Royal Commission Hears of 10 Ballarat Victim Suicides in Last Year

By Mark Colvin
May 21, 2015

MARK COLVIN: A warning this story contains some disturbing material.

A Ballarat survivor of clerical sexual abuse has told the royal commission today that ten local victims have committed suicide in the last year.

Andrew Collins gave evidence that when he asked the Bishop of Ballarat for money to help struggling victims he was told the Catholic Church would outlast them.

Another witness told the commission today that it was "inconceivable" that George Pell didn't know in the 1970s that priests in Ballarat were sexually abusing boys.

Samantha Donovan reports.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Fifty-three-year old Stephen Woods told the royal commission today he was regularly sexually abused by the headmaster of St Alipius Primary School, Father Robert Best. When he moved on to St Patrick's College Ballarat for secondary school he was abused by Father Edward Dowlan.

Mr Woods gave evidence that as a 14-year-old he decided to report the abuse to a priest. He knocked on the door of the St Patrick's presbytery. It was opened by Father Gerald Ridsdale, now known to have abused more than 50 children.

STEPHEN WOODS: Within half an hour of talking with Ridsdale in an upstairs room at the presbytery he had me sucking his penis and feeling his ass and he had my pants town. Then he drove me to a set of toilets around Lake Wendouree. He got me out of the car and he dragged me into a cubicle, made me pull down my pants and he anally raped me.

He was about two or three times my size. Ridsdale kept saying, "I would love to have you in a bed, can you get a bed? I'd love to go to bed with you".

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Ridsdale raped Stephen Woods again a few weeks later.

Stephen Woods has helped many other abuse victims come forward to tell their stories. He told the commission he has attempted suicide and struggles to control his anger.

STEPHEN WOODS: The fact is that I have no career, no solid relationship, no fixed address, is indicative of the affect of the sexual abuse upon me. I remember grieving for my childhood. I distinctly remember a period where I grieved for the young kid that I was, and now I feel like I'm grieving for my lost career and my lost life and I often feel like I have no future.

My parents are utterly shattered, shattered by the revelations of abuse to their three sons. Their faith and their trust in the church was destroyed.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The witness known to the royal commission as BAQ gave evidence he was sexually abused by Christian brothers Gerald Fitzgerald and Gerald Ridsdale. He is adamant some in the Catholic Church knew boys were being abused by clergy in Ballarat in the 1970s.

STEPHEN WOODS: That Bishop Malkearns or Father Pell didn't know what was happening is inconceivable that they didn't know. In particular, I cannot accept that Bishop Malkearns didn't know about Brother Fitzgerald.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Forty-six-year-old Andrew Collins told the royal commission that he is from a devout Catholic family. He gave evidence he was abused as a child by four men in Ballarat, including three clergymen.

Mr Collins told the commission when he spoke publicly about his abuse a few years ago his family shunned him.

ANDREW COLLINS: They said, "You've shamed the family and the church by coming out and saying this. It was so long ago and if anything did happen, which we don't believe it did, then you just need to get over it".

One day my father told me that my mother had said that if I was prepared to write a letter saying that I had made everything up and that none of the abuses had happened and if she could put this in the local paper, then I can be part of the family again.

I've literally lost my whole family to this, not just my sisters and parents, but aunts, uncles and cousins. Every Christmas is so hard.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Mr Collins is closely involved with the 140 strong Ballarat abuse survivors group.

ANDREW COLLINS: I know that many of these people will never come forward and speak publicly about their abuse. Ballarat is a very Catholic town and the Catholic community is very closed. Coming forward and talking publicly about child sex abuse in Catholic institutions not only has repercussions at the family level, but also at the business and social level in Ballarat.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Andrew Collins told the commission victims of child sexual abuse in the area are dying prematurely.

ANDREW COLLINS: I know of 10 victims of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions in Ballarat who died last year. These figures aren't getting any better and I believe the suicides are just going to keep happening.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Andrew Collins gave evidence he asked the Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird, for financial help for survivors to help them pay for things like medicines.

ANDREW COLLINS: We asked Bishop Bird to pay for the difference between the disability support pension and the pension paid to returned serviceman. The difference was $2.52 a week.

Bishop Bird told us if the church had to pay that amount to every survivor the church would go bankrupt. Bishop Bird told us that we were in danger of destroying his church. He said, "Andrew, you need to understand something, the church has endured for thousands of years, and in another 40 years or so, you people will all be dead and this will be forgotten about and the church will endure for thousands of years more".

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Mr Collins told the commission the Diocese of Ballarat is now paying for the medical expenses of some survivors and he believes it is the only Australian diocese doing so.

The Ballarat survivors of child sexual abuse have now finished giving their evidence. The hearings continue tomorrow morning.

MARK COLVIN: Samantha Donovan.








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