The Altar Boys is the first book by multi award-winning investigative journalist, Suzanne Smith. It is also the first general history of why the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle became an epicentre in a child abuse scandal which finds the global Church facing its greatest challenge since Martin Luther fired up the Protestant Reformation, five centuries ago.
This complex tale is skilfully framed by Smith around the lives of two boys who grew up across the street from one other, in suburban Newcastle of the 1970s. One, Steven Alward, would become head of international news at the ABC. The other, Glen Walsh, became a priest in the diocese. Both served as altar boys in the local parish. And both would die by their own hand, within two months over the summer of 2017-2018.
Just one measure of how corrupt this diocese became is the sheer number of the Council of Priests to former Bishop Leo Clarke found to have either enabled or perpetrated serious crimes. More than 40 years in jail sentences hang from their collective necks. Smith delivers on what this appalling institutional failure brought to pass: decades of brutal abuse; cover ups and amoral legal strategies; Mr Fix-Its and the corrupting effect of the confessional seal and the odious absurdity of the 'Pontifical Secret'. But it is her disciplined pursuit of the impact on the personal life trajectories of Alward and Walsh where Smith's insight is most acute.
Lifelong manipulation of Alward by that arch criminal, former priest John Denham, unravels like a case study of psychopathy in action. That Alward, a high-functioning professional and no stranger to the traumas of human existence, was finally undone by the predations and deceits of Denham is a salutary retelling of a tale made grimly familiar to us by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Equally compelling is the story of Walsh; the courageous whistleblower priest, ostracised and driven to despair through a decade and a half of unrestrained cruelty, meted out by his supposed brethren clergy.
There are numerous other revelations which are startling, even to someone who lived this history and has followed events closely. The depth of research undertaken by the author is apparent and fuels the compelling narrative force. The Altar Boys deserves to be widely read to help ensure we can claim no excuses for allowing anything like it to happen again. But to also ensure the lives of Alward, Walsh and others such as Andrew Nash are not lost to us, like tears in rain.