The Altar Boys cover

Shortlist year: 2021

Shortlist category: Non-fiction

Published by: ABC Books an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


Proud altar boys, Glen Walsh and Steven Alward, were childhood friends in their working-class community in Newcastle. Steven went on to become a journalist, Glen a priest. But their lives came to be burdened by secrets kept and exposed. Glen's decision to give evidence of a cover-up of clerical abuse ended in tragedy, while Steven fought to overcome a traumatic past. Shortlisted for the 2020 Walkley Book Award, this is an explosive exposé of widespread and organised clerical abuse of children in one Australian city, and how the cover-up extended to every echelon of the Church.

About the author

Suzanne Smith

Suzanne Smith

Suzanne Smith is a six-time Walkley Award and two-time Logie award-winning journalist. Her 27-year career in journalism includes senior editorial roles at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, including on Foreign Correspondent, Background Briefing, Radio National, ABC News, and Radio Current Affairs. She was the senior investigative reporter and producer at Lateline on ABC TV reporting stories on the cover up of clerical abuse, which helped trigger the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia. She has also written for Crikey and The Australian, and held various roles in the commercial media.

Judges’ comments

Andrew, thirteen years old, suicided. He was one of more than sixty males born between 1959 and 1980 from the Newcastle-Maitland area who suicided, all sexually abused as children by clerics. 'The Altar Boys' charts the criminal conspiracy to commit and cover up clerical abuse. Told from inside the lives of communities, families, and individuals impacted by these crimes, it is a story we only thought we knew: the mother who was lied to, the senior broadcasting executive driven by his secret, the decent priest persecuted by others. Despite the tragedy of otherwise successful lives ended in despair, it is also a story of resilience and courage. In forensic detail, Smith sets out the breathtaking betrayal of a whole community by hundreds of criminal predators and institutional conspirators who knowingly denied all liability. The two great underlying themes of the book are misplaced trust and undeserved arrogance. The work of those who unravelled the crimes and conspiracies—insiders, police and journalists—and the time it took to reveal these, is woven through the lives of the betrayed. These are the ones the book quietly celebrates, and to name some—Andrew, Daniel, 'Brendan', Steven and Glen. This is a compelling account written with style and care.