How the paedophile Father Denis McAlinden was inflicted on Australian children

By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 13 September 2020

Research by Broken Rites has revealed that the Catholic Church knowingly harboured the paedophile priest Father Denis McAlinden for 40 years, thus inflicting him on young girls in parishes around Australia and also overseas. The church has been paying small out-of-court settlements to some of McAlinden's victims, thus avoiding a larger court-based settlement. In November 2016, two sisters began to sue the Catholic Church in the New South Wales Supreme Court for a proper amount to settle their abuse by McAlinden. At the last moment, the church agreed to pay these two women a confidential out-of-court financial settlement, thus preventing the church's other victims from knowing the size of a court-related settlement. This Broken Rites article explains the background about Fr Denis McAlinden and the church's cover-up.

Broken Rites began researching McAlinden (and the church's cover-up) in 1994. This research eventually helped to bring about the New South Wales government's decision to establish a Special Commission of Inquiry in 2013 to investigate how church officials and police had handled allegations of child-sex crimes by Father McAlinden (and another priest) in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, north of Sydney.

Father McAlinden belonged to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese from 1949 onwards. From Day One, he was a danger to young schoolgirls but, for the next four decades, the church authorities knowingly inflicted him on more and more victims.

Beginning in 1994, Broken Rites has been contacted by women who were sexually abused by McAlinden when they were children.

Broken Rites research has ascertained that:

  • For years, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese transferred McAlinden backwards and forwards between New South Wales and Western Australia after he abused children in those states.
  • The Maitland-Newcastle diocese also allowed him to work in Papua New Guinea for several years, in the middle of his career, thus putting PNG children in danger.
  • The Maitland-Newcastle diocese also allowed him to spend a year doing parish work in New Zealand, thus protecting him from exposure in Australia. Again, he offended in New Zealand.
  • Towards the end of his career, McAlinden also went to the Philippines to work as a priest there, although officially he still belonged to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.
  • During McAlinden's career, he was protected by each of the three bishops who administered the Maitland-Newcastle diocese during that time: Edmund Gleeson (to 1956), John Toohey (1956-75) and Leo Clarke (1976-95).
  • When the Maitland-Newcastle diocese allowed McAlinden to transfer from state to state, and from country to country, it neglected to warn his new parishioners that he was a danger to children. Thus, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese inflicted him on new victims, thousands of kilometres away. This therefore leaves the Maitland-Newcastle with a legal liability. A Papua New Guinea diocese and a New Zealand diocese also share this culpability.
  • The Catholic culture discouraged victims from reporting McAlnden's crimes (and certainly not to the police). Thus, the church authorities were able to keep the information in-house, thereby inflicting McAlinden on more children.
  • In 1991, one of McAlinden's West Australian victims (let's call her "Susan" — not her real name) wisely contacted the W.A. police (more about Susan later in this article). In a W.A. court in 1992, McAlinden managed to defeat Susan's charges but church authorities in New South Wales feared that other McAlinden victims in New South Wales might contact the NSW police, thereby causing bad publicity for the church.
  • During the remainder of the 1990s, the church authorities successfully kept McAlinden beyond the reach of the Australian police until he died in Western Australia in 2005.

How the church recruited Father McAlinden

Broken Rites has ascertained that Fr Denis McAlinden was born in Ireland on 24 January 1922 — the fourth child in a family of seven (he had three brothers and three sisters).

In Ireland it was common for boys to drift into full-time Catholicism as a career. At the age of 12, Denis McAlinden entered a Catholic "juniorate" — a school for boys who "aspired" to become priests. This juniorate was run by priests of the Redemptorist Order. After completing this schooling, young Denis was recruited to a Redemptorist seminary, where he trained for the priesthood. He was ordained as a priest in Ireland in 1949.

Documents tendered to the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry in 2013  reveal that, in 1949, the Redemptorist authorities  in Ireland wanted to get rid of McAlinden - and the Maitland diocese in Australia seemed to be a suitable dumping ground.

Conveniently, Maitland's Bishop Edmund  Gleeson was himself a former member of the Redemptorist order.

So, in 1949, the head of the Redemptorists in Limerick (Father John Treacy), wrote to Maitland's Bishop  Gleeson, asking if "there be any possibility of taking one of our students".

Fr Tracey did not specifically mention sexual crimes, and said merely that McAlinden was a "difficult" person.  Fr Tracey wrote: "You will very justly say then: 'What is wrong with him, so why do you not wish to retain him? Well, his difficulty is community life . . . he is a bit hard to get on with in ordinary life... His temper is difficult."

Fr Tracey said that this bad temper made McAlinden unsuitable for living in a religious order such as the Redemptorists and claimed that McAlinden would be better suited for working in a regional diocese.

In a subsequent letter, Fr Tracey thanked Bishop Gleeson for accepting McAlinden.

Thus, later in 1949, aged 26, McAlinden arrived in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. He was one of a significant number of Irish priests who surfaced, often unaccountably, in Australia around that time. Too often, these priests from Ireland molested children in Australia.

McAlinden's crimes begin

Soon after McAlinden's arrival in Maitland-Newcastle in 1949, talk started about him touching young girls. By the early 1950s, his crimes included rape, but the church's "holy" status intimidated his victims into silence.

Broken Rites has checked McAlinden's parish appointments in the annual editions of the Australian Catholic directories. In the 1960s, his parishes in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese included Singleton, Mussellbrook, Murrurindi and Greta.

The directories indicate that in 1969 he was transferred on loan from the Maitland diocese to a diocese (called Mendi) in Papua New Guinea, where he spent about four years.

By 1974, he had been brought back to Maitland diocese to become the Parish Priest (that is, in charge) at the Kendall parish (a coastal town, north of Newcastle). But, extraordinarily, within a couple of years, he was removed from this position.

In a letter dated 17 MAY 1976, the Maitland diocese's vicar-general (deputy bishop) Monsignor Patrick Cotter told Bishop Leo Clarke: "Fr Mac has an inclination to interfere ... with young girls - aged perhaps 7 to 12 or so ... I had a long session with Fr Mac at the presbytery. Slowly, very slowly, he admitted some indiscretions but then agreed that it was a condition that had been with him for many years." (Broken Rites possesses a copy of this letter.)

The Maitland-Newcastle diocese allowed McAlinden to stay in the ministry as a relieving priest, filling in for other priests who were away. Broken Rites has ascertained that, by the late 1970s, the diocese was listing him among its "supplementary" priests, doing "relief duties" at its Nelson Bay parish (north of Newcastle).

Western Australia

Broken Rites has ascertained that in 1980 the Maitland diocese arranged for McAlinden to go out of sight — to minister in a remote part of Western Australia, at Wickham, 1500 kilometres north of Perth (in the Pilbara mining region, between Perth and Broome). Wickham parish is administered by the Geraldton Catholic diocese.

This strange transfer involved a deal between the bishop's office in Maitland and the bishop's office in Geraldton. The Catholics of Maitland-Newcastle were not told why McAlinden was leaving that diocese, and the Catholics of the Geraldton diocese were not told why this priest was arriving.

In Wickham, McAlinden was the Parish Priest in charge of "Our Lady of the Pilbara". He remained there until late 1983. In Wickham, McAlinden molested young girls — including the above-mentioned "Susan". Susan has told Broken Rites that in 1982, when she was aged ten, McAlinden "befriended" her parents, visiting them about three times a week. On Saturdays, "Father Mac" would get Susan to help him in the presbytery (e.g., doing photocopies of Mass sheets, Susan says that it was on occasions such as this that he mauled her genital area — that is, the crime of indecent assault.

Susan says she could not tell her parents about these assaults because "I didn't think my parents would believe me, Father Mac being so close to the family and also being a priest. I was always taught to trust and respect a priest."

(More about Susan later in this article.)

Significantly, Broken Rites has found that McAlinden was not Wickham's only paedophile priest. McAlinden's predecessor there had been Father Adrian van Klooster, who was eventually jailed for child-sex crimes.

New Zealand

Broken Rites has found that throughout the 1980s, according to the annual Australian Catholic Directory, McAlinden was listed as belonging to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese but he was not always listed in one of this region's parishes.

Broken Rites has discovered that in 1984 McAlinden was in New Zealand, "on loan" to the Diocese of Hamilton, situated in the North Island, where he did "supply" (relieving work) in rural parishes. This kind of transfer involved an arrangement between the Maitland-Newcastle diocese and its New Zealand counterpart. Victims of McAlinden in New Zealand can take civil legal action against the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle (for turning McAlinden loose in New Zealand), as well as against the Hamilton Diocese (for accepting a problem priest from Australia).

In New South Wales again

McAlinden was back in Maitland-Newcastle in the mid-1980s but the Australian Catholic Directory in the late 1980s gave McAlinden's address merely as care of the bishop's office in Maitland.

Broken Rites has learned that, in fact, McAlinden was ministering at the Merriwa parish from late 1984 until early 1988. Merriwa is in the north-west of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, about as far away as he could be sent in this diocese. McAlinden continued to offend while at Merriwa.

Mike Stanwell, principal of a small Catholic school at Merriwa, became concerned about reports from young children who had been in the adjoining church with Father McAlinden. Mr Stanwell says there were consistent stories of what the priest did when he sat children on his lap. Mr Stanwell went to see Bishop Leo Clarke, who said he would send McAlinden away. McAlinden was moved to a parish closer to Newcastle. After receiving further reports about the priest and a child, Mr Stanwell again went to see Bishop Leo Clarke.

By early 1988, Bishop Clarke was considering whether McAlindan could go on loan to to some other diocese. In a letter (dated 1 February 1988), Clarke told a bishop in Papua New Guinea:

  • "In your letter you asked for some comment on his character. So in all honesty I must tell you the following in strict confidence. Towards the end of last year, allegations were made by some parents and the head teacher that Father's [i.e. McAlinden's] behaviour with small girls was worrying them because of his imprudent relationship...

    "In view of the allegations, in his [McAlinden's] own opinion it would be unwise for him to continue to working in this diocese [Maitland-Newcastle]. It would be a charity for some bishop to take him on, knowing the problems that have arisen."

Charged in Western Australia

Broken Rites has ascertained that in 1988, the church authorities arranged to evacuate McAlinden to do a second stint in Western Australia, this time in the Bunbury diocese (south of Perth), where he was listed as the Parish Priest in charge of St Bernard's parish at Kojunup until 1992.

In 1991, while McAlinden was at Kojunup, one of his victims from his previous West Australian parish (the above-mentioned "Susan", from the Wickham parish) finally decided to bring McAlinden to justice by talking to detectives in the child-abuse unit of the the W.A. Police. By 1991, Susan was 19 years of age, married with two children (one aged 30 months and one aged nine months). Now feeling independent from her parents, she told her mother about the 1982 assaults. Her mother complained to the bishop's office but Susan realised that it would be a smarter idea to have a chat with police detectives, which she did. Susan made a signed, sworn police statement. The police then arrested McAlinden at Kojunup. (Bishops do not arrest or charge paedophile priests.)

In a W.A. magistrates court, on 4 March 1992, the police charged McAlinden (then aged 69) with three incidents of indecent dealing with a child. McAlinden contested the charges, which went to a jury trial in the Perth District Court in July 1992. Broken Rites has examined the transcript of the trial, amounting to 277 pages.

The prosecutor told the court that another girl ("Maria") was present during two of these three incidents, and that Maria, too, was indecently touched by McAlinden. Maria gave evidence in court, describing how McAlinden touched Maria on the genital area. However, although she gave this evidence in support of Susan's complaint, Maria did not want to press charges of her own against McAlinden because her family would be upset is she took such action against a Catholic priest.

Thus, Susan was left as the only complainant and the jury had to decide how harshly, or leniently, it should treat the priest in view of the fact that there was one complainant. The jury returned a verdict of "Not Guilty".

By 1992, Susan and Maria had both left Wickham, each of them moving to a different part of Australia. Susan and Maria then lost contact with each other but Broken Rites eventually managed to interview each of them.

Broken Rites is still in contact with both Susan and Maria.

The cover-up after 1992

Until 1992, church leaders had presumed that McAlinden (like other sexually abusive priests) was safe from criminal prosecution (and therefore the church was safe from bad publicity). However, the 1992 West Australian court case prompted New South Wales church authorities to go into "damage control" regarding McAlinden. They tried to persuade McAlinden to quietly leave Australia, out of the reach of Australian police, so as to protect the public image of the church.

In 1993, Bishop Leo Clarke removed McAlinden from working in parishes within the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, but this ban applied only to this diocese.

According to Broken Rites research, McAlinden continued to be listed in each of the annual Australian Catholic directories from 1994 to 1998 as still belonging (officially) to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, but was listed as "on leave" from parish duties in this diocese. His forwarding address was care of the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan office.

So what was McAlinden actually doing during his "leave"? Even after 1993, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese continued paying a priestly stipend to him. Therefore, after 1993, Father McAlinden was living a "nomad" type of life, sometimes operating as a priest in various parts of the world (but not, of course, in Maitland-Newcastle).

For example, McAlinden has stated in a letter that his priestly work during his leave (in the mid-1990s) included working as a Catholic chaplain in the Philippines. There (in the San Pablo diocese) he was responsible to "over 7500 pupils, ranging from kindergarten through primary, secondary, teachers college, university and including medical college." And, he says, he dealt with "thousands" of children in the Confessional (where children were required to reveal their "sins" to the priest).

Meanwhile, McAlinden's victims in Australia were not aware that he was still allowed to operate as a priest outside Australia.

Broken Rites and the media

McAlinden's name did not come to public notice until after the Broken Rites website in 2007 published an article about how the Maitland-Newcastle diocese concealed the crimes of Father Vincent Gerard Ryan. The Newcastle Herald daily newspaper immediately publicised the Broken Rites story about Vincent Ryan, which in turn prompted Herald readers to contact the newspaper about Vincent Ryan and other clergy, including Denis McAlinden.

Beginning on 29 September 2007, the Newcastle Herald published a series of articles about Denis McAlinden, written by staff journalist Joanne McCarthy with help from Broken Rites. Within a few weeks after the first McAlinden article, the Herald became aware of at least 20 victims of McAlinden in New South Wales.

As well as the victims who contacted Broken Rites or the Newcastle Herald, some other victims merely contacted the Maitland-Newcastle diocese (unfortunately, this is merely like a burglary victim reporting the burglary to the Burglars' Association).

The church is evasive at first

When preparing its first article about McAlinden in September 2007, the Newcastle Herald contacted the office of Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone but he declined to answer questions about the movements of Father McAlinden.

The Herald also contacted the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide. Wilson was originally a priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese and became the diocese's vicar-general (chief administrator). Wilson confirmed to the Herald in late September 2007 that he had been involved with the Father McAlinden matter in the 1980s but declined to give details. A week later, in early October 2007 (after the Herald had begun its McAlinden articles), Archbishop Wilson confirmed in a statement to the Herald that he was aware in 1985 of concerns about Father McAlinden. In 1985, Father Wilson travelled to a Maitland-Newcastle parish at the request Bishop Leo Clarke to "talk to the school authorities after they raised concerns about Father McAlinden".

The Herald sought to interview Archbishop Wilson in person in 2007 about how the church handled the Father McAlinden case but a spokeswoman for Wilson said he was "too busy" to be interviewed. "That's all we really want to say at this stage," the spokeswoman said. She referred any questions to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

The church apologises

Publication of the Herald's first McAlinden article on Saturday 29 September 2007 caused a public-relations disaster for the church hierarchy. Six days later, on Friday 5 October 2007, the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese was forced to admit publicly (but reluctantly) that Father McAlinden had been a serial child-molester and that the church authorities had known about his offences for decades. The diocese issued a statement, acknowledging the victims of McAlinden and apologising for his actions and "any instances of abuse by church personnel of people in its care".

The diocese confirmed that McAlinden had many victims, but it said that most were not known to the church.

This indicates that the diocese never bothered to look for McAlinden's victims. And it never helped any victims to arrange a chat with the child-abuse detectives of the New South Wales Police.

Protecting the church's image

The Newcastle Herald has continued to publish allegations that the Catholic Church covered up the McAlinden affair. On 28 April 2010, the Herald referred to documents in which Australian Catholic Church authorities told Father Denis McAlinden that his "good name will be protected" by the church's "confidential process".

These documents, the Herald said, show that two bishops (Leo Clarke and Michael Malone) and a future archbishop (Philip Wilson) were involved in managing the Father McAlinden problem.

Bishop Leo Clarke was in charge of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese until 1995, when he was succeeded by Bishop Michael Malone.

Father Philip Wilson was then the secretary of the diocese, and his duties included assisting the bishop in the 1980s and 1990s in matters regarding Father Denis McAlinden.

In 2001 Wilson became the archbishop of Adelaide in South Australia. He also became the chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. And he has been a member of the church's National Committee on Professional Standards, the group which supervises the management of the Catholic Church's sex-abuse issue throughout Australia.

A one-way plane ticket

On 8 October 2011 the Newcastle Herald reported that, after Father McAlinden successfully evaded police charges in Western Australia in 1992, Australian church authorities considered giving him a "one-way ticket to England" in order to protect the church from bad publicity in Australia.

Documents obtained by the Newcastle Herald and handed to police show that in October 1995 (when McAlinden was in Western Australia) senior Australian church officials had roles in an attempted "speedy" secret defrocking of McAlinden as police investigated another Maitland-Newcastle diocesan paedophile priest, Fr Vincent Ryan.

Broken Rites Australia possesses a copy of these same documents.

One document (a letter from Bishop Leo Clarke to McAlinden, dated 19 October 1995) urged McAlinden to co-operate with the church's plan to laicise (that is, defrock) him. Clarke said this laicisation would be "for the good of the church" (that is, to protect the church's public image).

Clarke's letter assured McAlinden that "your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of the process". [Broken Rites takes this to mean that McAlinden's record in New South Wales would not become public or, if it did, the media would describe McAlinden as a "former" priest.]

Clarke's letter also indicates that the church authorities were seeking to hide McAlinden from the New South Wales Police. Clarke wrote: "A speedy resolution of this whole matter will be in your own good interests as I have it on very good authority that some people are threatening seriously to take this whole matter to the police."

Other documents seen by the Herald show that a Newcastle region family told a bishop in the early 1950s that McAlinden had sexually assaulted their primary school-aged daughter three times. The assaults occurred only four years after he arrived in Maitland-Newcastle diocese from Ireland in 1949, aged 26.

The Herald said that a warrant was issued for McAlinden's arrest in 1999 when the woman reported the sexual assaults to police, who were advised by the church that the priest was not in Australia. Maitland-Newcastle diocese paid the woman more than $130,000 in compensation in 2002. Another McAlinden victim was paid compensation the following year.

In October 2005, church authorities finally revealed McAlinden's address. A senior Maitland-Newcastle diocese representative phoned Newcastle police to advise that Father McAlinden was dying of cancer in a Catholic Church-run aged-care centre at Subiaco, Western Australia. WA police visited the priest and confirmed he was too ill to be extradited to NSW. He died one month later and is buried in Perth.

Civil action against the church

As McAlinden is dead, it is no longer possible for the police to charge him in the criminal courts. The best way for McAlinden victims to obtain justice now is by demanding substantial compensation from the Maitland-Newcastle diocese through a solicitor but the solicitor must be one who has had previous experience in tackling the Catholic Church on behalf of victims.

In 2016, two sisters filed a civil law suit in the New South Wales Supreme Court for abuse which (they said) was inflicted on them by McAlinden in NSW when they were young girls in the 1970s and 1980s. This law suit was aimed at the estate of the late Maitland-Newcastle bishop Leo Clarke and the trustees of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

In their lawsuit, the sisters said the church knew about the paedophile activities of Father Denis McAlinden long before the two girls were abused. They said that, prior to their being abused, complaints had been made over the years about McAlinden's abuse of other children, but the church took no action against him.

The case came before the NSW Supreme Court case on 21 November 2016 but, the next day, the judge was told that the parties have reached a confidential settlement.

The agreement prevented the church's cover-up from being publicly aired in the court and in the media.

The judge agreed to the church's request that the amount of the settlement be recorded in a sealed envelope on the court file and not be opened without the permission of a judge.

[The church's aim was to discourage other church-victims from taking Supreme Court action. The church prefers it when victims don't file a law suit in the Supreme Court.}

Summing up

Broken Rites is proud of having helped to expose the Catholic Church's cover-up of Father Denis McAlinden.

There is still more research that can be done on the Denis McAlinden case. Father McAlinden talked in Maitland-Newcastle about working in Aboriginal communities in Western Australia. This is an alarming issue which would need to be investigated in Western Australia.

The Broken Rites exposure of Denis McAlinden was helped by another Broken Rites article, which exposed the church's cover-up of Father Vincent Ryan. To read about the Vince Ryan cover-up, click HERE.