The church protected Father John Sidney Denham, a judge says

By a Broken Rites Australia researcher (article updated 23 January 2015)

An Australian judge has made scathing comments about how Father John Sidney Denham had been protected by the Catholic Church. Denham was jailed in 2010 after some of his victims contacted the New South Wales police. On 23 January 2015, he received additional jail time after some more of his victims contacted the police. According to research by Broken Rites, these are not necessarily Denham's only victims. (Article updated 23 January 2015.)

On 2 July 2010, in the Sydney District Court, Father Denham was jailed after pleading guilty to sexually abusing dozens of young boys, aged from five to sixteen.

In sentencing, Judge Helen Syme said that when some of Denham's victims complained to a Catholic high school where Denham worked, the principal (Father Tom Brennan) "at best took no action and, at worst, caned the boys".

Judge Syme said: "For reasons known only to them, other teachers and priests did not intervene to stop the abuse of which most of the students were aware."

The judge also said: "The ability of the offender (Denham) to continue offending for so long when there was clearly a view of him amongst the boys that he was a pedophile calls into question the role of his supervisors."

Background

Denham began training in 1960s as a priest for the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, a two-hours drive north of Sydney. In 1997, one of his victims telephoned Broken Rites Australia, and this victim then contacted the police, who managed to get Denham convicted (regarding this one victim) in 2000.

Denham's 2000 conviction was not reported in the media. Later, Broken Rites discovered that, despite his conviction, the church was allowing Denham to continue ministering in parishes as a relieving priest. In early 2006, Broken Rites revealed this in an article on its website. This resulted in more Denham victims contacting Broken Rites and the police.

By 2009, Denham was charged with a total of 134 child-sex offences relating to 39 boys.

These were not Denham's only victims - they were merely those who signed a statement for the police.

Victims have told Broken Rites that many more people who had been harmed by Denham had not come forward. At least one is believed to have committed suicide since being abused by the priest.

The charged offences, for which Denham was jailed in 2010, occurred in various locations:

  • St Pius X Catholic High School at Adamstown in the city of Newcastle, where Denham taught (as a priest) in the late 1970s;
  • At parishes in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese; and
  • In Sydney.

The 134 charges in the 2010 case, including buggery and multiple counts of indecent assault (that is, sexual touching) , spanned from 1968 to 1986. The earliest alleged offences occurred while Denham was training to be a priest.

The first offences were against a 5-year-old in 1968 at Granville (in Sydney's west), where Denham befriended a family while still a seminarian, or trainee priest, and secretly fondled the child's penis while watching television with the family.

Nearly all his victims were from devout Catholic families, and some were "particularly targeted as especially vulnerable children" because of family circumstances and personal fragility, Judge Syme said.

School

The court was told that Father Denham started teaching (as a priest) at St Pius X Catholic High School in Newcastle in 1975. Almost immediately, he began abusing the students. He became the Head of Discipline at the school.

Denham's pursuit of young boys was so brazen that it included calling a victim's name over the school's intercom system with the chilling demand that the boy "come to the priest's private quarters".

He repeatedly anally raped some boys, either in his office or in the priests' quarters, before sending them back to class.

He performed oral sex on many victims, forced at least one victim to perform oral sex on him, caned others until they sobbed and then sexually abused them, while they were still sobbing and begging him to stop.

He talked to two seven-year-old victims about Jesus as they sat on his lap in the school office while he mauled their genitals. "The offender gave both boys a chocolate before they left," Judge Syme said.

Occasionally, he would ply boys as young as 12 with alcohol before assaulting them.

He sexually abused one drunken child as the child drove a car. He assaulted others on trips to a country presbytery (at Taree) as another priest watched. He abused others in their homes. He committed buggery on an 11-year-old in the priests' quarters at St Pius X.

Among the students of St Pius X High School, Denham's abusive behaviour was no secret. Around the playground and classrooms, students would chant a warning to others: "Bums to the wall, Denham's on the crawl."

Denham's blatant singling out of boys "contributed to a culture of fear and depravity at the school", which Judge Syme described as a brutal and frightening place during Denham's time from 1975 to 1980.

Denham bit one particularly vulnerable child on the buttocks in a school corridor, the court heard.

Denham's pursuit of young boys was so brazen it included calling a victim's name over the school's intercom system with the chilling demand that the boy "come to the priest's private quarters".

Cover-up

Allegations of serious misconduct soon got back to the then principal of St Pius, Father Thomas Brennan, but nothing was ever done.

"He (Father Brennan) at best took no action, and at worst caned the boys who complained. On one occasion, this occurred even after a complaint from parents," Judge Syme said.

In 2009, Brennan was convicted of making a false written statement to protect Denham, and placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond. He is the only senior figure within the Australian Catholic Church to be convicted for covering up abuse.

Denham himself admitted that even though some of his transfers to different parishes or schools seemed to have been prompted by allegations of sexual impropriety, he had only ever received "oblique warnings" over his conduct.

Code of silence

Justice Syme said that Denham would seek to ingratiate himself with his victims' parents to gain their trust before targeting their children

"The children were reluctant to complain of the offender's behaviour to their parents for fear of hurting them, for fear of punishment or ridicule in the school, or because they did not think they would be believed," Justice Syme said.

Jailed in 2010

On 2 July 2010, Denham was sentenced to a maximum term of 19 years and 10 months, with a non-parole period of 13 years and 10 months. Time already served in custody was taken into account.

Born in September 1942, Denham is therefore due to be in prison until his 80th birthday.

"Character" evidence

It is worth nothing a statement that was made earlier in the Denham court proceedings, on 15 December 2009, when the defence was submitting "character" evidence on behalf of Denham, seeking a lenient sentence.

The court heard a submission by one of Denham's former colleagues, Father Martin Wilson (a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart religious order). Denham had worked at the MSC order's Chevalier Resource Centre (in Sydney’s Kensington) in the late 1990s. Father Wilson said he had been aware that Denham had been accused of child-sex abuses in the 1980s, but was unaware of the details.

Father Wilson said it would "be the right thing" for the Chevalier Resource Centre to re-employ Denham after he completes his prison term. [This statement was made before the judge announced the length of the jail term, but the statement demonstrates how Denham continued to be a priest despite the church authorities being aware of his criminal behaviour.]

He pleads guilty in 2013

On 1 August 2013 in the Sydney District Court, Denham pleaded guilty to more crimes against another 18 boys in the 1970s.

During a short hearing in the Sydney Downing Centre Denham repeated the word 'guilty' 25 times to charges including buggery, forced oral sex and indecent assault involving boys aged 11, 12 and 13.

The majority of the offences occurred at St Pius X College, Adamstown.

In agreed facts (that is, accepted by the prosecution and the defence), Denham admitted telling boys "this is our little secret. Don't bother telling anyone because no one will believe you."

Jailed again in 2015

On 23 January 2015, Judge Helen Syme sentenced Denham again for the 2013 guilty plea. The judge extended Denham's jail time so that he will serve a minimum sentence in total of 19 years, five months and nine days, meaning that he will be nearly 85 when he is eligible for release in 2028.

In her sentencing remarks, Judge Helen Syme told Sydney District Court that Denham had not only seen St Pius X School at Adamstown as a kind of "paedophiliac smorgasboard" but that the principal, Father Tom Brennan, had helped Denham plan – and assisted – with the crimes.

Judge Syme said that Maitland-Newcastle Diocese priest Ron Pickin (now retired) is a person who knew of Denham’s offending.

The judge repeatedly gave scathing comment about the significant knowledge of Denham’s offending by people within the Catholic Church.

"The apparent protected status of the offender ... is a matter so obvious it cannot be ignored," she said. She said Denham’s offending and the systemic knowledge of that offending was something the likes of which was not often seen in the courts.

Judge Syme recounted horrific offences against the victims when they were young and "extremely vulnerable" because of their family circumstances.

Civil case

The Denham case is a landmark one because the church authorities had been warned, during Denham's career, that he was committing sexual crimes against children but the church authorities retained Denham in the priesthood, thereby inflicting him on additional victims. This means that Denham's victims will be able to mount a civil action against the church, demanding compensation for the victims' disrupted lives. Broken Rites knows of a number of victims who are planning such an action. Two legal firms have offered to help these victims to obtain justice.

The church ignored warnings

  • After Denham's sentencing in 2010, another family from the Newcastle area (Mary and Mike Rounce) went public, relating how they warned the church authorities in 1978 that Father Denham was a danger to children at St Pius X High School, including their son Michael. But the church ignored this complaint. See the sad story of Michael Rounce HERE.

More background

  • For the background of Father Denham and his life of crime, see another article by Broken Rites HERE.
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