Catholic Church prioritised protecting reputation over children in Ballarat abuse case, senior sergeant says

By Louise Milligan
ABC News
July 29, 2015

Chris O'Connor was part of the Victoria Police's attempt to charge Bishop Mulkearns with covering up the crimes of paedophile priests in the 1990s.

Ann Ryan was a teacher at St Colman's primary school in Mortlake, Victoria, where priest Gerald Ridsdale also worked.

[with video]

A senior sergeant on the 1990s Victoria Police attempt to charge a bishop with covering up the crimes of paedophile priests has broken his silence, saying the Catholic Church he encountered was more concerned with "brand protection" than protecting vulnerable children.

Chris O'Connor, who led the force's Child Exploitation Squad in the 1990s, worked on Operation Arcadia, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prosecute Bishop Ronald Mulkearns for moving Gerald Francis Ridsdale from parish to parish in the Ballarat diocese, where the priest was able to abuse hundreds of children.

"In today's parlance, the Catholic Church was more concerned about its name, its organisation, its brand, than it was about the very reason for it being — and that was the protection of the most vulnerable that were under its guidance," Mr O'Connor told 7.30.

He was dismayed by the fact that, despite being told by a police officer that Ridsdale had abused children in 1975, the bishop continued to move the priest around parishes until the 1990s.

"Given that he was a man of the cloth, given his position that he was a leader within that organisation, he was morally bankrupt to behave in a manner where he knew or at least expected that by leaving this person or moving this person to another church, or district or region, would in itself expose other potential victims," Mr O'Connor said.

"At no level could you argue in support of that."

Operation Arcadia was hamstrung by a lack of resources and the looser laws around child sexual abuse at the time, which classed the original crimes as misdemeanours.

Its attempt to prosecute Bishop Mulkearns for misprision of a felony failed.

Teacher 'horrified' at bishop's decision to deny wrongdoings

Teacher Ann Ryan taught at St Colman's, the primary school in the tiny western Victorian town of Mortlake where the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse heard Ridsdale abused every boy he could lay his hands on.

In 1982 the school's then principal, Sister Kate McGrath, was told by parents Ridsdale was abusing their children.

That same day she arranged for Bishop Mulkearns to be told. Days later, Ridsdale was removed from the parish.

At any level. And above any social, spiritual responsibility the man had. That was heartless.

Chris O'Connor

But the bishop did not tell police. He also failed to help the child victims.

Documents tendered to the royal commission showed Sister McGrath tried to arrange counselling for the families.

"Some of the parents wished to hold a meeting. The bishop said no, there was to be no meeting," Sister McGrath told a lawyer in the tendered document.

"I asked that something be done for those children and to the best of my memory the response was that we could do nothing for the children."

Ms Ryan said: "Sister Kate told me in recent times that he told her that would be admitting guilt to do anything for the children. Or to do anything at all."

She said her response to that was "horror".

"It's just a totally inhumane response," she said.

Former detective Chris O'Connor described it as "heartless".

"At any level. And above any social, spiritual responsibility the man had. That was heartless," Mr O'Connor said.

Bishop used power, not responsibility: O'Connor

When Ridsdale was first removed from the school in 1982, Ms Ryan did not know why.

When she found out seven years later from a parent of an abused child, she wrote about it to the bishop.

The bishop wrote back: "I assure you of my own concern for all members of the diocesan community, however it is difficult to reach out ... to people when one only hears of vague rumours of a general kind."

However at the same time, documents tendered to the royal commission showed the bishop was indeed aware of more than "vague rumours" and was in fact organising for Ridsdale to be sent to an order of priests in New Mexico where he would be treated for paedophilia.

Ms Ryan had "no idea" at the time of the deception.

Mr O'Connor said it was "indicative of the arrogance of the Catholic Church at the time".

"As a senior member of that organisation, [Bishop Mulkearns] had a certain amount of power and responsibility. He used the power, but not the responsibility," he said.

I've never been back. And gradually all my beliefs and all the doctrine left my life.

Ann Ryan

Wayne Chamley from the victims' group Broken Rites told 7.30 he understood the town of Mortlake "imploded over the Ridsdale saga".

"Sons fought fathers because the fathers didn't believe the sons had been abused," he said.

"The whole family networks just started tearing themselves apart because of what had happened. A shocking tragedy in that town."

Bishop gives evidence in hearing for another priest

On Wednesday, a Geelong magistrate compelled Mulkearns to testify in another case, ruling he was mentally able to give evidence in the committal hearing for another priest, Father Robert Claffey, who is accused of 14 counts of indecent assault.

In a short appearance, Bishop Mulkearns told the court that on more than a dozen occasions he could not recall events surrounding Claffey's alleged crimes.

But the former bishop did remember the priest had been "misbehaving".

When asked how, he replied: "In a sexual way. I don't remember detail."

The royal commission will announce today whether it will compel Bishop Mulkearns to give evidence about what he knew later this year.

For the victims and disillusioned Catholics he has left behind, it cannot come soon enough.

"I think it is a very flawed and dysfunctional institution," Ms Ryan, who lost her faith in 1997, said.

"I've never been back. And gradually all my beliefs and all the doctrine left my life."


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