George Pell moved abuser priest out of Mortlake parish, inquiry told

By Oliver Milman
May 19, 2015

Ballarat abuse survivor Philip Nagle told the royal commission that of 33 boys in his year at a Catholic school where abuse occurred, he believed 12 had killed themselves.
Photo by Megan Neil

Cardinal George Pell was involved in the decision to move a priest who was later found to be a prolific child sex abuse offender from the Victorian parish of Mortlake, the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse heard.

The offending of Gerald Ridsdale, who has been found guilty on four occasions of more than 100 separate offences against children as young as four, was laid out in confronting detail during public hearings in Ballarat.

Pell, who supported Ridsdale during his first court appearance for child sex offences in 1993, was part of a Catholic church clerical group called the College of Consultors that decided to move Ridsdale between parishes. Pell later became the Bishop of Sydney before taking up a senior role at the Vatican.
The hearing was told that Ridsdale was discussed at a meeting of the College of Consultors in September 1982 where the minutes recorded “it had become necessary for Fr Gerald Ridsdale to move from the parish of Mortlake”.

No reason for the transfer is recorded in the minutes. Pell as always denied any knowledge of children being abused in Ballarat.

The commission heard Catholic priests involved in the sexual abuse of young children were repeatedly moved to different parishes in Victoria and sent on “treatment” trips to the US and Italy before eventually being convicted of their crimes.

Gail Furness, counsel assisting the royal commission, said Ridsdale abused children “at parishes or church locations throughout Victoria” from the 1960s to 1980s, including in Mildura, Swan Hill, Warrnambool, Apollo Bay, Ballarat and Mortlake.

Furness said Ronald Mulkearns, who was made bishop of Ballarat in 1971, moved Ridsdale due to complaints over “inappropriate behaviour” including reports from two parents that a boy was living at the Mortlake presbytery with him.

Ridsdale was sent for counselling with a member of the clergy and later attended a “psychological and spiritual” program in New Mexico which involved sessions with a “spiritual director, art therapist and psych dramatist”.

Furness said: “Thirteen years had passed since Bishop Mulkearns first knew that Ridsdale was sexually abusing boys he met during his work as a priest.

“Ridsdale had been at some nine parishes and other church locations during his time and abused more than 50 children.”

Ridsdale, who will be eligible for parole in 2019 when he will be 85, will appear at the hearing from prison via video link. Mulkearns, who retired in 1997, was questioned by Victoria police in 1995 over whether he had committed a felony. They found there was no evidence he had concealed a crime.

Speaking at the royal commission, former students of Catholic institutions in the Ballarat area explained the legacy of more than three decades of abuse that went unreported by senior Catholic clergy.

“The Catholic church seems remorseless and unapologetic,” said Paul Auchettl, 57, who was molested while he attended the St Alipius primary school. “They have supported the offenders and they have paid some victims, but often that has not helped.”

A raft of suicides in Ballarat has been linked to the widespread abuse of children in five Catholic institutions. Philip Nagle, 50, told the hearing that of 33 boys in his school year, he believed 12 had killed themselves.

Auchettl said: “Shame is rife; it’s like an unseen cancer in this town. There is no collective memory or place to mark the abuse and the horror of the number of suicides. There is nothing that brings us together to talk about this. It is like an unseen carnage.”

Many of the abuse survivors were critical of the way the Catholic church responded to the criminality of its clergy.

One witness, known in court as BAA, said he was digitally raped by Brother Robert Best and Brother Edward Dowlan, as well as being assaulted by Brother Leo Fitzgerald, in two Catholic institutions.

“I would like to have a formal apology, an acknowledgment from the Catholic church linked with the actual taking of responsibility for looking after the problems they have caused,” he said.

“I would also like the Catholic church to lose their tax-free status because they have shown themselves to be just a business organisation.

“On the issue of confessional reporting, the Catholic church should require clergy to report crimes that are confessed to them. It’s ludicrous that people can go into a confessional box and confess horrendous crimes and be absolved.

“It’s just saying you can do what you want without any proper legal punishment. It’s just like saying a few Hail Marys is the worst punishment you’re going to get. How the clergy still get away with that I don’t know.”

A third abuse survivor, known in court as BAP, said the treatment he suffered at the hands of Fitzgerald and Best caused him to avoid people for much of his life, and hindered him learning basic skills such as reading and writing.

“Brother Fitzgerald didn’t just take my soul, he crushed it. What he did to me was put fear and horror into me,” he said.

“I think institutional child sexual abuse has split the Ballarat community into factions. I don’t have any faith. The church and everything it stands for is a demon to me.”

The royal commission hearings in Ballarat will take place over the next three weeks. The hearings are the 28th to be held by the royal commission, which has about 270 people make contact with it from across Australia each week.

So far more than 600 matters have been referred to the police in various states, and another 1,400 people are waiting to be heard in future sessions. The final report will be handed to the federal government by the end of 2017.


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