The damage caused by pedophile priests has been been a dark chapter in Newcastle’s history. In this profile interview, Isabella O’Brien talks to investigative journalist Suzie Smith about her book, The Altar Boys.
Suzie Smith was on holidays in January 2018 when the news came through.
Her long-time friend and mentor from the ABC, Steven Alward, had died.
Alward had contacted Smith in November 2017 and asked her to investigate ‘something to do with the Maitland-Newcastle diocese’, and the two of them made plans to meet in January to discuss it further.
Steven then suicided on the 17th of January, only a few months after he had asked Suzie to investigate something that was close to his heart.
His suicide was completely unexpected.
Shrouded in mystery, his death raised many questions for those he left behind.
Steven was raised in the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese. He attended St Pius X and had known Father John Denham, one of Newcastle’s most dangerous pedophile priests.
Suspicions arose about why Steven took his life.
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.
Steven wasn’t the only one.
The death of her friend and fellow journalist was the catalyst for Suzie’s decision to write a book about the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese.
Suzie Smith says The Altar Boys is the end result of eight years of reporting for the ABC on the clerical abuse cover-up in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and another two years of interviews and research involving victims.
Suzie was born in Sydney and moved to Penrith when she was six years old.
Raised by a devout Irish Catholic mother and an atheist doctor father among the working-class Irish-Catholic enclave of Penrith in the early 1970s, Suzie says it was this upbringing that made her feel at home with similar families in Newcastle.
Her family was upper-middle class, but she lived in a working-class suburb.
In her home they discussed politics at the dinner table.
Her mother would take her to Mass on Sundays while her father whispered in her ear that it was all rubbish.
They valued education, and Suzie had always known that she would go to university.
Suzie studied a social work degree, majoring in community development but found it didn’t sit right with her.
She wanted to do more to empower the vulnerable and the voiceless and began her journalism career in 1988 at her local radio station 2.K.A, moving onto Radio National making documentaries for the feminist program, The Coming Out Show.
She spent many years in the ABC Radio News and Radio Current Affairs departments as the National Health and Finance Reporter.
She moved into investigative journalism at the late-night television current affairs program Lateline as a senior reporter.
Her motto as a journalist was ‘take truth to the power’ and it remains to this day.
In the eight years she researched clerical abuse in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese she covered more than 40 stories for television including triggering the Special Commission NSW into the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and the Royal Commission.
She worked alongside the Newcastle Herald’s Joanne McCarthy on a few of these stories and believes McCarthy remains the most important journalist in this field.
Suzie has won six Walkley Awards and two Logies for most outstanding news reporting.
Suzie’s research led her to Bob O’Toole, the founding member of CAN (Clergy Abused Network), and a victim of clerical abuse.
The two have been good friends and confidants since 2013.
Bob knew of Suzie’s work on ABC’s Lateline and getting whistle-blower Peter Fox’s significant interview out into the Australian public and triggering the historic Royal Commission.
“I’m in awe of some of the things she’s done actually, particularly when the [Peter] Fox interviews were on Lateline. That’s when I got to better understand what made her tick I suppose,” Bob said.
“She was dogged in getting to the truth and not deterred by obstacles that were put in her path and I admired her for that. She was quite forthright, what you saw was what you got. She tended not to cut things out, she was persistent in getting the message out.”
Suzie lived quite a different life to her three older siblings.
Her parents weren’t wealthy when they had their first three children and when Suzie was born, ‘the lucky last’ she joked, her father’s pathology practice had become one of the biggest practices in Australia.
Suzie and her family enjoyed great adventures across the globe and invested into ‘crazy schemes’, such as the construction of a replica of Monet’s Garden on the family acreage outside of Penrith.
Her father was a great philanthropist and from a young age instilled in Suzie the value of public service and giving generously to causes.
When Suzie was 10, he instigated a public inquiry into over-servicing in pathology after appearing on 4 Corners on the ABC.
“It was my first taste of what it was like to expose corruption,” Suzie said. “I was very proud of him.”
Suzie said the Catholic regional schools she attended were not pleasant.
The primary school she attended was parochial and bereft of good educational resources.
In high school, the education was just as lacklustre; it was a regional Catholic school where the expectation was for female students to work in low-paid secretarial professions.
Despite the lack of quality education and absence of encouragement in the pursuit of high-paying careers, Suzie has internalised a lot of valuable lessons.
“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when there was radical thinking going on in the Catholic church, taught by nuns and priests who said we have to raise people out of poverty,” Suzie said.
“You help the vulnerable. We were taught to take truth to the power – it’s interesting that I later turned that onto the Catholic church.”
The death of her friend has had a significant impact upon Suzie.
She has always been passionate about the rule of law and has worked incredibly hard over 26 years exposing corruption and injustice for those she does not know.
Now, she aims to give a voice to Steven Alward and the many Newcastle men like him.
“Now he had died, I felt I had a responsibility to follow up the information he gave me,” Suzie said.
“It was like he had made his last commission as an editor. The Altar Boys … is that journey.”
Since the book’s publication on the August 20, Suzie has met tremendous and overwhelming success.
“It’s something you worry about when writing a book, especially one like this,” Suzie said.
“Will people respond positively to it? Will the people whose stories I’ve told be happy with it? I’m pleased about the reviews, it’s huge sigh of relief.”
The book’s first launch was held at the Newcastle City Town Hall, on a cold Friday night at 7pm. The crowd included clergy victims, survivors, their families, and other invited guests, sitting 1.5 metres apart because of Covid regulations.
There was scarcely a dry eye in the room, the required face masks people were wearing soaking up their tears.
Suzie could feel the grief and pain from her spot up on the stage.
“It felt like a wake, spirits were being let go of, with a resounding pain left behind.”
Suzie receives up to 10 emails a month from individuals and families throughout Newcastle and the Hunter region praising her for her hard work, for her intense documentation of this epidemic.
Many express shock at the secrets held by the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and what went on in their schools and communities.
The book itself has become an incredibly significant piece of documentation of Newcastle’s history and has sparked a new local interest in the Diocese by current and former members.
Suzie’s next work is likely to be lighter.
“I would like to write fiction this time, something nice, [to get me] far away from those heavy truths I’ve been holding onto for two years,” she said.
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