Dogged journalist would not walk away from abuse victims

It was a random phone call in 2006 that set Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy on a path which ultimately exposed the extent of horrific crimes by paedophile priests and led to the royal commission into child sexual abuse.

The award-winning reporter told Australian Story of the day she was at her desk when she received a call from a reader wanting to know why no media had reported that a priest named John Denham had been convicted of child sex offences a number of years before.

So she rang Denham, who was immediately defensive.

"I've spoken to a few paedophile priests," she said. "They're a breed. Massive egos. At first he denied that he had been convicted. Then his next line was, 'I hope you have a good lawyer.'"

Last week, Denham gave evidence at his sentencing hearing before a Sydney court, after pleading guilty to 25 charges relating to offences against 20 victims.

He was one of a number of paedophile priests whose activities have been brought to light by McCarthy over the past eight years.

Her reporting on Denham, now serving time in protective custody in Goulburn jail, unleashed an avalanche of complaints about sexual abuse committed by priests in the Hunter, including Vince Ryan, the late James Fletcher and Denis McAlinden, who died in 2005 without being prosecuted over hundreds of crimes against young girls committed over decades.

"I was overwhelmed ... it became apparent that McAlinden was a completely opportunistic child sex offender," she said.

What was worse, she later discovered, was that senior figures in the Catholic Church knew about McAlinden's crimes and failed to act, including former Maitland-Newcastle bishop Michael Malone, who also appears on the program.

"It was the very definition of a cover-up," she said.

But exposing the truth came at a cost. McCarthy was raised in a "big, loud happy Catholic family" and had positive experiences with the church as a young girl. Her parents worked for the church and were friendly with the then Bishop Malone.

Her series of reports in The Newcastle Herald led to threats of legal action, claims she was "unhinged" and accusations of a vendetta against the church.

But McCarthy tells Australian Story she could not desert so many victims whose lives had been ruined by sexual abuse.

"I was very definitely a participant in an issue but this was not any old issue, it's a national tragedy that this occurred," she said.

"I just became somebody who knew too much. In all conscience I couldn't have just walked away."

The Newcastle Herald campaigned for a royal commission into child sexual abuse, which was announced by former prime minister Julia Gillard in 2012.

Newcastle Herald editor Chad Watson told the program: "I think Joanne deserves a sainthood although she would cringe at me for suggesting such a thing and I'd probably have trouble getting past the Catholic hierarchy."

Australian Story: Before the Storm aired on ABC1 on Monday at 8pm.

The story Dogged journalist would not walk away from abuse victims first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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