Irish people will find much familiarity in Australian journalist Suzanne Smith’s account of decades of horrific sexual abuse by priests and Marist brothers in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in New South Wales. There is the blatant sadism inflicted by clergymen on children in their care and the long-standing cover-up by a church that has chosen to move known offenders to new parishes rather than take punitive action. Many protagonists – aggressors, facilitators, survivors and victims – bear Irish names; the local Catholic community, mainly concentrated in the mining and industrial town of Newcastle, was largely the descendants of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and northern England.
You wonder if this familiarity, let alone the similarity to other abuse scandals elsewhere, could hurt Smith’s chances of catching the attention of readers in this part of the world. But the Australian story was in some ways even more glaring than the church’s cover-up in Ireland, in that it lasted much longer, even after the abuse cases were public business. Smith, a deceased Catholic herself and who reported on numerous cases during her time as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, notes that the Irish bishops issued guidelines in 1996 for allegations of sexual abuse be returned to the police. The Church of New South Wales, on the other hand, would continue to rig the issue for another decade, even persuading police to agree to a compromised crime referral system known as ‘blind reporting’, where the names casualties and other vital details were withheld.