Child Abuse Victims Launch "Unprecedented" Court Action against Former Ballarat Bishop

By Louise Milligan
ABC News
May 14, 2015

Ten victims who were abused by notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale have begun proceedings in the Victorian Supreme Court against a former Bishop of Ballarat.

They accuse Bishop Ronald Mulkearns and the Diocese of Ballarat of negligence for allegedly failing to protect them and other victims, despite being aware of complaints against Ridsdale.

The lawyer representing the victims, Viv Waller, said the case was unprecedented because it bypassed the Catholic Church's so-called Ellis defence - where the church cannot be sued because, technically, it does not exist as a legal entity.

"The Catholic Church itself has no continuing legal personality, so it's not like a company," Ms Waller told the ABC's 7.30.

"So, unless the individuals responsible for the act or alleged mission are still alive, there's no-one against which you can actually commence proceedings."

One of the Ridsdale victims suing Bishop Mulkearns is Donna Cushing.

In 1979 in Bendigo, not long after Ms Cushing's family arrived in the city, a priest came to their door.

"He introduced himself as Father Gerry," Ms Cushing said.

"He came with a great big hamper of food and that was amazing for us, because generally we would have food when it was payday.

"He was very affectionate, he would give us cuddles and kisses and whiz the boys, the little boys up into the air - do all of the playful things that a father would do, which we didn't have at that time."

Ridsdale soon became a fixture in the family's life.

Ridsdale 'stalked and abused' victims on week-long holiday

In the summer of 1980, he invited the four eldest children on a holiday.

But as soon as the children got in the car, Ridsdale changed.

"I felt like I was walking on eggshells," Ms Cushing said.

"He seemed to be angry with us all the time."

Ms Cushing was 12, her brother Sean, 11, and the twin boys were aged nine.

Unbeknown to their mother, they were on a week-long holiday with a paedophile.

"When we were there on the first night, he showed us our room and there were three mattresses on the floor," Ms Cushing said.

PHOTO: Ms Cushing is one of the Ridsdale victims who is suing Bishop Mulkearns. (ABC News)

"He said, 'one of you will have to sleep in my room tonight'.

"It didn't feel right that one of us would have to sleep in his room."

At night he sexually assaulted the boys, during the day, he stalked, constantly making unwanted advances towards Ms Cushing.

None of them spoke of it.

"He would ... come into a room and ask me to give him a kiss and then he would give me one and it was not at all what I had experienced in my life," Ms Cushing said.

He would walk in while she was naked in the bathroom.

While she was swimming, he would stare at her in her bikini.

"The boys took turns to sleep in his room and then one morning at breakfast he said it was my turn to sleep in his room," Ms Cushing said.

"I was distressed the whole day ... I didn't have a voice to know that I could stop it or say no.

"I just cried and cried all day, very visibly.

"He did see me crying and then he said I didn't have to sleep in his room."

But that meant the boys had to.

"I feel terribly guilty because, obviously, I had got out of it to some degree," Ms Cushing said.

"And I hadn't cried enough for the boys to have gotten out of it.

"I felt responsible because I was their big sister and I didn't look after them on the holiday - and I should've."

Tragedy leads Ridsdale victims to police

Ten years later, her brother Sean Harrison took his life.

He told his grandmother he could not cope with what Ridsdale had done.

"I felt bad, because, if he did take his life, if he blamed me, because I didn't stick up for him and I cried for myself to get out of Gerald Ridsdale's room and I didn't do that for my little brothers," Ms Cushing said.

Catholic priest Gerald Ridsdale.

PHOTO: Ridsdale was convicted in 2014 of 34 charges against children between 1961 and 1980. (AAP: Ballarat Courier)

"I feel bad that I can't say sorry for that."

When one of the twins, Mark, also tried to kill himself in 2012, the family went to police.

Ridsdale was convicted in 2014 of 34 charges against children between 1961 and 1980.

He had also been convicted in 1993, 1994 and 2006 for a string of other child sex offences.

Ridsdale was parish priest at Inglewood in 1975 when local police informed his bishop, Ronald Mulkearns, that Ridsdale had abused children.

Bishop Mulkearns sent Ridsdale away for counselling and then on to the next parish.

This was five years before Ms Cushing and her brothers were abused by Ridsdale.

In the intervening years, he made dozens of other children his victims.

"It's a particularly tragic case because it's quite possible that Donna and her family may not have had the experience they had if in fact the complaints against Father Ridsdale had of been acted on earlier," lawyer Viv Waller said.

"I think it's quite possible that Gerald Ridsdale is Victoria's worst career paedophile.

"He was a person who was repeatedly placed in positions of power and authority and respect ... parents trusted him.

"Because of his position and the fact that he was left in his position he was able to continue to commit terrible crimes, sexual crimes against children."

Bishop Mulkearns declined to front the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Church Abuse in 2013.

Current Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird, did attend and admitted the decision to keep Ridsdale in the priesthood in 1975 was wrong.

Inquiry set to hear explosive claims about what church knew

Next week, the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse continues, with at least one convicted priest to give evidence.

It is expected the inquiry will hear explosive claims about what the church knew and when.

"From speaking to clients I have reason to believe that the Diocese of Ballarat may have been on notice about Ridsdale's offending prior to 1975," Ms Waller said.

"That's an issue I hope very much the royal commission will turn its attention to and come to grips with in the next few weeks."

Ms Cushing said Bishop Mulkearns should be punished.

"The bishop that knew that he was a danger to children, he should be in jail," she said.

"He deserves to be there just as much because he allowed it to happen, and shifted Ridsdale around from parish to parish and just let him be free to go wherever he pleased.

"It's destroyed my Catholic faith. I struggle, I feel like I have lost it.

"To me the Catholic Church should be the gold standard of what's right and of truth and what's honesty.

"They should've put us vulnerable people first before their name."








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