Australian Broadcasting Company
May 30, 2019
By Louise Milligan
As Australia’s five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse drew to a close in 2017, it felt as if the winds of change were blowing through the Catholic Church.
Five Australian bishops stood up in the commission courtroom and made a public and historic act of contrition for its terrible history of clergy abuse.
Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher described the response of the church to allegations of child sex abuse as “criminally negligent”, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said the defence of the church made the clergy “blind to individuals” and Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said, “[Archbishops] just didn’t drill down to the reality … They just sort of floated above it”.
“The way we act now is very, very different,” said Archbishop Hart, who has since retired.
Fast forward two years, in the Supreme Court of Victoria in the case of JCB v Bishop Paul Bird for the Diocese of Ballarat, and you might question that last claim.
Here were lawyers for the very same Catholic Church launching a defence which rejected some of the royal commission’s key findings in relation to one of its most notorious paedophile priests.
The many good Catholics who espouse Christian values of decency and kindness and social justice might question the expenditure of the proceeds of their collective collection plates to mount that defence.
The case refers to one Gerald Ridsdale — not just Australia’s most prolific paedophile priest, but one of the country’s worst paedophiles full stop — and the knowledge of his offending by the then-bishop of Ballarat, the now-deceased Ronald Mulkearns.
Lawyers for the church in the case minimised Mulkearns’ knowledge of Ridsdale’s prior offending in 1982, when the victim, JCB, was anally raped at the age of nine in Mortlake, a tiny town in Victoria’s western district.
Internal church documents tendered to the commission suggested every boy in one class at the Mortlake parish school, St Colman’s, was abused.
Ridsdale himself told Catholic Church insurers he “went haywire there. Altar boys, mainly”.
“Mortlake imploded over the Ridsdale saga,” Broken Rites advocate Dr Wayne Chamley told me.
“The whole family networks just started tearing themselves apart over what happened — the shocking tragedy in that town.”
In a pre-trial judgment in the JCB v Bishop Bird case before the courts now, Justice Michael McDonald alluded to the church seeking to wind back what Mulkearns knew about Ridsdale before he allowed this tragedy to occur.
“By their defence, the defendants have put in issue the extent of Mulkearns’ knowledge of Ridsdale’s inappropriate sexual behaviour with minors prior to Ridsdale’s appointment at Mortlake,” Justice McDonald wrote in the judgement.
The judge pointed out that in doing so, they contradict the church’s own submissions to the royal commission via its Truth Justice and Healing Commission.
This is an astonishing claim given that from 1993, the church’s own insurers would not indemnify for claims past 1975 because of the knowledge that the Ballarat Diocese had of Ridsdale’s offending.
This case is historic because it is the first case in Victoria since the State Government eliminated what was known as “The Ellis Defence” — the controversial precedent that the Catholic Church had no legal personality and therefore could not be sued.
It’s high stakes and the Diocese of Ballarat, just as it did before the royal commission exposed its terrible history, is strenuously defending the case.
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