Joanne McCarthy from the Newcastle Herald is the winner of the 2013 Gold Walkley.
In the last seven years, she has written more than 350 articles about the sexual abuse of children, primarily by Catholic clergy in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. It was her relentless campaign for a royal commission that prompted a letter from Julia Gillard.
“Thanks in very large measure to your persistence and courage,” the former prime minister wrote, “the New South Wales Special Commission of Enquiry and the Federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.”
McCarthy’s editor at the Newcastle Herald, Chad Watson, describes her as “a beacon for Australian journalism.”
But accolades don’t motivate Joanne. “What drives her,” Watson says, “is a selfless and relentless desire to act as a loudhailer for those in our community unable to speak up for themselves.” He acknowledges that her crusade is “a significant shift away from traditional, objective journalism”.
McCarthy spearheaded the Herald’s “Shine the light” campaign for a royal commission. She interviewed about 200 victims of sexual abuse, many of them scarred by alcohol, drugs and depression. She uncovered no less than 12 suicides or drug overdoses among former students of a priest called John Denham. Denham was convicted on 111 charges involving about 60 victims.
To their eternal disgrace, church authorities responded to complaints with obfuscation and threats of legal action. McCarthy and the Newcastle Herald faced repeated challenges from the pulpit and Bishop Anthony Fisher cruelly assessed the complaints as people “dwelling crankily on old wounds”.
McCarthy was herself a victim – of an ugly campaign of whispers. “There were a lot of people within the church and the police happy to run the line that I was mad, that I was obsessed,” she recalls.
Suzanne Smith, a senior investigative reporter with the ABC’s Lateline, says Joanne never flinched, despite a major backlash. “She was determined to get justice for the many survivors in her community, estimated to be more than 400 at last count,” she says. “She stood by those victims when many of us in society did not. She took on a very powerful institution and won.”
On top of her victory with the state and federal enquiries, McCarthy’s work has helped launch two police strike forces, resulting in close to 500 criminal charges and the arrest of at least 12 religious brothers and priests.
What may be surprising to some is that McCarthy was raised a Catholic, the eldest of 11 children and the one-time vice-captain of St Joseph’s High School at East Gosford (thanks to the intervention of a much admired nun, Sister Vianney).
She remembers enough of the gospels to quote St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. “Let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time, we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”
Joanne McCarthy, Gold Walkley winner, is as persistent as Paul and proud to be “regional”. “I am a regional person,” she says, “and I think only a regional paper could have done this. The truth is the truth. It doesn’t matter where it appears. You just have to keep banging away.”
Joanne’s Winning Work:
Gold Walkley award sponsored by
Joanne, you are a truly remarkable person. Thousands of Australians share your passion for justice. I am one of them.
– Julia Gillard’s letter to Joanne McCarthy, signed as one of her final acts as prime minister and on the night she lost the leadership vote.