How Evil Stole the Innocence of Children

By Warwick McFadyen
Brisbane Times
May 24, 2015

Philip Nagel told the Royal Commission he had lost a third of his grade four classmates to suicide. Photo: Pat Scala

How odious they are. How pernicious their intent. They were not murderers, but surely they killed something precious in their victims. Something unique to each of their victims was crushed and in that horrible devastation of body and spirit came an unwanted bond with others: links in the chain of a callous cruelty and nonchalant indifference disposed and imposed on them.

They are the priests of Ballarat, of Maitland, of points far and wide, who snuffed out the light innocence of youth and the implicit trust the young have in adults. In its place grew, in many cases, a dark and nightmarish pit. From such depths these boys had to pull themselves out and go into adulthood and make a life for themselves. The boys became survivors of a casual monstrosity of perversion.

This past week the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse has been sitting in Ballarat. It will do so for the next two weeks. Last week victims gave the distressing details of the abuse they suffered and endured while school children. During the victims' stories and from the evidence it became clear that survival had morphed into a relative term.

One abuse survivor, Philip Nagle, had attended St Alipius Primary School, and of the 33 boys in the grade four picture of his class from the early '70s a dozen had died. Mr Nagle believed they had all killed themselves. The school "was a place where there was true evil".

Another survivor spoke of a Christian Brother giving him a choice when he was 12 or 13, "the strap or sex education and I always chose the latter because I didn't want to get belted. I should have taken the beltings".

The chaplain at St Alipius was Gerald Ridsdale, who is in jail for offences against children as are two teachers from the school, Edward Dowlan and Robert Best. Ridsdale, who is expected to give evidence next week, was moved around the state. The hearing was told the Bishop at the time, Ronald Mulkearns, did not think it was hid job to inform police about Ridsdale. It took until 1988 for the paedophile to be suspended. The questions of justice for the victims, and punishment for the torturer, were sidelined to save the good name of the church.

Abuse also occurred at St Patrick's College and St Joseph's Orphanage. Gordon Hill journeyed from Perth to tell his story of a life of deprivation and assault, of dungeons and horror rooms. He can recall the words of a nun: "Father wants to cleanse you, 29." He was just a number.

Another survivor, Timothy Green, who attended St Patrick's, said the abuse was common knowledge. "Every boy in the class knew that their turn was going to come up at some stage".

Another known as BAV told the commission that "the church's handling of the abuse has in some ways been worse than the initial sexual abuse that occurred". He also spoke of the scars that do not fade. "The abuse might be historical but suicides by victims of sexual assault are still going and is still happening."

This is the multiplier effect of evil in a life that can devour that life. This is the malevolence meaning of going viral.

Did the wearing of the robes, the vestments, the collar mean nothing to these men? The answer is too obvious, and yet to be capable to inflict suffering for gratification surely makes a mockery of what should have been a vocation to them.

When two conflicting recollections of an event are posited, how then to find the path to truth? Cardinal George Pell, born in Ballarat in 1941, was a priest in the area during the years of abuse. Victims have spoken of encounters with Pell, in which instances of abuse were mentioned, one involving David, the young nephew of Ridsdale. Timothy Green says Pell told him, "Don't be ridiculous," and David says Pell said: "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet."

Pell last week, and on previous occasions, has rejected those recollections. In his 2013 submission to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into child abuse allegations, and in a statement from Rome last week, he has offered an acknowledgement and apology to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. He says he had no knowledge of the abuse at the time that it was occurring. He did not try to bribe David Ridsdale; he is sympathetic to the suffering to which the victims were subjected, indeed the suffering of all.

Bishop Mulkearns has withdrawn from view. He is not expected to give evidence at the Ballarat hearings and was excused, for medical reasons, from giving evidence to the Victorian inquiry. Survivor Andrew Collins told the commission last week that a meeting with Bishop Paul Bird in 2013, the bishop had dismissed their request for money to help victims. "Andrew, you need to understand something," Collins said Bird had told him, "the church has endured for thousands of years and in another 40 years or so, you people will all be dead and all this will be forgotten about and church will endure for thousands of years more."

Time is seen as the conquerer, but there are some things that remain. Ridsdale, Dowlan and Best are jailed together at Ararat, away from the main prison population. If these loathsome priests look into their selves, can they now reconcile action and consequence and be at peace? Surely there are unquiet ghosts crashing against their conscience. Surely.

Through the eyes of a child, a priest is the messenger of God's word, the church is the home of the divine mysterious and unquestionable. The boys' ordeals were an abuse of power. One does not need special insights to know right from wrong.

The inquiries, the matters brought to police attention, the shining of light in dark corners is welcome and long overdue. The truth is owed to the victims and the survivors.

It will not bring back innocence or erase the past. It might, however, restore faith that good people can bring bad people to account.








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