IT’S the history St Pius X High School, Adamstown can’t celebrate, and can’t deny – how a school named after a pope who demanded “only obedience” from the faithful experienced child sexual abuse as “an organised criminal activity” during the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s also the school with the dark and tragic history that sparked a royal commission.
“I couldn’t wait to leave St Pius. I just about ran out on the last day, and if the police hadn’t contacted me I probably would have taken what happened there to my grave,” said a former student in a statement buried in the court files of sadistic Catholic priest and St Pius teacher John Denham, 76, who will almost certainly die in jail for crimes against 58 boys.
Denham’s conviction this week for crimes against a boy in Taree, where the priest was sent in 1981 after four years at St Pius, and the conviction of teacher colleague Edward “Ted” Hall on October 5 for child sex crimes against nine St Pius students, come more than 21 years after a former St Pius student first went to police with allegations against Denham.
The end of the trials means the Newcastle Herald can record for the first time the extent of the violence and sexual violence that produced what Sydney District Court Judge Helen Syme described as “a culture of fear and depravity” in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to “organised criminal activity” against children in a school where priests lived in bedrooms within the school building.
St Pius’s roll call of shame includes principal Father Tom Brennan, the former vicar-general and bishop’s right-hand man, who was convicted of lying to police about his knowledge of Denham’s offending, and who died in 2012 with outstanding child sex allegations against him.
In September Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright acknowledged Brennan as a child sex offender whose sexual abuse of student James Miller in 1978 was “deliberate and premeditated” and “fundamentally betrayed” Brennan’s vocation.
In 2015 Judge Syme described in sickening detail a day in 1979 when Brennan took Denham’s year 8 religious class and sent boys to another room to see Denham, where they were sexually abused.
Denham “then sent the boy back to class and asked him to tell Father Brennan to send the next boy”, Judge Syme noted.
It was “highly unlikely… that the two were not acting in concert” and it “gives some insight into what may have been planned and organised behaviour on the part of certain teachers at the school”, the judge said.
Brennan sent boys to Denham on other occasions despite allegations by boys and parents of Denham’s crimes. One student who was regularly bullied at the school took a drug overdose in year 10 “with the intention of dying” after a savage sexual assault by Denham. The suicide attempt occurred after Brennan also “was checking out the possibility of something happening between us”.
“I was a child who was used and taken advantage of,” said the former student in a statement to police.
The school’s dark history includes former St Pius teacher/priest Philip Wilson, who went on to be an archbishop and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president. His fall from grace in May made world headlines when he became the most senior Catholic clergyman to be convicted of concealing the crimes of another priest.
Wilson taught religious education at St Pius and lived in the priests’ quarters for nine months in 1978 and 1979 with priests including Denham, but denied any knowledge of child sex offences at the school. This is despite Judge Syme noting Denham “operated as if he was at some paedophiliac smorgasbord entitled to abuse boys at any time or place of his choosing”, including his bedroom in the priests’ quarters.
The St Pius history cannot be written without the involvement of other clergy like the late Wingham priest Ron Pickin, who hosted Denham at his parish presbytery during weekend visits with St Pius boys. Pickin admitted bathing a boy who “drank most of a bottle of scotch”, but asked no questions about sleeping arrangements in a presbytery with only two bedrooms. Pickin denied any knowledge of sexual abuse.
“The obvious conclusion drawn from both sets of facts is that at least Father Brennan and Father Pickin knew of, and either ignored or encouraged, Denham’s activities,” Judge Syme found.
In statements to the Denham trials in 2013 and 2015 former students and a teacher named another priest who put his arms around boys’ waists while walking and “sometimes put his hands in the back pockets of the boys’ school pants”.
Another male lay teacher “used to come in and watch us in the showers after sport”, while at least half a dozen male teachers, including Ted Hall, were singled out for their violence in statements tendered to the court.
Teachers including Brennan “used to get off on hurting the boys”; hit boys so hard with the cane that the canes broke; in one case “would sometimes jump off a step to add more weight to his down thrust while caning” and another “would pull your pants down in front of the class and whack you a couple of times on the arse”.
Former student Phil Crosbie, who supported the Herald’s campaign for a royal commission in August, 2012 after the suicide of St Pius student and Denham victim John Pirona, said the sexual abuse was well known.
“Everybody knew. It was an open secret, like an open wound festering away,” he said.
“The teachers knew, but they were probably looking out for their jobs. The priests ruled back then. It makes my gut crawl just talking about it.”
Statements from former teachers to the Denham trials show they openly talked about abuse allegations.
A former teacher said “Denham’s name came up” during one discussion about a year 7 boy who told a teacher Denham held him on his lap and sexually abused him. The teacher told Brennan but took the matter no further after the principal told him it was “impossible” and the student must have made it up. One month later another teacher raised further allegations about Denham.
“One of the group said ‘We’ve heard this all before’,” the former teacher told police in his statement. The teachers took the matter no further.
Students told police there were fights at the school and “sometimes the teachers encouraged the fights”.
John Pirona recalled the fights.
“Back then St Pius was a real hard school. I thought that if anyone knew what Denham did to me I would be teased and bashed. Every day to me at St Pius was just survival,” he told police.
Teacher Bill Izzard, singled out by some students for his fondness of the cane, said in his statement to police that he had “plenty of talks” with the Catholic Education Office’s Monsignor Frank Coolahan “about what his fellow priests were doing with the boys”.
“I told him one day this will come back to bite you arseholes where it counts,” Mr Izzard said.
In 2010 Coolahan’s role in the employment of convicted paedophile teacher, Tony Bambach, to work in Hunter Catholic schools was revealed after the church was sued by his subsequent victims.
In an interview before his death Father Ron Pickin rejected Judge Syme’s criticism or the need for an apology because “I didn’t do anything anyway.”
He stopped questions about St Pius, the school where boys attempted suicide while still in their teens, with the words: “It’s an unfortunate business, the whole thing.”
The Catholic Church is building a memorial to children abused in its Hunter Marist Brothers schools and could establish others in particular sites, Maitland-Newcastle diocese said.
Survivors, the diocese and the Marist Brothers have been in consultations throughout 2018 about a memorial to those who were abused at Marist Brothers, Hamilton. A memorial at what is now St Francis Xavier’s College will be opened in 2019.
Former St Pius X student Phil Crosbie said a memorial at the school would be a good thing.
The diocese comprehensively acknowledged its tragic history of abuse during the Lina’s Project event at Newcastle Town Hall in 2017, and Bishop Bill Wright had on multiple occasions given an unreserved apology on behalf of the diocese to all who had suffered abuse, a spokesperson said.
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