy as the accidental journalist and the model for what a change instigator can achieve. With the result of her work being for the common good, it also ticks all the boxes as a modern-day example of individual wisdom in action.


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One Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading the article Adrian, a high quality summary of a sad saga and certainly a great example of change leadership.

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