Jack the Insider: ‘The disgraceful life of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns’

The Australian
April 5, 2016

Giving evidence at the Royal Commission in February, Mulkearns claimed he did not know what to do when it came to paedophile priests.

One should never speak ill of the dead as the saying goes. I think we can rule it out in the case of the former Bishop of Ballarat Ronald Austin Mulkearns who died yesterday. He was 85 years of age.

Mulkearns’ predecessor, James Patrick O’Collins was five months shy of his 95th birthday when he passed away in 1983. Bishops tend to live long lives. Maybe it’s because they don’t have to worry about lay concerns like paying the mortgage or the rent or even where their next meal is coming from. Perhaps bishops like O’Collins and Mulkearns lived such long lives because God was not so keen to have them join him.

Both bishops oversaw and facilitated the activity of paedophile priests in the Ballarat Diocese. There are literally thousands of victims in the post-war to present period. Giving evidence at the Royal Commission in February, Mulkearns stammered out apologies and claimed he did not know what to do when it came to paedophile priests. He was, he said, simply ill equipped to deal with marauding serial offenders like Gerald Ridsdale and Monsignor John Day.

Last night I saw an SBS news report on Mulkearns’ death. The report concluded by saying Mulkearns had never reported offending clerics to police. It was a rookie mistake for any journalist who has put a toe into the foul water of the Ballarat Diocese. Of course Mulkearns had never reported to police that his priests had raped children. The real story is the cops came to him.

In the mid-1990s, Victoria Police looked to charge Mulkearns for his role in protecting and facilitating paedophile priests but the charges did not proceed. The truth is the police had plenty to charge Mulkearns with but that would mean opening up a dirty secret and one Victoria Police would hold close for more than forty years.

Like Ridsdale, Monsignor John Day had been shanghaied around the diocese by O’Collins, raping kids wherever he went. His parishes included Horsham, Ballarat East, Colac, Ararat, Apollo Bay, Beech Forest and Mildura. He was the parish priest in Mildura for 14 years.

On the north western tip of Victoria, nestled on the Murray River, Mildura was the extent of empire for the Ballarat Diocese — it was as remote a place could be without leaving the diocese. That’s why O’Collins dispatched Day to Mildura and did the same later with Ridsdale. Out of sight out of mind.

In Mildura, Day found allies and partners-in-crime in the most senior detective in the area, Detective Sergeant Jim Barritt and the clerk of the courts — then the most senior officer of the court in Mildura, Joe Kearney. The three men rode roughshod over the people of Mildura for more than a decade.

They ran Mildura like they owned it, every racket and fraud going but the primary purpose of the alliance was to protect Day.

I know of at least three occasions where complaints about Day’s paedophilia were made by parents to police in Mildura. Barritt would snaffle the details, visit the parents and stand over them to the point where they would drop the complaints.

By 1971 this cosy little criminal triumvirate came under threat. Barritt’s junior officer in Mildura, Detective Senior Constable Denis Ryan had been called into the local Catholic secondary school, St Joseph’s College, by a senior teacher, John Howden and the school principal, a Carmelite nun, Sister Pancratius.

Ryan was told of a report that Day had sexually assaulted a girl at the school some years beforehand. Pancratius told Ryan she had known of Day’s paedophilia for years. Both Ryan and Howden agreed Barritt had to be kept in the dark. If he learned of Ryan’s investigation he would stomp all over it.

Ryan began his inquiries. He says that it was a relatively easy investigation. Each victim would give the name of another. Ryan described it as like stepping stones to a dreadful truth. He had five statements from victims at first, alleging Day had raped and sexually assaulted them.

Having nowhere else to turn in Mildura, Ryan contacted the Chief Inspector in the area, Jack McPartland, based in Swan Hill. McPartland ordered Ryan off the case and told him to hand the statements to the uniform Inspector at Mildura, Alby Irwin.

Unbelievably Irwin conducted an interview with Day at the Sacred Heart presbytery in Mildura with Jim Barritt in tow. Day lied his face off while Irwin and Barritt scribbled down notes. The two cops decided Day had no charge to answer and put in a report to the suits down in Melbourne. Move along. Nothing to see here.

In late 1971, Ryan and Howden wrote to Mulkearns. Ryan detailed his inquiries to date while Howden as a teacher related the danger of having an active paedophile essentially on the loose in the school grounds. Both wanted Day removed from the contact of children. They received a curt reply from Mulkearns, brusquely dismissing them and the allegations. Mulkearns quoted details of Irwin and Barritt’s conclusions that Day had no charge to answer. The Bishop had been made privy to a confidential police report. We know that report went through Barritt’s hands and onto Mulkearns courtesy of Joe Kearney.

That might have been the end of it but Ryan would not be deterred. He continued his investigation eventually providing statements from 13 victims and one witness.

His obstinacy had drawn the attention of the fourth floor of Russell Street police headquarters. By January 1972 and fearing a looming scandal, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police and his deputy, Jack Carmichael felt obliged to intervene. They sent their two senior internal affairs officers to Mildura to sort it out, Chief Superintendent John O’Connor and Chief Inspector Harvey Child.

O’Connor offered Ryan an inducement to let the matter rest. Barritt would be removed from Mildura and Ryan would replace him as Detective Sergeant. Ryan declined the offer, saying his only concern was Day be subject to a proper investigation. At that moment, Ryan’s career as a police detective effectively came to an end.

O’Connor and Child claim to have interviewed all of the complainants that had made their statements to Ryan. We know this is not true. Of the then 13 victims we know only one was interviewed by O’Connor and that person persisted with his allegations under pressure from O’Connor to drop the complaint. The others were not interviewed although O’Connor and Child duly reported they had been and had withdrawn their complaints.

Ryan was effectively alienated by the force. Weeks and months would go by and not one police officer would speak to him. He was officially told not to leave Mildura without permission. He was ostracised and isolated. He was being forced out.

On January 27, 1972 their dirty work done, Child and O’Connor met John Howden and another parishioner, Terry Lynch, at the Royal Hotel in Mildura. Over a couple of beers, O’Connor told the two men, “We’re going down to see Bishop Mulkearns now and if he doesn’t remove Day, we will charge him.”

O’Connor and Child did exactly that. A record of their meeting with Mulkearns shows the bishop initially refused to transfer Day but O’Connor made it clear he had to go.

And that, right there, was a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, involving two senior police officers, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, his deputy and Bishop Ronald Austin Mulkearns.

For his crimes, Day was sent on a round the world trip until the storm blew over. Mulkearns then placed Day in a quiet little parish, Timboon, just out of Warrnambool where the old degenerate offended again.

It did not matter to Mulkearns that Day’s victims would be denied justice. It did not matter to Mulkearns that Denis Ryan’s professional life would be utterly destroyed. It did not matter to Mulkearns that Day was an ongoing threat to children and that threat would soon be realised.

That was forty four years ago and only now has Victoria Police come to accept its manifest failing, driven at first by the publication of Unholy Trinity, a book I co-authored with Denis Ryan followed by the Royal Commission’s inquiries. Apologies have been made to Denis Ryan from Victoria Police at the highest level and a public and formal an apology will be made in the coming weeks.

With the death of Mulkearns, Denis Ryan is the last man standing in this whole tawdry business. I called him yesterday to let him know Mulkearns was dead.

“I feel no grief,” Ryan told me. “This man maliciously and wilfully allowed such men as Monsignor John Day and many other priests to run amok among the youth of the Ballarat Diocese. He blatantly misused his office, made a mockery of his alleged belief in his Christian religion and made a significant contribution to the physical and mental torment of thousands of young children.”

Day died in 1978 unrepentant and unpunished. At his funeral, Mulkearns laid it on with a trowel. Day, one of numerous Ballarat priests Mulkearns knew to be prolific child sex offenders, was eulogised for his “humble magnificence.”

What did Mulkearns learn from this episode? He learned that he was above the law or more properly the law of the land was of no consequence to him. So when it came to Ridsdale or Paul David Ryan or one of the litany of paedophile priests active in Ballarat in the years to come, the experience of Day and the complicity of Victoria Police told him he could act as he pleased.

When it comes to Mulkearns it is right we speak ill of the dead. And it is entirely proper the last word be given to the last man standing, Denis Ryan:

“I don’t know what god Mulkearns believed in but for his sake, I hope he is a more sympathetic figure than this bishop was to the victims of clerical child sex abuse.”


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