The burning question

Collateral damage and the Catholic Church

THE WESTFIELD KOTARA in Newcastle is a carbon copy of shopping centres around the world, with its jumble of concrete car parks and sterile shopfronts. Three hours north of Sydney, Newcastle was Australia’s second settlement after Sydney Cove. Early convicts spoke of its brutality; later, the Catholics and Anglicans competed fiercely for the hearts and minds of settlers, with clergy from Ireland, England and France trying to make holy people out of the working classes. Decades ago, I would have seen rows of miners’ cottages surrounded by scrubby forest, the remnants of the bellowing industrial furnaces of the old BHP steel mill hanging in the air. Now, the mall dominates the landscape.

Driving into the car park, I ponder how much this place has changed. Newcastle is a vibrant city on a long, beautiful sweep of coastline. But its darker side is never far away. Like Ballarat in Victoria, it has been revealed as an epicentre of clerical abuse extending to hundreds of victims.

I first glimpsed the scale of this in 2008 when I covered a story about the Catholic Diocese of Maitland–Newcastle for Lateline. Joanne McCarthy, the courageous Newcastle Herald journalist, had published countless stories about egregious cover-ups and abuse; victims and their families reached out to the nightly ABC program, hoping to bring their stories to a national audience. I filed more than forty pieces about their experiences over the next eleven years.

The professional became personal when a close friend and ABC colleague suicided in 2018. Steven Alward was from Newcastle and had attended St Pius X, a Catholic boys high school with a known past of sexual abuse. Just weeks before he died, Steven asked me to investigate some new issues about the diocese and we arranged to meet. But in early 2018, he took his life. He was soon to be married.

My promise to Steven prompted me to further investigate and mark what had happened to so many boys in this part of the world. That research would become a book – and it would lead me to this crowded Westfield to meet a woman called Ruth Jordon.

The collateral damage of this unchecked epidemic has left as many unanswered questions as it has deep scars, and many of these live on in Ruth. She was widowed too young, at forty-eight; her husband was a man named Bernie O’Brien.


THEY MET IN 1997 at the Wyong Drama Group, cast opposite each other in Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento. Ruth was bubbly and funny and loved to sing. Bernie told her about the highlight of his school life – playing Ratty in The Wind in the Willows.

Bernie came from a devout Catholic family. His dad was a travelling salesman who was away a lot, and his mother suffered severe bouts of mental illness. The Church was their safe haven. It was the centre of their lives.

Between 1976 and 1982, Bernie attended St Pius X.

The schoolsat on a steep hill in Adamstown in a cavernous space that was once the Lustre Hosiery factory. The building was partitioned into classrooms and a school hall; it was stiflingly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. It was overcrowded, crammed with approximately one thousand boys. And, as in some Catholic schools back then, priests lived on-site – behind the classrooms, near the sick bay and chapel.


IN THE 1970s and 1980s, the school was plagued by several predatory paedophiles. Father John Denham, head of discipline, had at least fifty-eight victims. Father Tom Brennan, the principal, was also a child sex offender; subsequent court cases made clear that he had been repeatedly told Denham was committing sex crimes against children, that he physically assaulted some children for raising allegations and that he quietly moved Denham from Pius X in 1980 after a report from a parent. From the mid-1990s, other child-sex offenders involved with the school were also revealed: Ted Hall, Father Vincent Ryan, Father James Fletcher and Father Peter Brock.

For reasons never properly explained, Bernie lived with the priests in their accommodation quarters for his final year of classes in 1982, when he repeated his Higher School Certificate – even though his own home was just down the road in Charlestown, and St Pius X wasn’t a boarding school. This was not a topic he was happy to talk about; he avoided any probing on the matter.

It’s known now that some boys were taken to the priests’ annex at St Pius X and sexually assaulted. Some offences happened in full view of students in classrooms, and other boys were asked to stay back at lunchtime, when a priest would lock the classroom door.

In 2009, Father Brennan was convicted of knowingly making a false statement to police; he appealed the conviction. When his conviction was upheld, he received a twelve-month suspended sentence.

A year later, on 19 April 2010, Bernie O’Brien suicided. He was forty-six years old. His daughter, Isabella, was only nine. He didn’t leave a note.

Several months after Bernie died, Ruth received a call from Joanne McCarthy. McCarthy was investigating St Pius X and told Ruth about a cluster of suicides that had occurred among the school’s former students. Bernie’s name had come up in police interviews with other sexual assault victims.

This information was a lightbulb moment for Ruth. For the previous decade, she’d been thinking about the many times Bernie’s behaviour hadn’t made sense.

Ten years later, she still wants to know the truth. With the deeds of more of these many men made public, she wonders whether something happened to her husband while he was at school. She wonders what happened when he lived there for that year.

She is haunted by what she doesn’t know.

According to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, many men who suicided never told their parents or partners about their abuse at the hands of priests or brothers. In fact, the Royal Commission found many victims would not disclose abuse until well into adulthood: male survivors took an average of 23.9 years to tell someone, and some never disclosed at all.[i]

Could Bernie O’Brien have been one of those men?


I WALK FROM the dark car park into the shopping centre’s fluorescent light and pumping music. I’m meeting Ruth at the Telstra shop. She has Bernie’s old Nokia flip phone (‘probably needs a heritage order slapped on it,’ she says), and she’s desperate to find out if any messages or calls – any snippets of information – still exist on it. The SIM card is inside: did someone call before he died? Are there any photos on the phone?

A kind Telstra staff member lets us charge the device while Ruth explains what she’s trying to find. We huddle together, staring at the dark screen, the phone now cradled in the hands of a technician.

After a short while, the technician looks up: there are no numbers and no call log.

‘Is there any way of finding out what’s on the SIM card?’ There’s a slight tremble in Ruth’s voice.

‘The only thing that can be on a SIM card is contacts… There’s only a handful. The only name is Ruth – oh hang on, there’s also a work number. The rest are just voicemail and that sort of stuff.’

We have more questions: could any voicemail messages still be stored on the phone ten years later?


Could we reactivate the SIM card?

No: once they’re inactive, they can’t be reactivated.

I make one last-ditch attempt: ‘Ruth will give this phone to the police. Would they have any way of reading information that was once on it?’

‘No. Unfortunately, we’ve probably got more access in our systems than the police to read the SIM card. I can’t imagine them being able to do anything.’

‘No incoming calls?’

‘There is no call log whatsoever.’

Ruth has her head in her hands. ‘I think he deleted all his calls before he died.’

And then, two possibilities: Bernie was with Vodafone and they have a shop just around the corner. Perhaps the company holds records at a central server? And the Telstra technician asks if he should check for photos.

There are two images of a rear-view mirror from 15 February 2009, more than a year before Bernie died. He must have been sitting in his car’s driver’s seat because they show the cars behind him on what could be any busy street in Newcastle.

Why would Bernie have taken them?


RUTH IS NOT Catholic. She grew up in a secular military family; her dad was a distinguished captain in the navy, and she spent a lot of her childhood moving around – Jervis Bay in southern New South Wales, Indonesia.

She often tries to decode what she calls the ‘Catholic culture’. As a non-Catholic, it’s alien to her.

Over a coffee before we visit Vodafone, Ruth tells me about Isabella, their daughter, who kept her dad’s phone all these years. ‘I think she kept it as a memento of him. Isabella also found his iPod and tried to download its music, just wanting to connect with her father. Music had been their special language’ – Isabella also loves music and singing and showed musical promise as a child – ‘but it had all been wiped. It was like he didn’t exist. She was only nine when he dropped her to her friend’s place and called out, “I love you, see you tonight!”’

He never returned home.


THAT WEEKEND BEGAN like any other. Bernie, Ruth and Isabella lived on a hill overlooking Caves Beach; the view from their balcony was blue ocean as far as the eye could see. That Saturday, Bernie was studying at home while Ruth went to Sydney to see a friend.

She remembers seeing him at their dining table, lecture notes and textbooks sprawled in front of him. He was in his last year of a teaching degree and was starting an internship the next day – something he was looking forward to. He’d been to the school, met his supervising teacher; he’d already taken a class. He was nervous and excited.

But something unnerved Bernie that weekend: his mood changed. Ruth had a nagging feeling he’d received an unsettling phone call.

The next day, before he went to his regular shift at the ABC, Ruth remembers him being in a bit of a ‘tizz’. She thought he was just anxious about his internship. But as Sunday afternoon faded into night, Ruth had a strong feeling Bernie wasn’t okay. Call it a wife’s intuition.

She called his workplace and was told Bernie had finished work early and should be home by now. His workmate sounded surprised.

The hours went by; Bernie didn’t appear. Ruth called his phone, but there was no answer. She thought, He’s turned it off. But the worry gnawed at her stomach: ‘After a couple of hours I started ringing the police and hospitals, and that went on for a large portion of the night.’

She remembers pacing their kitchen in the darkness, listening to the surf crashing below. The night went on forever. Hospital staff were helpful, but the local Belmont police were dismissive. One kept telling her Bernie had probably gone to the pub – ‘Despite the fact that I said that in our ten years of marriage he had never, ever gone to the pub on his way home and there was no way he would have done that that night, because he had a big day the next day.’

They also told Ruth they couldn’t do anything until Bernie had been missing for twenty-four hours. ‘I think they eventually got sick of me ringing,’ Ruth says, ‘because by about 3.30 the following morning, two officers arrived at my house. As they were walking out the door half an hour later, they received a phone call.’

A body had been found in a car park basement in Charlestown.

Those same officers were back at Ruth’s house a few hours later to tell her Bernie was dead.


OUR COFFEES ARE cold. I look up and Ruth is crying. The not knowing, the pain: her suffering is tangible.

I look at the fluorescent lights, the shoppers with their loaded trolleys getting on with their business. Life will never return to any kind of normal for Ruth.

As we head towards Vodafone, Ruth says: ‘I always felt his suicide was impulsive, I never felt it was planned. He didn’t display the behaviours that suggested he wanted to kill himself… He didn’t tidy up, he didn’t put his papers in order. His books were exactly where they had been when he left for work that day. I did go through all his notebooks, all his lecture notes in the hopes that I might find something, that there might be a letter or some musings or something, and there was nothing.’

She thinks something happened that Sunday. She thinks he must have got a call and panicked.


AFTER THE TWO police officers gave Ruth the bad news, she woke Isabella to tell her, and then she called her parents. When they arrived thirty minutes later, she went down to Caves Beach and walked and walked beside the wild surf. Ruth’s mother stayed with them a while, furtively checking the letterbox each day – she was convinced that if Bernie had really planned to kill himself, he would at least have sent Ruth a letter.

Ruth’s sister and her husband took Ruth to the morgue to identify Bernie’s body. He had suicided in the darkest section of an underground car park at Charlestown, the suburb where he had lived as a young boy.

A few days after Bernie’s death, a police officer phoned wanting to know whether Bernie had ever spoken about Father John Denham. Denham was Bernie’s teacher and form master from 1976, when Bernie started at the school, until 1980, when Denham was moved to the Charlestown parish after a mother complained to the St Pius X principal, Tom Brennan, about Denham sexually assaulting her son. When Denham sexually assaulted another boy at Charlestown, he was swiftly moved again to the outer reaches of the dioceses in Taree, where he stayed for five years – with access to primary school boys.

In 2009, Denham pleaded guilty to 134 charges, including buggery and sexual assault, involving thirty-nine boys. Sixteen of the charges occurred at St Pius X, and one at Charlestown, between 1978 and 1980 – the same time Bernie was attending Charlestown parish and the school.

Ruth had once asked Bernie whether he’d been abused by Father John Denham. He told her no, although said he knew other boys who had been abused by the priest. But Bernie told his sister something different: Denham tried to groom him. When Ruth tried to discuss her fears with Bernie’s sister, she told Ruth, ‘There is no evidence and we will probably never know.’

Ruth remembered being at a gathering in Newcastle in August 2008 when the news broke that another priest, Father Peter Brock, had been charged as part of a paedophile ring. Brock was a charismatic priest involved in music and Friday night youth groups in which Bernie and his siblings had participated at different times.

In 2008, Brock was charged with twenty-two incidents of serious child sex offences by Strike Force Georgiana of the NSW Police. The details in the Newcastle Herald shocked the community:

High-profile Catholic priest and music conductor Father Peter Brock stands accused of repeatedly taking a young boy to a house and watching on as several men sexually assaulted the teen in what was described yesterday as a ‘paedophilic smorgasbord’…

The court was told that in the mid-1970s, when the boy was aged 15 and two years after he was first abused, Father Brock took him to a Newcastle house on at least six occasions and watched on as several men sexually assaulted the teen after supplying him with alcohol.

The court heard on one occasion [deleted] and an unidentified man had assaulted the boy in a bedroom while Father Brock watched pornography in another room.

When Ruth told Bernie this news, she asked again if anything had happened to him. He said no, but told her he’d been around boys he thought were being groomed. He clearly did not want to talk about it, and whenever Ruth tried to raise it again, he would end the conversation.

From the age of nine and for at least the next six years, Bernie O’Brien served as Brock’s altar boy at Charlestown Parish, and the priest socialised with Bernie’s family.

Ruth noticed other things that made her worry, such as Bernie’s hatred for the Catholic Church. ‘When we first met him I thought it was sort of funny,’ she tells me, ‘and I thought that perhaps some of the ways in which he spoke about the Catholic Church might have been for dramatic effect. As the years went on, he reacted so strongly to any suggestion that he take Isabella to mass; when she expressed an interest in going, he would point-blank refuse… One day I suggested to him that he could teach in the Catholic system, but that was totally out of the question. He had absolutely nothing good to say about his entire schooling – except for the joy he got out of being in the school musical.’

Another incident stands out. In 2001, Bernie discovered their next-door neighbour worked for Centacare, a Catholic organisation that assists foster kids and handles other child-protection issues. The neighbour approached to say hello and Bernie was rude and abrupt in response, which was very out of character. When Ruth asked him why, he said, ‘She works for the organisation that talked my mother into moving out of home, into a halfway house where all she did was sit in a corner all day and smoke cigarettes. This happened soon after my father had a heart attack, and her case manager suggested it would be better if she moved out of home.’ Was this the reason Bernie was sent to live with the priests during his last year at St Pius X?

The prosecution case against Father Peter Brock fell apart in December 2009 when one of the victims was not well enough to proceed with the trial. Another victim had suicided two months before the police investigation in 2008. From then on, Brock threatened to sue anyone who raised these allegations. But after he died in 2014, the diocese announced he had been a child sex offender and paid out compensation. In 2018, Newcastle University revoked his honorary degree and awards.


WE REACH THE Vodafone shop and encounter another helpful staff member. Ruth is still questioning why Bernie would have deleted his contacts, calls and messages before he died.

Several police investigations and court hearings were underway in the years preceding Bernie’s death, and it was normal practice for clergy to call loyal students for character references for the trials. Around the time of Bernie’s death, police were investigating reports of a paedophile ring in relation to Father Peter Brock – and both Father John Denham and the St Pius X principal, Tom Brennan, had been calling former students for character references for Denham’s trial. Brennan was a close friend to the O’Brien family.

‘I think it’s quite possible that they tried to contact him,’ Ruth says. ‘I think he would have been very easy to contact, even though he hadn’t maintained contact with any of his schoolmates. In fact, that was one of the things that always surprised me – he’d come back to Newcastle, he’d grown up in Charlestown, but he made no attempt to contact any of the people he’d gone to school with. I found that a little bit strange.’

After Bernie’s suicide, Father Tom Brennan became aloof and distanced himself from the rest of Bernie’s family. Several years later, the diocese admitted Brennan was also a child sex offender and confirmed reports that he had sexually assaulted a boy at St Pius X while Bernie was a student there from 1978 to 1979.

Bernie had lived with Brennan, in the priests’ quarters, in 1982.


THE STAFF MEMBER at the Vodafone shop gives Ruth some hope. Once she’s proved her identity as Bernie’s next of kin, the company may be able to find the records. But this will have to be investigated by customer care.

Ruth laughs: ‘I don’t even remember his phone number – I’ll have to ask customer care for it.’


ON THE DAY before Bernie’s death, nine-year-old Isabella wrote a poem for her dad:

Bernie is my dad!

Everybody loves him!

Ruth loves him too!

Nothing can stop you!

I love you so much!

Everybody pray for BERNIE.

That last line: ‘Everybody pray for Bernie.’ A few months later, Ruth asked Isabella what she meant. Isabella said she didn’t really know; she just had a feeling.


RUTH AND I head back to our cars. As we pause to say goodbye, Ruth suddenly looks sad.

‘I’m convinced he was abused in some way,’ she says. ‘Perhaps having a child of his own and going to a primary school for his internship provoked some sort of trigger… I think he, as many victims of abuse are, probably felt ashamed. I think he’d been keeping secrets for so long he just didn’t know what to do or where to go.’

As part of his training to be a primary school teacher, Bernie undertook child protection training. ‘In every teaching degree they include a module on child protection, duty of care, and the imbalance of power between adults and children,’ says Ruth. ‘If he’d been suppressing what had happened to him, and then was required to hold a position as a mandatory reporter for child abuse… I think it really must have stirred up a lot of deeply buried feelings.’

She calls a few weeks later: the Vodafone lead has yielded nothing. She asks if I can pick up the phone on my next visit to Newcastle and hand it to a police contact of mine. I promise her I will.

She calls the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, who say they know nothing about what happened to Bernie. She asks for his school records and is told they were destroyed in a fire at St Pius X in 2012. They have recovered one school photo – when Ruth receives it, all the students’ names have been redacted. But it reminds her of a box in her basement that contains the same photo, this one with names clearly attached.

She embarks on her next search to find out about Bernie’s school life.

Isabella is still keen for information about her dad’s school years, says Ruth. She wants to know what subjects he took. She wants to know if he would have been proud of the outstanding marks she received for music in her final examinations. Bernie never knew that Isabella went on to play the flute, to sing and tour internationally with different regional ensembles. And Isabella worries, says Ruth, ‘because she finds that as she gets older, she is slowly losing the sense of her father; she can no longer remember the sound of his voice.’

Once, Bernie’s sister said to Ruth, ‘We should have protected him better.’ She wouldn’t elaborate. Ruth and Isabella have little contact with Bernie’s family now.

But Ruth says she won’t stop her quest until Bernie’s secrets are revealed.

She knows, deep in her being, that someone will know what happened to her husband. She also knows they may never come forward and that she’ll live the rest of her life in this limbo. She wonders if the truth is so awful that whoever knows it can’t bear to revisit it. It’s the not knowing that is so frightening, the dark hole with no ending. The questions that fill her head in the early hours of the morning when she wakes.



The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Bob O’Toole and the Clergy Abused Network (CAN) in Newcastle.




[i]Commonwealth of Australia (2017). Final Report: Volume 4, Identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Commonwealth of Australia, p.10.

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