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Mar 28, 2013

Accidental crusader: how a regional reporter prompted a royal commission

Joanne McCarthy's reporting has been pivotal in creating a royal commission into child sexual abuse. She speaks to Matthew Knott about treading the tightrope between journalism and advocacy.

Matthew Knott

Former Crikey media reporter

When Joanne McCarthy was named journalist of the year at the Quill Awards earlier this month, more than a few of the assorted flacks and hacks at Melbourne's Crown Palladium stared at each other in surprise. Who was this reporter from The Newcastle Herald? And how had she beaten a field of well-known contenders -- The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker from The Age, and last year’s Gold Walkley winner Steve Pennells -- to win the coveted prize? While McCarthy is little-known outside the NSW Hunter Valley, she's revered by those who have fought for justice on behalf of the victims of clergy s-xual abuse. Detective chief inspector Peter Fox -- who spent 20 years investigating p-edophile priests in the Hunter -- says she can take more credit than any other journalist for the fact a royal commission into child s-x abuse will begin next week. "It was absolutely pivotal," Fox said of McCarthy's reporting. "It can not be overestimated." Neither can the obstacles she's faced. Priests sermonised against the paper from their pulpits. One bishop issued multiple defamation threats. Police bosses ordered officers, including Fox, not to speak to her. The Herald's letter page filled with complaints from Catholics unwilling or unable to believe what they were reading. A nasty whispering campaign painted her as biased and unhinged. "There were a lot of people within the church and police happy to run the line that I was mad, that I was obsessed," McCarthy said. "If you’re trying to shut something down, the quickest and easiest way to do that is to suggest someone is a nut." Said Fox: "If she’d been someone with less integrity and fortitude, she'd have given up." There were other difficulties. Roger Brock, editor of the paper from 2009-2012, is the brother of Father Peter Brock, a Newcastle Catholic priest charged with 22 child s-x offences in late 2008. Though the paper never wavered in its reporting, this complicated their relationship immensely. All charges against Peter Brock were later withdrawn. McCarthy declined to comment on the issue to Crikey. But in her Quills acceptance speech, she described Roger Brock as "one of the most decent and honest men I have ever met, who had to be the editor while I was writing these things under truly extraordinary circumstances".

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McCarthy, 54, grew up on the NSW central coast, the eldest of 11 children in a family of practising Catholics. Her parents, she notes, were from the "enlightened" school of Catholicism, believers in social justice and questioning authority. After lengthy stints at free community papers The Gosford Star and Central Coast Express Advocate, she joined The Newcastle Herald in 2002. Her reporting on clergy s-x abuse began with a seemingly minor tip-off, but soon led to a major scandal. In 2007 she revealed, with help from victim support group Broken Rites, the crimes committed by Father Denis Mcalinden, believed to be the worst p-edophile priest in the nation's history. In May 2010 she handed church documents to the NSW Police -- including a letter from a former bishop urging Mcalinden to agree to a "speedy" defrocking, assuring him "your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process". "It was the definition of a cover-up," she said. Yet a year later, the police had little to show for their investigation. So a furious McCarthy filed a Police Integrity Commission complaint. She's the first to admit her involvement in the story has gone far beyond that of a detached journalist. She's become an agitator, a crusader, a confidante. "I can really understand other journalists not understanding -- or possibly even being a bit concerned -- about some of the stuff I had to do which was clearly advocacy," she said. McCarthy estimates she's interviewed 200 victims. Some are addicted to drugs and alcohol; others have depression and other forms of mental illness. Much of her time has been spent connecting them with a trusted network of lawyers, police officers, support groups. "I have had many, many, many people say to me I was the first person they have ever talked to about it ... That is a crushing weight," she said. "Is it reasonable to stand by and say, 'I’m a journalist,' and not get involved? I think that’s where my Catholic upbringing comes into it in a weird way. You have to leave your ego behind and think: what is the right thing to do here? If you’re just sitting there wallowing in it with them, you’re part of the problem. That’s where the impulse to be an advocate comes from."

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Accidental crusader: how a regional reporter prompted a royal commission

  1. paddy

    Wonderful piece Matthew.
    Blinking back the tears as I type.
    Thank goodness for Joanne McCarthy’s courage and persistence.

  2. Milanion20

    That is the media for you.

    When it is bad it is very bad,

    and when it is good…

  3. klewso

    As she so succinctly put it – this could hardly have happened in the mainstream press – with their obsession with control of public interest, dead-lines, “entertainment priorities” – their limited news outlook?

  4. GF50

    Wow! great piece, Thankyou Mathew, Thankyou Joanne
    Kate McClymont not in the same ballpark!

  5. Edward James

    Make no bones about it Matthew. What started with Shine the light, and the wonderful journalism of Joanne McCarthy. Went on the boil when family, friends and supporters from Maitland and around the Hunter regions began writing support letters to the Newcastle Herald. The upwelling of disgust and anger looked back at the lifestyle of Milton (the horrible) Orkopolous the Labor Member for Swansea and forward to the prospect of more inaction and cover. Only a few days earlier Prime Minister Gillard was telling the media their would be no Royal Commission the state had it in hand. Then a complete backflip from the Prime Minister, we get our Royal Commission. It happened because the peoples were rising up and demanding a royal commission, with each passing day the numbers were growing. Inspired by the unusual yet invaluable support of the Newcastle Herald, reporter Joanne McCarthy and Peter Fox. The peoples know very well there has been a on going coverup of child abuse. Lets just hope the findings of this Royal Commission are not put into storage somewhere and never acted on. Edward James

  6. jaseologist

    Any chance Crikey can poach Joanne?

  7. klewso

    …… and they couldn’t trust a Coalition (state) government to do it?
    You can imagine a “Catholic PM” pulling one on?

  8. Em_E

    ~ Beautiful story thank you for sharing ~

  9. Edward James

    While we have a Royal Commission. It still requires the families, friends and their supporters who forced the Prime Minister to act. To ride the six member Royal Commission hands and heals all the way to a satisfactory conclusion. Which means defrockings and convictions for those still living. Edward James

  10. Alison White

    Great article,and it’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a more deserving winner.

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