The Altar Boys by Suzanne Smith

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In 2013, the Federal Government announced the establishment of its Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.  The Commission released its final report in November 2017 after many case studies into specific institutions and numerous interviews with victims/survivors of child sexual abuse and their families.  For the first time nationally, the Commission exposed hundreds of instances of child sexual abuse by clergy and staff of institutions such as churches, parishes, schools and youth groups.  By this exposure, the Commission brought to the attention of Australians the extent of child sexual abuse occurring in those institutions; and the extent to which churches and other institutions would go to cover up their knowledge of and complicity in that abuse.

But behind the Commission’s final report, there were the personal stories of many children and young people who suffered sexual abuse in places where the parents of those children could reasonably expect them to be safe and protected.

In her sometimes confronting book, author Suzanne Smith tells the stories of three boys who experienced at first hand sexual abuse by clergy and the impact that abuse had on their lives – and the lives of those who cared for them.  In telling these stories, the author also sets out the extent to which senior clergy would go to deny, obfuscate and withhold the truth and protect the offenders even in the face of overwhelming evidence of systematic abuse.

The story of one particular boy is perhaps the saddest.  In a chapter entitled The Night That Never Ends, the author sets out the story of Andrew Nash.  Andrew was thirteen years old in October 1974 and along with his brother and two sisters attended local Catholic schools in Newcastle.  On 7 October, his mother collected him from school as she did every day.  After dinner that night, Andrew went to his bedroom to do his homework.  Shortly after, one of his sisters went to Andrew’s room but there seemed to be something blocking the door from opening.  With her mother’s help, she pushed the door open and found Andrew’s body hanging from the back of it.

Later, five Catholic clergy came to the house – perhaps to provide pastoral care?  No – their purpose in being there was to establish whether Andrew had said anything to his mother or left a [suicide] note.  Once it was established that nothing had been said and there was no note, the clergy left the house one by one.

While there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that Andrew had been sexually abused at the school, evidence which later came to light about some of the clergy who attended the house that night would suggest that he had been.

The stories of the other two boys – Glen Walsh and Steven Alward – are somewhat different to begin with.  Both survive their abuse and go on to their chosen careers: Glen to become a Catholic priest and Steven to become a journalist with the ABC.  As the author tells their stories, it clearly emerges that the impact of the sexual abuse continued into their adult lives.  In common with many victims, it is some years before either could disclose his abuse to another person.  It is tragic to read later in the book that, like Andrew before them, both Glen and Steven take their own lives when the burden of the abuse has become too much to bear.  Glen’s burden was exacerbated by his ostracism from the Church he loved because of his fighting for justice for victims, and particularly from the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese [or the Maitland Diocese as it was known prior to 1995] where he had been priested.

Suzanne Smith in her chapter A Tragic Death explains that an analysis of private sessions held by the Commission found that it took, on average, 25.6 years for men to disclose their sexual abuse [283].  Chillingly, she adds that the 2489 survivors of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions equated to 61.8% of all those who were abused in religious institutions.  The author also states that ‘between 1980 and 2015, 486 people made a claim of abuse against the Marist Brothers.  The average age of the claimants at the time of the abuse was twelve’ [282].

Suzanne Smith is an investigative journalist and a six-time Walkley Award winner.  Her credentials shine though in this very moving and ultimately tragic book.  She has exposed the extent to which the Catholic Church was prepared to go in covering up heinous crimes against children which were perpetrated by Catholic clergy and religious brothers.  It is almost a cliché that when complaints were made – and some courageous children did disclose abuse at early stage – the priest or brother concerned would be moved to another parish or school.  This of course simply resulted in further abuse being perpetrated elsewhere.

Taking a forensic approach to the stories of the three boys, the author has eschewed emotionalism for clear supportable information.  There are numerous footnotes identifying the sources of the information in the book and this information is supplemented by extensive interviews with family members and friends of the boys.  However, there is no absence of a sense of humanity in the writing.  The author clearly cares for the boys/men and their families and has treated their stories with compassion and understanding.

While the subject matter is dark, it is also – as the author says in her preface – ‘a story of resilience, courage and humanity in the face of dark criminality’ [4].

The Altar Boys


by Suzanne Smith

ABC Books

ISBN 978 0 7333 4017 8

$34.99; 327pp

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