Former Maitland school principal Mike Stanwell. Mike Stanwell has spent almost 30 years doggedly fighting to expose the tragedy of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.
Largely, his efforts have fallen on deaf ears. But with calls for a national royal commission into abuse of children in the care of the Catholic Church, the former Maitland school principal has once again decided to take a stand.
“The Catholic Church is never going to be credible in Australia until there is an open, transparent look at what has gone on,” Mr Stanwell said.
“And there needs to be a royal commission to make people come out, tell the truth and take a stance.”
The Australian Lawyers Alliance has called for a royal commission following an ABC Four Corners report on the issue.
The alliance states that too many lives have been lost or irreparably damaged by paedophile Catholic priests and the church has been more concerned about protecting its own.
To that, Mr Stanwell – a self-described casualty of the abuse – agrees with all his heart.
In 1986, aged 30, Mr Stanwell took on the role of principal at St Joseph’s Primary School, Merriwa.
Denis McAlinden – later found to be a notorious paedophile – was the parish priest.
During this time Mr Stanwell witnessed McAlinden touching a little girl in church while she was sitting on his knee.
Mr Stanwell took his concerns to Bishop Leo Clarke, despite warnings from friends he could lose his job.
“We used to have morning assemblies and I told them [the children] that they weren’t to go to down to the church and they weren’t to approach Father McAlinden in the playground,” Mr Stanwell said.
When Mr Stanwell heard of another incident of abuse by McAlinden, he further pursued his concerns.
“I knew I was on the right track to start with so I went straight back down to see the bishop.”
Mr Stanwell said other principals across the diocese urged him to push
for the issue to be aired in State Parliament.
“I wasn’t sure what to do, so I went and spoke to the [the church] and I told [them] what had happened.”
Mr Stanwell said he was told it was better “not to bring scandal on the church”.
“[The church] was aware of McAlinden’s instances in the past which, I suppose, was surprising to me and if they weren’t going to do something about it then I was really getting a bit worried about it at this stage,” he said. “Because I had been and spoken to the church, I left it at that.
“If [it] had been suggested to me that I could have taken it to the police, I would have. I thought I was going about it the right way.”
Eventually McAlinden was moved from Merriwa to another parish in Newcastle, but he was not defrocked until 1995.
During this time he continued to work throughout the diocese and in parishes in Western Australia and Papua New Guinea.
He was charged with offences in WA but was too ill to be extradited to NSW. He died in 2005.
Mr Stanwell also moved on from Merriwa, but his battle with the Catholic Church was to worsen.
“And it was then I realised that while there was paedophilia in the church, the church would cover it up,” he said.
Mr Stanwell’s experiences culminated in him preparing a 200-page document, with the help of a canon lawyer, and sending it to the Vatican.
“It went to Rome and they said it was outside the statute of limitations so they didn’t even read it,” Mr Stanwell said.
In the years that followed, Mr Stanwell made attempts on his own life, has spent time in mental health units and sought the help of counsellors and psychiatrists. Not only did he lose his career, he also lost his marriage.
And while he remains a practising Catholic, he believes the church cannot move forward or regain its credibility until the abuse of power is exposed.
“We know what’s gone on and I hope that somewhere down the line the church will say it has done wrong and will apologise for that and make sure it never happens again,” Mr Stanwell said.
“The only way this will happen is with a royal commission, otherwise the church will just keep on telling lies.
“I believe in people and the good things that they do and that there are good priests and they’ve got great
ability to heal people’s spirit and touch people’s spirit in time of great need.”
Bishop Leo Clarke died in 2006.
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