Cardinal George Pell on outer, but where were the rest?

By Tess Livingstonethe
March 02, 2016

Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally and child abuse victim David Ridsdale say George Pell threw his former boss, retired Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns, under a bus in evidence yesterday.

If only someone could have done the same thing 40 years ago — preferably reporting Mulkearns to the papal nuncio (ambassador) in Canberra — dozens of innocent people’s lives would not have been wrecked by Gerald Ridsdale and other criminal priests who were answerable to Mulkearns.

The former bishop’s leadership, as Pell said yesterday, was a “gigantic’’ failure: “I would have to say that I can’t nominate another bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable. There might be some, but they don’t come to mind. His repeated refusal to act is absolutely extraordinary.’’

Pell did not emulate that pattern: when he became archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he did not hesitate to suspend errant priests when warranted.

Yesterday, Pell agreed with commissioner Peter McClellan that those who had known of Ridsdale’s “dreadful story’’ but did nothing were culpable. Pell, however, insisted he was not privy to what the bishop knew and at the time had not heard rumours about Ridsdale.

Nobody has proven otherwise.

Those inclined to disbelieve the cardinal’s insistence he knew nothing of Ridsdale’s pedophilia when he and other priest consultors met with Mulkearns and decisions were made to move Ridsdale would do well to consider several points. Firstly, there was Mulkearns’s secrecy. His and Pell’s relationship was distant and, at best, polite. Mulkearns would not have wanted Pell to know anything that put his own leadership in a bad light. On the evidence so far, it appears Mulkearns concealed the complaints he had received about Ridsdale from four consultors, including Pell. But Pell and others should have asked more questions.

Secondly, although Pell lived in Ballarat and said Mass there on Sundays, his working days were spent running and teaching at the city’s Aquinas teachers’ college, which later became part of the Australian Catholic University. From 1980, he spent more of his working days in Melbourne as principal of the Institute of Catholic Education, with overall responsibility for Victorian Catholic teachers’ colleges. He also spent a term in Cambridge. None of that would have precluded his demanding action against Ridsdale, of course, had he been aware of his crimes. But Ridsdale was not on Pell’s daily radar.

Outside the hearing, victims complained Pell’s evidence showed the church could not be trusted to police itself in matters of child protection. Institutions must take such responsibility. But decades ago, as now, those touched by or aware of child sexual abuse could and should have contacted police.

Yesterday’s hearing suggested police were aware of Ridsdale’s conduct in Inglewood parish, which he left suddenly in 1975. According to some reports, he left the parish in the middle of the night, after abusing a policeman’s son. It is hard to understand why he was not charged, suspended from duty and dealt with by the legal system decades sooner.


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