Paedophile Priest Gerald Ridsdale Abused Boys in Mortlake
By Olivia Lambert
March 4, 2016
THE church was the one place where children should have been protected.
But behind cold, stone walls in Mortlake, there were shocking secrets and the most wicked crimes lurked in the shadows. Even today, a heavy energy exists over the town decades after some of the worst sexual crimes imaginable upon its residents.
It’s unclear just how many children were abused behind doors at the Mortlake parish but there were dozens who were violated by a paedophile priest. So deep was his obsession with young boys that no one was safe, an entire community and almost every family touched by his disturbing behaviour.
Mortlake is about a 2.5-hour drive from Melbourne, roughly 50km northeast of coastal town Warrnambool.
It’s population is just a touch more than 1000 and it continues to grow slowly, despite the horrors of its church in the 80s.
A suburb profile ranks Mortlake in the bottom 30 of all Victorian states for median house price, and the crime rate throughout the Shire of Moyne is still higher than the rest of Victoria.
It’s a place in recovery. Only a generational change will allow the suburb to eventually rise from the ruin Priest Gerald Ridsdale left during his sordid stay.
|St Colman's School in Mortlake Victoria. Picture: State Library of Victoria|
Ridsdale, the priest so closely linked to Cardinal George Pell, is to blame for a reign of shocking sexual abuse that was covered up or ignored during his 18-month tenure in the town, but which is still vivid for those who he charmed into his world.
The crimes Ridsdale committed were vile — one young boy was forced to live with the priest in the Mortlake presbytery and was raped almost every day.
His name is Paul Levey, and he is in Rome to hear Cardinal George Pell’s testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Cardinal Pell was part of a clergy committee which sent Ridsdale from parish to parish, allowing him to continue abusing children across Victoria. Ridsdale ended up at Mortlake and it is believed he sodomised every boy aged between 10 and 16 at the St Colman’s Primary School.
Sadly, the Cardinal’s memory has not served him well during this commission, angering victims who seek only the Church’s acknowledgment of their pain, and closure through apology and forgiveness. That Pell is so detached during what could be his greatest hour forces victims to relive the crime.
|Cardinal George Pell faced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Picture: Andreas SolaroSource:AFP|
Ridsdale is now serving a long prison sentence but justice still hasn’t been served. It may never be served, given the emotional damage of his actions.
The abuse still plagues the victims and it’s believed there are more truths to be told.
A former teacher at the Mortlake school, Ann Ryan, has been a whistleblower in Mortlake’s Catholic community.
|Ann Ryan — former teacher at St Colman's in Mortlake. Picture: 7:30 ReportSource:ABC|
Just three years ago she gave evidence as a witness to the Family and Community Development Committee inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations.
“I loved the teachings and believed to the depths of my soul. I attended Catholic teachers college in Ballarat and taught in Catholic schools in this diocese for 28 years,” she said.
She spoke to the inquiry for the boys she taught. She asked questions the church clergy seemed to not ask of itself: Why was Ridsdale kept in his position so long; and why did religious leaders not protect the young boys? How could such systemic abuse not flash on the radars of those who sent Ridsdale out into the community?
After realising what her students suffered through, Mrs Ryan fought for their voice telling the inquiry the young boys had nowhere to go.
“What they were experiencing was totally out of their childish domain,” she said.
|Paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale abused young boys in Victoria. Picture: AFPSource:AFP|
|Ridsdale in 1993. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied|
“I think everybody knew what was happening and did not behave appropriately.”
She believed the diocese turned a blind eye to Ridsdale’s evil to protect the church. Mrs Ryan said she talked about the abuse in the Mortlake school, but some of her Catholic friends did not even want to know.
“It was a small school, only about 70 enrolments,” she said.
When Ridsdale came to Mortlake in the early 1980s, he would lure children into the presbytery with video games and other activities like table tennis, even asking the principal if the grade 5 and 6 boys could go over there during lunchtimes.
The teacher was oblivious to what was going on behind closed doors for a long time.
“And we had no knowledge of what was going on, and it was into the priest’s second year of tenure there that one of the mothers of a victim — actually three of her boys were victims — went to that principal and said something funny was going on,” she told the 2013 inquiry.
Fairfax Media reported Ridsdale admitted going “haywire” at Mortlake and his crimes were eventually no secret in the small town.
Ridsdale then disappeared from the school and teachers like Mrs Ryan were told there was a death in his family.
|Paul Levey was one of Gerald Ridsdale’s victims. Source: AP Picture: Riccardo De LucaSource:AP|
Mrs Ryan never liked Ridsdale but said families had formed bonds with him because “he drew the children in and he loved the children and he visited families and played with the children”.
She was suspicious and became aware of what he was doing to Mortlake children when a parent confided in Mrs Ryan.
Seven years after Ridsdale left the school, he reappeared at a school fete.
“But there was a real feeling of unrest,” Mrs Ryan told the inquiry.
Mortlake and Mr Levey’s story in particular were back in the spotlight during Pell’s testimony, with Mr Levey’s suffering read out during the Royal Commission hearing.
Mr Levey first met Ridsdale in 1980, when he was just 12.
The priest first abused him on a camping trip to Whitecliffs and when Mr Levey’s parents separated in 1982, his father decided Mr Levey should live with Ridsdale at the Mortlake presbytery.
Mr Levey slept in the same room as Ridsdale.
Cardinal Pell gave his testimony over four days, he was under fire for allegedly being aware of child abuse within the church but not doing anything to stop it. The Cardinal has been criticised for his lack of empathy, stating early in the week that systemic child abuse was “not of much interest to me”, a comment he later regretted making. For the victims, it tore open wounds they’d hoped the clergy would attempt to heal.
After all, the church was the one place where children should have been protected.