IN DEPTH

From darkness, a light starts to shine

BUILDING THE PRESSURE: More than 400 people attended the Shine the Light forum in Newcastle in 2012 to call for a royal commission.
BUILDING THE PRESSURE: More than 400 people attended the Shine the Light forum in Newcastle in 2012 to call for a royal commission.

ALMOST five years have elapsed since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse began its processes in 2013.

Although it has been a truly national inquiry, Newcastle Herald readers will know that a lot of the events that led to the commission took place in this part of the world. Indeed, a lot of the reporting that played a major role in putting pressure on the federal government to commission the inquiry came from the Herald and its Shine the Light campaign spearheaded by Gold Walkley-winning journalist Joanne McCarthy. But the Hunter’s role in the road to the royal commission did not start with Joanne.

It began with another formidable Herald writer, Jeff Corbett, whose reporting of court cases involving now notorious Catholic Hunter paedophiles including Vince Ryan and Jim Fletcher earned the repeated ire of the bishop of the day, Michael Malone.

Writing in October 1997 about the sentencing of Ryan to 11 years in jail, Corbett said: “The file is closed, apparently. But it should not be. The Catholic Church is yet to explain how it is that one of its priests was able to prey on boys while he was transferred from one parish to another.”

After all we have heard from the royal commission, the way the Catholic church shifted its paedophile priests from parish to parish is no longer doubted. But back in the 1990s, these were extremely bold claims to make, even if we were witnessing the first trickle of court cases that would eventually become a flood. Corbett kept on the Maitland-Newcastle diocese’s case for many years, but as perceptively accurate he was, it would take McCarthy – a truly fearless reporter – to crack the story wide open. As she wrote in the opening of a weekend feature in June 2009: “Alleged pedophile priests aren't likely to fall on their swords just because of a little media questioning.”

Tracey Pirona

Tracey Pirona

Early on, McCarthy observed that charges against two Hunter priests, John Denham and Guy Hartcher, had received very little publicity. Still, she said, “the issue of Catholic priests and pedophilia will not go away”.

“While the Maitland-Newcastle diocese has been forced to address it publicly after the prolonged and extremely distressing trials of pedophile priests James Fletcher and Vince Ryan, a Herald investigation this week and discussions with victims and victims' representatives show more needs to be done,” McCarthy wrote.

And more was done.

Working virtually alone, but backed by two editors in Roger Brock and Chad Watson, McCarthy embarked on one of the most determined and long-running investigations that any Australian newspaper – let alone a regional paper – has ever seen.

Working with Watson, they launched the Shine The Light campaign that brought the Herald’s campaign for a royal commission into clear focus.

Over the past decade, McCarthy has written more than 1000 pieces on the subject, building up an unparalleled body of sources, contacts and supporters along the way.

Joanne McCarthy

Joanne McCarthy

It consumed her life.

By 2012, the ABC’s Lateline program, among other national media outlets, had begun taking an interest in the story, and in November 2012, the NSW government announced a special commission of inquiry after an interview that Hunter police officer Peter Fox – now retired – gave to Lateline.

The commission, chaired by Margaret Cunneen and sitting in Newcastle, had its terms of reference amended three times and its reporting date pushed back twice to May 31, 2014.

McCarthy herself would take the stand in the inquiry, giving evidence both in public hearings and in the closed, in-camera sessions. 

Peter Fox

Peter Fox

But even before this, McCarthy’s reporting had begun to uncover similar problems within the Newcastle diocese of the Anglican church – events that would see it, along with the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese, receive its own case study hearing as part of the royal commission.

Her October 2010 report that a well-known Newcastle priest. Peter Rushton, had been a child abuser for 40 years, was a shock to the Anglican system. It would not be the last shock.

Two months before the NSW commission was announced, more than 400 people packed into Club Panthers Newcastle in September 2012 for a Shine the Light forum calling for a royal commission.

Speaking from the stage, Tracey Pirona, whose husband John had committed suicide earlier in the year, said: ‘‘These men have to pay for what they have done, whether it’s the vile act of what they did or having the knowledge of it and not doing anything about it.’’

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Whistle-blowing policeman Peter Fox told the forum he should have spoken out before he did. He did not accept premier Barry O’Farrell’s assertion that “the police force has it all under control”.

The pressure was beginning to build. And we know where it was coming from, because the night that she was rolled as prime minister, Julia Gillard sat down to write a letter to McCarthy, which arrived at her house five days later. In it, Gillard wrote: “‘Joanne, you are a truly remarkable person.

“Thanks in large measure to your persistence and courage, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.”

 Gillard had announced the federal inquiry shortly after O’Farrell confirmed the much more limited state investigation.

Some months earlier, Gillard had visited the Herald while on a trip to the Hunter region.

McCarthy wasn’t in the office. She was attending John Pirona’s funeral.  

Despite those of us who were present pressing the prime minister across the boardroom table, she dismissed our call for a royal commission. But McCarthy, and an increasingly awakened national media, kept reporting.

With a chorus of complaint rising ever louder, Gillard eventually changed her mind, and with historic results.