Gerald Ridsdale: portrait of a monster as a forgetful old man

By Tony Wright
May 27, 2015

He doesn't look like a monster, this old man peering through spectacles, bald but for a few wisps of greyed hair above his ears.

Looks deceive. It's all in the perspective.

He was a monster, sure enough, to little boys awed by this man in the robes of a priest who offered himself as a friend and molested them, again and again. Boys who, according to senior counsel, afterwards couldn't bear anyone touching them or their fathers coming near.

The child in a Ballarat primary school showing the priest his toys, only to find a hand shoved down his pants. The bedwetter in an English boarding school, the Australian priest as housemaster bathing him and putting him into fresh pyjamas and taking him into his bed. The boys welcomed to the country house of the parish priest to play pool, and who accepted holiday invitations to his underground dug-out in the NSW opal-mining town of White Cliffs, only to discover themselves trapped.

No one knows how many children Gerald Ridsdale molested from the 1950s when he was a seminarian in Werribee and on through the decades of his priesthood as he was moved from parish to parish around Victoria's western district for several decades.

He did not even inform his god, apparently, at least through the normal priestly channels – he left his child-abusing out of his religious confessions, he says, and never told his monstrous secret to anyone until the game was up. When the game finally was up, he was convicted of abusing scores of children.

Now, at 81, he presented himself by video link to the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse sitting in Ballarat as a man whose memory is gone. Some of his victims sat silent and stony in the court, holding out for answers and getting few.

"I don't remember," he repeated endlessly to questions from the senior counsel assisting, Gail Furness SC.

He was in the dark, he said, about what other members of the clergy might have known or suspected about his activities.

He professed not to know why George Pell, once a housemate and now a Cardinal, had once accompanied him to a court case where he pleaded guilty to a number of child-sex offences. It was all arranged by a barrister, and as he and George Pell had walked to court together along La Trobe Street, Melbourne, he could not recall them discussing his crimes or anything else. Why, he said, he didn't even recall Father Pell living in the same Ballarat presbytery as him some years previously.

"I've been told that, but I can't remember him in the house," Ridsdale declared. "I accept it if the record says it." And this: "I can't remember when I met George Pell. I never had much to do with him." As for the Bishops and priests, including at least once, Pell, who chose to move him from parish to parish, where he lured ever more vulnerable children into his world of depravity, he knew nothing of their deliberations or reasoning.

He had spent no more than a year in Apollo Bay, from 1974 to 1975, his first posting as a parish priest, though he had been molesting children for 20 years, when he had sought to leave suddenly after a man had come to the presbytery drunk and informed him the blokes down at the pub were talking about him interfering with children.

He had no memory of whom he may have asked for a transfer, nor anyone asking why he wanted to get out so unusually quickly. But he was moved to Inglewood near Bendigo where, he agreed, he had later described his behaviour with young children as "really out of control".

Later still, in Mortlake, a nun at the local school, the commission was told, had estimated he had molested at least half of the boys at the school. He had enticed children to come to the presbytery at play time, and a boy aged 11,12 or 13 was staying with him in his bedroom.

"I would disagree with [the accusation about] half the boys in the school..." Ridsdale began.

"You molested any boy you could get access to," said Ms Furness.

"I wouldn't know about that. I had access to children I didn't molest," replied Ridsdale.

He couldn't recall the nun confronting him about his behaviour, but agreed with Ms Furness that if she had, he wouldn't have told the truth.

"It's all part of the paedophile thing," said Ridsdale. 'The deceit, the cover-up, the trying to make yourself look good.

"That's what I've been doing all my life."


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