Father John Denham's life of crime (while church leaders covered up for him): Background article

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated in 2021 

Broken Rites has researched the cover-up of one of Australia's most notorious Catholic priests, Father John Sidney Denham. Father Denham's superiors and colleagues knew about his child-sex crimes but this information was concealed from the police. Finally, some of his victims gradually began to contact the police. As a result, Denham has been convicted in court several times since 2000. He has been in jail since 2008, and his jail time has been increased as more of his victims gradually contacted the police. In 2019, Denham (aged 76) was sentenced to additional jail time for his 59th victim.

The case of Victim #59 is reported towards the end of this article but, first, we start with our research about Denham's background.

Some background

Broken Rites began hearing about Father John Denham in the late 1990s when we were contacted by one of his victims ("Tim") and later by other victims. Therefore, Broken Rites began researching Denham in church publications. We ascertained that Denham (born on 8 September 1942) was recruited in the 1960s as a trainee priest for the Newcastle-Maitland Diocese, north of Sydney. As a trainee and later as a priest, he officially belonged to this diocese, and it is usual for diocesan priests to spend their whole career in one diocese. (The Catholic Church in the state of New South Wales is divided into eleven dioceses.)

As a trainee priest, Denham was a danger to children from Day One. According to statements that were eventually made in court, some of Denham's child-sex crimes were committed during his period of training.

Broken Rites searched through the annual printed editions of the Australian Catholic Directory to trace Denham's movements. For example, we ascertained that, in the final stage of his training, he was a deacon (an assistant to other priests) in the Mayfield parish in 1972. After being ordained, he moved to the Singleton parish (St Patrick's) in 1973.

According to Denham's victims, his superiors knew in the 1970s about the offences he was committing against children but this information did not reach the police. The church allowed Denham to continue as a priest and merely transferred him to new districts, thereby putting more children at risk.

The school building with bedrooms for six priests

Broken Rites ascertained that in 1973 Father Denham joined the staff of St Pius X College (also known as St Pius X Catholic High School) at Adamstown, Newcastle. This was then a boys-only school. Many of the victims in the Denham court charges in 2009 were students at this school.

In the 1979 Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy, six priests (including Father Denham) were listed as teaching — and living — on this school's premises.

Yes, not just one priest . . . but SIX of them. A bedroom for even just one priest should have raised some eyebrows.

The priests had bedrooms in the same building as the classrooms, as we will explain later in this article.

The story of Tim

At St Pius X Catholic High School, Father Denham became well known for his habit of touching boys indecently. Broken Rites has interviewed one such pupil — "Tim" (not his real name) — who was at this school in 1978-9. By chance, in October 1979, Tim's mother overheard 14-year-old Tim telling another boy that it was "not safe to be with Father Denham".

After quizzing Tim, the mother went to see the school administration, who promised to "deal with" Denham. However, Denham continued working at the school that year. Therefore, Tim's mother decided to remove her son from the school after the end of 1979. In 1980 Tim transferred to a government high school, which he found to be educationally excellent. Meanwhile, the church culture prevented Denham's offences from being reported to the police.

Denham in parishes in the 1980s

In 1980, following the 1979 complaint by Tim's mother, the diocese transferred Denham away from St Pius X Catholic High School to work as an assistant priest in parishes. First, he worked at the Charlestown parish (in the Newcastle urban area). In 1981 he was transferred to a parish ("Our Lady of the Rosary") in Taree (a coastal town, north of Newcastle), where he stayed for four years.

In these parishes, Denham worked with altar boys as well as school boys. The church authorities kept quiet about Denham's record at St Pius Catholic High School. Thus, the church was putting more children in danger.

During this parish work, he committed more offences and again, the church authorities (as usual) concealed these crimes from the police. Eventually, at least one Denham victim from this period reported Denham's crimes to the police (instead of merely to the church authorities). Thus, police were accumulating information about Denham, and some of Denham's offences from this period were were included in his court charges in 2009.

Denham at a Sydney school

In 1986, when Denham's crimes were still being hidden by the church, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese "solved" its Denham problem by arranging to transfer him to work as a "chaplain" at Waverley College (a Christian Brothers secondary school), in Waverley, in Sydney's east. Research by Broken Rites indicates that, throughout the next seven years, "Reverend John Denham" continued to be listed in the annual Australian Catholic directories as belonging to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, although working at Waverley College.Thus, the church authorities were putting more children at risk.

One of Denham's victims at Waverley College eventually managed to get Denham convicted for abusing this boy at Waverley College.

Denham at a resource centre

In 1994 Denham was accepted for a role at the Chevalier Resource Centre, a theological library located in the grounds of the Sacred Heart Monastery (owned by a religious order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart) in the eastern Sydney suburb of Kensington. This role involved working on church archives.

Broken Rites found that, from 1995 onwards, after he joined the Chevalier Resource Centre, Denham was still listed in the annual Australian Catholic directories as "Reverend John Denham, on leave from the Maitland-Newcastle diocese". His forwarding address was care of the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan office.

Convicted in 2000

In 1997, "Tim" (the above-mentioned victim who had been a pupil St Pius X Catholic High School 18 years earlier) phoned Broken Rites. Tim (then aged 32) was now a father himself, and he was keen to protect all children from pedophiles.

After speaking with Broken Rites, Tim contacted an appropriate police unit, where he made a signed statement. Tim's complaint was investigated by a senior Newcastle detective, Mark Dixon.

Denham was charged regarding Tim's complaint and underwent committal proceedings in a magistrate's court in 1999. The magistrate ordered Denham to stand trial before a judge in the New South Wales District Court. Denham's solicitor was prominent Sydney lawyer John Marsden.

Eventually, in the District Court at Sydney's Downing Centre in 2000, a jury convicted Father Denham on two incidents of indecent assault against Tim (case number 99111180). Denham, then aged in his late fifties, was given a two-years jail sentence, which was suspended.

Still "reverend" after his conviction

Unfortunately, there was no media coverage of Denham's 2000 conviction. Therefore, the New South Wales Catholic community in general was not aware of the conviction.

A year later, despite this conviction, "Reverend John Denham" was still listed as a priest in the 2001 edition of the Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy. The directory said he was a priest "on leave from the Maitland diocese", with a Post Office box at Oatley in Sydney's south, but it did not say what his Sydney activities were.

Because of the lack of media exposure, it was possible for the church authorities to use Father Denham as a relieving priest in parishes at weekends - and no "alarm bells" would ring to warn parents and children about Denham's past.

In 2005, when Denham was aged about 62, Broken Rites ascertained that he was then working on week-days in the Sydney library of a religious order of priests. But what was he doing at weekends, when there was often a need for a relieving priest to do church services?

Despite the lack of media coverage, Broken Rites still received occasional phone calls or emails from former students or parishioners inquiring about Denham.

In November 2005, Tim (the victim from St Pius X Catholic High School) phoned Broken Rites again. He said he had learned that Denham was currently in Sydney's "supply" pool of priests who were available to do casual work as a relieving priest at weekends. Tim contacted the church's Professional Standards office in Sydney and its counterpart in Newcastle, and both these offices confirmed that Denham was working in the "supply pool". Tim told Broken Rites: "This is an alarming situation."

Broken Rites article

In early 2006 Broken Rites published an article on its website about Denham's 2000 conviction and about the school with bedrooms for six priests. A journalist from the Newcastle Herald, Joanne McCarthy, noticed the Broken Rites article and did some more research. On 10 June 2006 the Newcastle Herald published an article (by Joanne McCarthy) about Denham, thus becoming the first newspaper to mention his 2000 conviction. The Newcastle Herald article mentioned Broken Rites.

After the Newcastle Herald article, Tim told Broken Rites: "Maybe, after this exposure, through Broken Rites and the Newcastle Herald, the church will find it harder to use Denham as a relieving priest. They have been getting away with this for too long."

The Newcastle Herald article prompted some of Denham's victims to read about him on the Broken Rites website and/or to contact the police. Joanne McCarthy continued researching Denham (and other cases of church-cover-up) and she began receiving information from her readers, which resulted in further Newcastle Herald articles.

In 2006 another informant spoke to Broken Rites about Denham's behaviour at the Taree parish in the mid-1980s, alleging that Denham used to show "sexy" videos and literature to young altar boys in the Taree presbytery.

Another police investigation

Meanwhile, in 2005, another victim of Denham contacted the police. A Newcastle detective, who did not know about Denham's 2000 conviction, checked the archives but could not find any conviction involving Denham.

The detective began contacting some former students from the St Pius X Catholic High School rolls and he happened to phone "Tim". When Tim told him about the 2000 conviction, the detective was surprised but he eventually unearthed it in the archives. Police believe that someone had filed the record of the 2000 conviction where it would be difficult to find.

In 2008, police started another investigation of Denham and gathered written statements from victims. Later that year, he was charged with multiple offences. He pleaded guilty in court in July 2009.

More about the school with six bedrooms

Several former students of St Pius X Catholic High School contacted Broken Rites in 2006, telling us more about the layout of the school in Denham's time.

One former student ("Syd") told Broken Rites: "St Pius X College was fundamentally an old factory that had been converted into a secondary school. Some new buildings had been added.

"The main building was long and narrow, with classrooms down the western side and with a hall, science labs and offices down the eastern side. The northern end was mostly occupied by the priests' living quarters, comprising a series of bedrooms, with shared living areas at the furthest end.

"In other words, the priests' quarters and the classrooms were on the same floor. Hence, when a boy was sent to the priests' quarters, it was as simple as walking from one room to another room. When I was a student there in the 1970s, it was not unusual for a boy to be sent or taken to the priests' living quarters.

"As well as his bedroom in the old building, Denham also had an office in another building. Boys also had occasion to go — or to be sent to — to Denham's office.

"Other members of the clergy must have known that Denham was up to mischief at this school but they turned a blind eye to it and allowed him to continue doing it.

"One of Denham's friends in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in the 1970s was a younger priest who has since gone on to become one of Australia's most prominent Catholic clerics. This cleric must have known something."

Another ex-pupil of Denham at St Pius X ("Jerry") told Broken Rites in March 2006 that he agreed with Syd's description of the school layout.

Jerry said: "In the main building, you could go from the classrooms area to the priests' living quarters by just going through a door. I never knew this door to be locked.

"A priest might simply say 'come with me' and you would be led through this door."

Jerry added: "Yes, Denham targeted me. I was frightened and disorientated. It's something that you think is only happening to you because of who you are and the trouble you are in. You feel, or are made to feel, that it's your doing and has to be done to avoid big trouble."

However, Jerry says that he has not reported Denham to the police and says he probably will not get around to doing so now because he is pre-occupied with his young family. Jerry said he felt slightly guilty about leaving it to people like Tim to bring Denham to justice.

[Tim, Syd and Jerry do not know each other because they were in different years.]

Jailed in 2010 and 2015

For details of John Denham's court cases (resulting in his jailing in 2010 and 2015), see another Broken Rites article HERE.

In court again in 2018 and 2019

On 11 October 2018, John Sidney Denham (aged 77) was found guilty of four offences against a young boy at Taree NSW in the late 1970s after a judge-alone trial (that is, no jury). The charges included one count of buggery and three counts of indecent assault.

A pre-sentence hearing for Denham's Taree crimes was held in Sydney in February 2019. Denham appeared by video-link from his jail. This pre-sentence hearing received final submissions from the prosecutor and the defence lawyer about the contents of the evidence and about what kind of sentence should be imposed.

The court heard details how Denham planned to sexually abuse the young boy from a very devout Catholic family by asking the child to stay behind after school "under the guise of an initiation process to be a new altar boy". The boy was raped on a later occasion after Denham called the child from the playground, "grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the presbytery under the pretext the victim had been bad and had to be punished". Denham pushed the boy onto a desk, held him by the neck against the desktop and raped him, despite the boy screaming and begging him to stop because of the pain, the court.was told.

The victim, who was not in court, prepared a victim impact statement that was read by Judge Phillip Mahony.

Sentenced again, May 2019

At a sentence hearing on 30 May 2019, Judge Mahony said Denham "has not recognised the pain and suffering caused to the victim of these offences at all".

Judge Mahony said Denham's sexual assault of the boy involved a level of planning against a vulnerable child where there was a significant age, size and power imbalance. Denham was 40 at the time of the attack and was in charge of a parish.

"The offender had isolated the victim in the playground, grabbed him and forcibly took him to the presbytery, under the pretence that the victim was in trouble," Judge Mahony said.

"It was clear from the victim's evidence that the victim was not consenting and that he was suffering intense pain, which the offender disregarded. It is clear that he suffered an injury to his anus and was bleeding as a result of the assault."

The impact on the victim's life was profound, the judge said. The victim's impact statement described "the real impact upon a happy childhood, occasioned by such a terrifying criminal event which affected every aspect of the victim's life thereafter," Judge Mahony said.

"Particularly relevant was the threats made to the victim that he would be taken away from his family, that he would go to hell, and that his family would be driven out of the church. The latter threat was particularly telling, given that the victim's mother was a devout Catholic.

"The [impact] statement outlines the changes undergone by the victim, his spiral into alcohol and drug abuse as a very young person, and the psychological impact it has had on all of his relationships throughout his adult life."

Judge Mahony sentenced John Sidney Denham to a maximum 13 years jail, with a non-parole period of seven years and six months. But because Denham was already in jail until at least January, 2028, and the crimes against his 59th victim occurred in the same period he committed other offences, Denham will spend at least another 18 months in jail for the latest convictions

With good behavior in jail, his earliest possible release date is July, 2029, with his full sentence not ending until January, 2035.