Father Glen Walsh paid a heavy price

The revelations never end about priests and brothers, of monsignors and bishops with their secret sexual lives, masturbating, buggerizing, sodomizing and raping boys and girls – protected by an amoral hierarchy and a few corrupt members of the upper-echelons of various police forces.

When will the swelling tide inside the Church of hostile responses (of outrage and anger, of humiliation, betrayal, frustration and impotency) ever subside?

Read the findings of our Royal Commission, and weep – and the dirty secrets of the Catholic Church in Ireland as explored by a number of judicial enquiries. Horror stories from the United States, from Canada, France, Germany, Poland and beyond.

Watch Sarah Ferguson’s ABC three-part harrowing documentary entitled Revelations. Devastating and disturbing stuff. The story of His Eminence Cardinal Law and the unfolding story of criminality in his Boston diocese documented in Spotlight. Hundreds of offending priests protected by their superiors, by their brothers in the priesthood, and by the legal profession.

The culture, the crimes, the cover-ups, the clericalism, the corruption, the complicity – when will it ever end? The share price has fallen through the floor, yet the executives and members of the board (all males) keep their jobs.

Incompetent, complicit bishops and their grey parish priests, living in a parallel, supernatural universe are hoping that one day, soon, this whole mess will simply disappear, that people will get tired of hearing about sacerdotal penises and anuses, hearing stories of boys and girls being abused and traumatized – clerics, young and old, hoping that everything would eventually return to normal – whatever that is. The sooner the better – and then they can get on with saving the world again.

Hoping, praying the crisis will go away – well, I wish them all the best of British luck. But here’s the thing – it’s not going away. The clergy just keep giving. The horror and tragedy just goes on and on. And now, another heavy hitter has appeared on the scene – Suzanne Smith – with her compelling, disgusting story of sex and abuse among the clergy of the Maitland – Newcastle diocese, the bullying and persecution of one of their own (a man who could see the injustice of what was happening and was ready to give evidence), the savagery of his fellow clergy, and the protection racket that hid the offenders from view. The Altar Boys, like nothing since Spotlight, has zapped the wrinkly men of the institution right where it hurts – in their bezzubees.

In The Altar Boys, the reader will meet a whole variety of people – priestly and fraternal paedophiles and their wounded victims, prelates and monsignors who protected the offenders (some of them were offenders themselves), grieving mothers and a number of truly honourable police officers.

The 94-year-old mother of five Audrey Nash makes a number of appearances and as I was reading, I was hearing in the background the damning verdict she delivered towards the end of her long life. Audrey had been faithful and loyal, always a Catholic, respectful towards the clergy and one of their attentive housekeepers. Like other 12 and 13-year-old boys, her son had been sexually abused at school by one of the religious brothers and had hanged himself in shame. The story Smith narrates is one of shock and pathos.

As I was reading, I kept hearing what the old mother had said so matter-of-factly to Sarah Ferguson in her ABC documentary – slowly, too slowly, she had come to realise she had spent her long life as a believer in a corrupt, criminal organisation. What a painful discovery for any loyal Catholic! And it seems to have taken a woman to tell it as it was.

In addition to being a story of unimaginable evil, of horror and corruption, Smith also tells the story of courage and integrity, of grief and perseverance, of friendships and tender compassion. And at the centre of this unfolding drama are two outstanding heroes – Father Glen Walsh and his childhood friend and co-altar boy, Steven Alward.

Father Glen appears as a vulnerable, lonely, compassionate priest, full of simple religious ideals and missionary energy. He was bullied by his bishops and his brother priests for following his conscience and putting up his hand to give vital evidence against Archbishop Wilson. Sexually abused as a young man by a senior Marist Brother – his superior when he was in training to become a member of the order – abused and persecuted by many of his fellow clergy – defamed by priests and told by one of his bishops to “fuck off out of my diocese and never come back” – and as the impending court case approached, he was summoned to Rome (a visit, according to the cardinal’s own account, organised by the Eminence Grise of the Australian church), to front the Pope and give an account of himself. Not a little suspicion here of a heavy-handed attempt to interfere with the evidence to be given by a witness in a criminal process.

The other hero is Glen’s childhood friend, Steven, who turned out to be another victim – this time of the super-active and lover of fine wines Father John Denham – one of his 59 victims ranging in age from five to 17 years old.

In the end, like so many other victims of clergy abuse, the pain was too much to endure. Father Glen and his friend both ended the agony of their secret lives and gave up the struggle. The reader will find himself in what Steven Alward’s lifelong partner, Mark Wakely, described as a world where “the unimaginable is real”.

Surprises don’t come easy to an octogenarian ex-priest and ex-judge, but Suzie Smith has come up with a few startling scenarios.

I was shocked to read that Bishop Toohey, a prelate well known to me as a teenager in the seminary in the ’50s, according to a religious sister now in her advanced years, had indulged himself in her presence when she was a young nun en fleur. I imagine she too had reacted with some surprise, startled when she was suddenly confronted with an extended episcopal phallus in the flesh. The reality of the unimaginable!

Surprised too to read that Bishop Leo Clarke of Newcastle was sprung one night as a member of a suspicious group of clerics, 20 or more, some in their underpants, out of their clerical garb, in all states of undress, at a “priests’ party” (whatever that might be) in Sydney. Some were paedophiles, including John Denham and his friend Ron Picken (another of my contemporaries from the seminary – now dead like many of them) – and a 16-year-old Newcastle boy. Was this some type of liturgical orgy? What were these priests doing in their underpants? What did Leo the Shepherd think he was doing? Suzie just leaves us to guess.

Unfortunately, there are many pious delusionists in the Catholic Church who remain in a coma of denial, and talk among themselves about conspiracies and ingrained anti-Catholic bigotries. The facts are just too hard to face. The unimaginable reality calls for old believers to go to places that are out of their reach, to ask questions of their institution and hierarchy which they cannot bring themselves to articulate, to make changes that will dismantle the world they have always believed was created by God and which they have found comforting.

As members of the human species, we all have at least three separate lives to live. Each of us lives a life in the public arena, however small that world might be, and a private life in our home, with our family and intimate friends. Then there is our secret life – a hidden life, a spiritual life in our world of imagination, of desires and dreams, of spirits, angels and ghosts. This is a world many of us hesitate to explore – a life we are reluctant to share with anybody, even our closest friend and partner. It is a life of shadows.

And we now know that some priests and religious brothers (and others, of course), live in an unimaginably evil world and lead dark, murky secret lives of twisted desires, of pornographic nightmares that often involve many vulnerable, innocent children whom they torment, scandalize and traumatize for their depraved pleasure. And we know that many of those in charge, members of the hierarchy, senior priests and monsignors have lived a secret life of denial, dishonesty and obfuscation – middle managers with cloudy vision and wooden hearts, facilitating crimes and covering them up. In recent years these secret lives have been exposed in books and documentaries. They are there for all of us to see. In her new book, Suzanne Smith takes us by the hand and leads us through the back passages of a Hell where trained religious men torment children and poison their lives, where bishops cover for them, protect them, lie for them and become complicit in their base secret lives. It’s the mafia world of clericalism.

When will it end?

It will end when the old men who control the levers of power within the institution, the Pope in Rome and his episcopal henchmen, are ready to watch with open eyes an exposé such as Spotlight, or read with some level of acceptance Suzie Smith’s excoriation of their organization.

It will end when the old guard is prepared to join the modern world and share their power with the women in their visibly shrinking institution. Women are noticeably absent in the institution. In the eyes of ordinary citizens, Vatican City is peopled by a gaggle of senior men, all men, only men, in colourful drag. In contrast, apart from the wounded male heroes at the centre of Suzie’s book, her story rests on the integrity and sense of justice of female heroines – Audrey Nash, Patricia Feenan, Helen Keevers, Christie Faber, Helen Syme, Joanne McCarthy, Libby Davis – and of course the author herself. The leaders can’t see it yet, but if there is any hope their future rests with the women.

Well done, Suzanne Smith. Yours is a compelling, cautionary tale. A word of advice. Send a copy to the Pope.

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Dr Chris Geraghty is a former priest of the archdiocese of Sydney, a retired judge of the District Court of NSW, and the author of a recent publication, Virgins and Jezebels – the Origins of Christian Misogyny.

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