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Sins of the fathers

  • 29 March 2024
Recent years have made clerical child sexual abuse a badge of shame within Australia’s Catholic hierarchy, and rightly so. But Anne Manne’s new book, Sins of the fathers, will give pause to those who blame these offences on the rule of hieratic celibacy. This impressive history of the malignancy that flourished within Newcastle’s Anglican communion in the last century’s dying decades reminds us that evil is evil, wherever it resides.

Imagine the victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of a priest having the immense courage to come forward years later, in 2001, to expose his abuser — only to be met with responses such as that of trial judge Ralph Coolahan, who called it ‘truly ridiculous’ that the complainant had waited 20 years after turning 18 to bring the proceedings, and that the entire matter was ‘a real farce’. In a shockingly obtuse and intemperate comment, the judge suggested that the Director of Public Prosecutions, who brought the case before the court, had engaged in ‘an abusive process’ in relying on the ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ of the complainant.

A victim willing and able to rise above the destructive psychological burdens imposed by the violation of their child self is going to be a brave and super-resilient rarity — and will need to be, given the gruelling process of trying to bring perpetrators to justice. After reading this harrowing saga, I can say that Ms Manne and the central character in it were fortunate in finding each other, to ensure that this story was told.

Within these pages that recount the life of Steven Smith, nicknamed ‘Smiley’ as a boy, we are introduced to a cast of people, each of whom ends up on one or other side of a stark moral divide: on one side are the corrupting adults and their enablers — those who protected or even promoted the corruptors; on the other are the abused children and the honourable few who have tried to protect these innocents and to expose their abusers as well as the members of the church hierarchy who covered up their crimes.

When Steve, whose abuse dated back to his time as an altar boy in the early 1970s, felt strong enough to sue Fr George Parker, the Newcastle parish priest who had raped him when he was just ten years old, Parker’s defence barrister argued that Steve’s later committal to an asylum made him an unreliable witness.