The background of Father John Sidney Denham, as revealed by Broken Rites

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Broken Rites Australia helps victims of church-related

By a Broken Rites researcher

  • Article updated 1 August 2013

Broken Rites has helped to obtain justice for victims of a paedophile Catholic priest, Father John Sidney Denham.

  • In Sydney on 2 July 2010, this priest was sentenced to a long jail term after getting away with his crimes for four decades.

  • On 1 August 2013, Denham pleaded guilty to further crimes (on more victims), and he will receive even more time in jail for these crimes.

Denham committed his crimes under the noses of his superiors and colleagues, while these people looked the other way.

The church recruited Denham as a trainee priest in the late 1960s and, according to statements made in court, some of his child-sex crimes were committed during his period of training.

Denham's superiors were told in the 1970s about what he was doing to children but the complaints were ignored. He was allowed to continue as a priest and was merely transferred to new districts, thereby putting more children at risk. Twenty years later, in the 1990s, a victim prompted the police to charge Denham but, with the help of church resources, Denham managed to beat the charges.

In 2000, after police charged Denham again regarding a different set of incidents, a jury convicted him. Despite this conviction, the church continued to use him as a relieving priest in parishes at weekends.

In 2006, police investigated more complaints about Denham. Finally, on 8 July 2009, Father John Denham pleaded guilty to sexually abusing dozens of boys during the 1970s and 80s.

On 2 July 2010, Denham was sentenced to a total of 19 years and 10 months in jail (with parole possible after 13 years and 10 months). This will make him eligible for release from prison in June 2022, taking into account time already served in custody during his court proceedings.

The case against Denham is one of several engulfing the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, which has been forced to publicly apologise for a string of child-sex cases.

Denham's beginnings

Broken Rites has ascertained that Denham (born on 8 September 1942) was recruited and trained for the Newcastle-Maitland Diocese, north of Sydney. (The Catholic Church in New South Wales is divided into eleven dioceses.)

In the final stage of his training, he was a deacon in the Mayfield parish in 1972. He moved to the Singleton parish (St Patrick's) in 1973.

The school building with bedrooms for six priests

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.

Denham in parishes in the 1980s

In 1980, following the 1979 complaint, 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. Parents were unaware of his record at St Pius Catholic High School. Thus, the church was putting more children in danger.

During this parish work, he committed more offences, which were included in his court charges in 2009.

Denham at a Sydney school

In 1987, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese "solved" its Denham problem by arranging to transfer him "on loan" 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. During his time at Waverley CBC, according to police, Denham was charged with "as a teacher, having intercourse with a male aged 10 to 18 years". However, helped by church lawyers, Denham successfully contested the charges in court.

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.

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.

Tim then contacted an appropriate police unit, where he made a signed statement. Tim's complaint was investigated by a senior Newcastle detective, Mark Dixon. While investigating Tim's complaint, the police learned about the similar charges that Denham had beaten relating to Waverley Christian Brothers College.

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

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.

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. So, if Denham was doing any casual or relieving work as a priest, 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 in the 2000 court case) 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.

On 10 June 2006 the Newcastle Herald published an article about Denham, becoming the first newspaper to mention his 2000 conviction. The Herald article mentioned Broken Rites.

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.

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.]

Convictions in 2010 and 2013

For details of John Denham's convictions in 2010 and 2013, see another Broken Rites article here.

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, 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.

Here are more articles from Broken Rites indicating that the church authorities were aware of what Denham and other offenders were doing to children in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese: