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 All charges against Peter Brock were later withdrawn.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”.
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.”
Last August, McCarthy found herself in bed at 2am unable to sleep. Only days before, one of the victims she had interviewed, 45-year old John Pirona, had been found dead in his car. The letter he left for his family ended with the words: “Too much pain”.
McCarthy grabbed a notepad and started penning an opinion piece. “There will be a royal commission on the church’s handling of child s-x abuse,” she argued, “because there must be.”
Herald editor Chad Watson was so moved he decided to run it as the start of an all-out campaign, called “Shine the Light”, calling for a royal commission. The paper encouraged readers to sign petitions and write to their MPs. McCarthy travelled to NSW Parliament to lobby politicians (most didn’t want to hear about it).
Last September, she helped organise a community forum at the Newcastle Panthers club. John Pirona’s father, Lou, spoke; so did former Wallaby Peter Fitzsimons. Peter Fox was in the crowd as an observer. But when Fitzsimons quoted Edmund Burke — “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” — Fox spontaneously jumped onto the stage and took the microphone.
Acknowledging he was going “outside the rules” by speaking publicly, Fox told the crowd he did not accept Premier Barry O’Farrell’s comments that “the police force has it all under control”. “It was a life-changing moment for me,” Fox reflected.
In November the Herald published a letter from Fox to O’Farrell begging for a royal commission — a call he repeated that night on Lateline. The next day, O’Farrell announced a special commission of inquiry into police handling of abuse by Catholic Church clergy in the Hunter Valley.
Three days later, McCarthy did something she rarely does: she drove to the Herald‘s Newcastle office (she normally works from home). There she got a text — “Get to a TV NOW” — and ran into the editor’s office to see Julia Gillard on the screen announcing a national royal commission.
“The only words I heard of her speech were ‘child s-xual abuse’. As soon as she said those words, I fell apart. I lost it,” she said.
Her editor, too, was in tears; so was the paper’s news director. Soon, it seemed, half the newsroom had crammed into the office — crying, hugging, smiling. A week before, the last of the paper’s 41 staff who had been made redundant earlier that year left the company — including one veteran Herald veteran with an inoperable brain tumour.
“Every shitty thing that could have happened to the paper last year happened,” McCarthy said. “There were so many emotions tied up in that day. There was a lot of joy, but also a lot of grief.”
Despite the accolades now coming her way, McCarthy has no plans to seek more readers and more money at, say, a metropolitan paper. She knows where she belongs.
“I’m a regional person [and] I think only a regional paper could have done this — it went way too much outside what is normal behaviour for a metro,” she said. “The truth is the truth. It doesn’t matter where it appears. You just have to keep banging away.”