The dirty secret of our criminal justice system

By Phil Cleary
Sydney Morning Herald
June 1, 2015

A scene outside the royal commission in Ballarat as Gerald Ridsdale gave evidence via video link from his prison cell.
Photo by Simon O'Dwyer

In my 1998 book Cleary Independent, I wrote of feeling "a shock wave of apprehension when a Christian Brother opened the door one night at a retreat and asked, 'Do you need to be tucked in?' The same bloke had earlier taken me to the presbytery for what he called a 'vocational talk'. When he inquired as to the level of my sexual knowledge and the operations of particular parts, I sought my leave." It was 1966 and I was 13 years of age when I escaped the Brother's clutches.

After reading the book, "Tim" sent me an email saying that the Brother in question, Keith Weston, had routinely masturbated him and a number of other boys at St Joseph's College, Pascoe Vale. I'd not named Weston for fear of defamation action had the rumour mill been wrong about his abuse of young boys. In 2004, 81-year-old Weston pleaded guilty to molesting the boys, but due to prostate cancer and failing health received a suspended two-and-a-half-year jail sentence. That prompted a letter from one of the boys which in part read: "We nailed old 'Tex' Keith Weston ... an evil, prolific, cruel, mean, predatory, paedophile ..."

I can't properly explain why I didn't tell my parents, or someone didn't blow the whistle on Weston (who is now dead). It's hard to believe other Brothers or those in the top echelons of the Church didn't know about his abuse at various Catholic schools. I'll never forget the fear that gripped us when he went on the warpath after a few drinks over lunch.

Watching Catholic priest Gerald Ridsdale last week tell the royal commission into institutionalised responses to sexual abuse that his crimes were a consequence of a disease, brought back the dark memories. It was nauseating. Like Weston, Ridsdale wasn't a victim of some disease. He was just another bad bastard misusing power for no other reason than personal gratification. So while it was important to hear from Ridsdale, he should never have been allowed to assume victimhood and should have been rebuked when he did.

So what is it about our society, and so many others, that it should have turned a blind eye to the systematic misuse of power in the Catholic Church and the brutal abuse of children by the Ridsdales and Westons of the world? Where were the elders of the Church, those preaching against the inhumanity of communism and atheism and the immorality of sex outside marriage, when these disciples of god were indulging themselves? Addressing the injustice, even a lifetime after the damage has been done, is important, but we can hardly be proud that it has taken so long or that no one acted when it mattered.

And we should not forget this: while the abuse of children within the Church was being hidden away, violence against women too was also being ignored or covered-up. Imagine if the hundreds of women raped in the 1960s and '70s came forward and told their stories. Imagine if we opened up the court records from that era and gave an honest appraisal of why so many "wife killers" walked from the Supreme Court of Victoria with manslaughter verdicts.

While the abuse of children by priests such as Ridsdale and the cover-up by Church authorities looms as a national scandal, the same must surely be said of the law's treatment of "wife killing". Who would believe that in 1979 a man could shoot dead his wife and the 16-month-old child she held in her arms, only to have a Victorian court find him guilty of murdering the child but not guilty of murdering the woman? Who would believe that a doctor could be asked in the Supreme Court of Melbourne whether the wife James Ramage strangled in 2003 had a "tampon in situ"? What do we make of a jury in 2015 finding Nelson Lai not guilty of murder, despite him threatening to kill his estranged girlfriend, Rekiah O'Donnell, then actually doing it with a bullet to the head? It was an accident. I didn't know the gun was loaded, said Lai.

Last week, I lodged a submission to the Victorian royal commission into family violence, recommending that it put the epidemic of violence into historical context. The closest the commission's terms of reference come to tackling this question is when they ask which reforms in the past 10 years have been most effective. If the royal commission into institutionalised sexual abuse can cast its gaze back 50 years, why is the family violence commission not explicitly doing that?

It's no secret that I have an interest in an inquiry that exposes the guilty secret of the failings of our criminal justice system. I want the trial which led to the misogynist, Peter Keogh, being found not guilty of murdering my sister, Vicki, put under the microscope. But it's not just that case that needs to be examined. Ask Joy Tinetti's 81-year-old mother in Ararat what the not guilty verdict for the man who shot her daughter dead in 1972 did to her life. Ask the family of Patricia Longley how her husband, gangster Billy Longley, could be found not guilty on all charges after publicly bashing and threatening to kill Patricia and firing a gun above her head on the January night in 1961 she was shot dead by the same gun. Ask any of the families living with the myth that their girl provoked her own death, how they feel.

Unless we acknowledge the complicity of our criminal law and our courtrooms in the scourge of violence against women, we will never properly understand its origins or stop the killer men. Exposing the Catholic Church's complicity in the abuse of children years ago is a prerequisite to liberating the victims from that horrible sense of abandonment. So too is exposing the justice system's complicity in the violence and the abandonment of murdered women and their families a prerequisite to justice and the liberation of the souls of those women.

If the royal commission into family violence doesn't expose the violation of the human rights of women murdered and then belittled in our courtrooms while Ridsdale and his mates were abusing young boys at schools like mine, it will have missed a profound opportunity to rectify past wrongs and will have failed us all.


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