Ballarat Bishop Tells Royal Commission Diocese May Struggle to Pay All Child Abuse Claims

May 29, 2015

MARK COLVIN: The bishop of Ballarat has told the royal commission the diocese may struggle to make compensation payments to all its victims of child sexual abuse.

But Paul Bird acknowledged that it could borrow money from a diocese fund which is worth $100 million.

The commission heard there had been at least 130 claims made against 14 local priests between 1980 and now.

Samantha Donovan reports.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The Catholic Bishop of Ballarat Paul Bird acknowledges that when it comes to clerical sexual abuse his community is divided.

PAUL BIRD: Yes, there are quite a few divisions I would say and people have sometimes quite different reactions. Those of course who would be directly hurt, those who, certainly those who've been offended against and their families would really feel the crimes that have been done. Others who may be more distant from that might not see the real, the full impact, or not appreciate it.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Paul Bird has been the bishop of Ballarat since 2012.

The royal commission chairman Peter McClellan.

PETER MCCLELLAN: There is a need not just in Ballarat for the leaders of the church to tell the community that it's a good thing that those who have been abused come forward and tell of their abuse. Have you said that yourself?

PAUL BIRD: I have. Yes.

PETER MCCLELLAN: And do you believe that message has, has the word got through?

PAUL BIRD: I would suspect it hasn't got through to everyone. I've said it several times but I would need to say it, continue to say it as an example of the way survivors have given their stories here is a good thing there and it's good for whole community.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Senior counsel assisting the royal commission Gail Furness asked Bishop Bird if he accepted that in the '60s, '70s and '80s the culture of the church was to protect its own reputation and that of offenders rather than the victims.

PAUL BIRD: So if we look at maybe the predominance was that, then I would accept that, yeah.

GAIL FURNESS: What has changed so that is no longer the predominant response?

PAUL BIRD: The awareness of the impact of child abuse, I believe, is much stronger now, is felt much more deeply so that the focus of attention, I believe rightly, is on the one who has been hurt and been abused.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The royal commission heard that 14 priests of the Ballarat diocese have had at least 130 claims made against them for child sexual abuse. About 76 of those claims were made against Gerald Ridsdale.

Bishop Bird told the commission he didn't believe the claims had been substantiated against all 14 priests. He told the royal commission the financial position of the diocese isn't strong and some parishes have to subsidise others.

Gail Furness SC.

GAIL FURNESS: And do you have any doubt that you have sufficient funds to meet the claims that you understand from undertaking that exercise?

PAUL BIRD: I do have doubts that we could meet those claims.

GAIL FURNESS: So what have you done to ensure that there are going to be sufficient funds to meet the claims that you, based on your exercise, believe will occur?

PAUL BIRD: I've tried to be prudent in our spending and so that we don't, our funds don't decline in other areas so that we might have all...

GAIL FURNESS: So is that sufficient? Prudent spending? Do you think that will be sufficient?

PAUL BIRD: I don't know that it will be.

GAIL FURNESS: So what else have you thought of to ensure that....

PAUL BIRD: I can't think of anything else. If the funds that we have at the moment are not going to be sufficient it may be that I would have to ask for help from other dioceses.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Questioned by counsel assisting, Bishop Paul Bird acknowledged the Ballarat diocese holds property and has a central investment fund which can offer loans at low rates for things like school extensions in the Ballarat diocese.

Bishop Bird said the value of the fund is about $100 million, and he acknowledged the diocese could borrow from it.

An abuse survivor, Andrew Collins, has given evidence to the commission that when he went to Bishop Bird with fellow survivor Peter Blenkiron to ask for funds to help survivors with things like medical expenses, he refused their request, and told them while they would be dead in 40 years but the church would survive for thousands of years.

Bishop Bird wasn't asked about that allegation today but in a statement denied having given that response, and said he wouldn't make such hurtful comments.

Outside the Ballarat courts, Andrew Collins stood by his evidence.

ANDREW COLLINS: They had an opportunity to cross-examine all our statements and to, you know, if they didn't think they were true to get to the bottom of that. Instead he just issues a statement basically saying "well, no these things weren't said, they didn't happen", and that's it. "You know, I'm a bishop, I'm much better than all of you so deal with it" and I'm sorry, that's just not good enough.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The royal commission hearings in Ballarat have finished for the time being. But the commission will return to the Victorian city later in the year to hear more evidence.

MARK COLVIN: Samantha Donovan.








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