The Altar Boys

by Suzanne Smith

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Suzanne Smith never expected to write a book about the clerical abuse scandal. The Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has become one of the most comprehensive public inquiries in the world. Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald was an incredible force in exposing criminal networks in the Catholic Church and other churches and institutions as well. This book is written from the point of view of the victims and their families, those lost and those left behind- the collateral damage from this huge conspiracy against children in the Maitland Newcastle Diocese, a conspiracy connected to many other schools and dioceses across New South Wales and beyond. At least 60 men who attended three Catholic schools in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese have died either from suicide or as a result of risky behavior. The local police say there are many more than sixty. The majority of these men took their own lives, and they are all believed to have been victims of clergy and religious in their diocese. And they’re far from alone-there have been similar deaths all over the nation.

In an anthropological way, Suzanne gives a history of the Newcastle Diocese when it was a settlement. The important issue in understanding this time and the time going forward is to contextualize the events. The nineteenth-century settlers had built miners’ cottages, hewn from local forests, above the old collieries. By the 1950s most families lived in fibro-sided war service houses with manicured lawns. Catholics belonged to a parish, which was a geographical area within a diocese that included a parish priest, often assisted by assistant priests or curates. Each Catholic parish had a church and its presterby (rectory) and a convent for the nuns working at the schools.


Catholic families prayed, worked, and played together. They lived and breathed the rules and rituals of their religion. To outsiders, the culture could seem impenetrable, confusing, and often bizarre. But to these more working-class families, it was everything. Believing in God and following the teachings of Jesus provided the possibility of a life that could transient poverty and despair. Being part of the Church community offered hope and gave comfort in hard times, and if adherents followed the rules they were certain their prayers would be answered. The mindset of fearful obedience in order to attain salvation was ingrained from a very young age. British authorities had brought an anti-Catholic bias to the original colony of Newcastle, and antipathy between the two sides flourished until the 1970s leading many Catholics to develop strong solidarity with and loyalty to their Church.

The Church was a very powerful men’s club and essentially a law unto itself. It used its own internal canon law, Ecclesiastical regulations authorized by the Popes, to deal with clerical sexual abuse, sexual harassment of students, and other crimes such as theft and fraud. Before the 1990s the State did not apply appropriate checks and balances to the Church. Internal letters between the Maitland-Newcastle and the Vatican in that era reveal a complete lack of understanding among clergy and religious about the consequences of sexual abuse and the terrible harm it wrought well adulthood. Add to this a widespread ignorance about civil laws until they were reformed in the 1990s and 2000s, and you have the makings of a terrible calamity. For centuries, the Vatican had seen itself as an independent empire unaccountable to ant civil or secular authorities. In 1974 Pope Paul VI renamed “The Secret of the Holy Office’ ‘The Pontifical Secret’ which decreed that any legislation or investigation of sexual abuse against a cleric or religious was to be kept a secret. Any bishop or clergy that defied this decree and went to the local state authorities could be ex-communicated. The affected families were left to fend for themselves. Partly because of their religious devotion, parents only saw the warning signs after it was too late. Many children endured violence and abuse in silence, with devastating consequences.

This complex tale is skillfully framed by Smith around the lives of two boys who grew up across the street from one other, in suburban Newcastle of the 1970s. One, Steven Alward, would become head of international news at the ABC. The other, Glen Walsh, became a priest in the diocese. Both served as altar boys in the local parish. And both would die by their own hand, within two months over the summer of 2017-2018.

Just one measure of how corrupt this diocese became is the sheer number of the Council of Priests to former Bishop Leo Clarke found to have either enabled or perpetrated serious crimes. More than 40 years in jail sentences hang from their collective necks. Smith delivers on what this appalling institutional failure brought to pass: decades of brutal abuse; cover-ups and amoral legal strategies; Mr. Fix-Its and the corrupting effect of the confessional seal and the odious absurdity of the 'Pontifical Secret'. But it is her disciplined pursuit of the impact on the personal life trajectories of Alward and Walsh where Smith's insight is most acute.


Lifelong manipulation of Alward by that arch-criminal, former priest John Denham, unravels like a case study of psychopathy in action. That Alward, a high-functioning professional and no stranger to the traumas of human existence, was finally undone by the predations and deceits of Denham is a salutary retelling of a tale made grimly familiar to us by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Equally compelling is the story of Walsh; the courageous whistleblower priest, ostracized and driven to despair through a decade and a half of unrestrained cruelty, meted out by his supposed brethren clergy.


There are numerous other revelations that are startling, even to someone who lived this history and has followed events closely. The depth of research undertaken by the author is apparent and fuels the compelling narrative force. The Altar Boys deserve to be widely read to help ensure we can claim no excuses for allowing anything like it to happen again. But to also ensure the lives of Alward, Walsh, and others such as Andrew Nash are not lost to us, like tears in rain.

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