Former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns dies at 85

By Jane Lee
April 4, 2016

Ronald Mulkearns giving evidence at the royal commission in February this year.

Bishop Mulkearns before his retirement.

[with video]

Known as the "keeper of secrets", a key bishop responsible for moving paedophile priests around Victorian parishes for decades, has died.

Ronald Mulkearns, who was the Catholic bishop of Ballarat for nearly 30 years, died on Sunday night at the age of 85 after a long battle with colon cancer.

The Catholic Diocese of Ballarat confirmed his death on Monday morning.

Bishop Mulkearns headed the Ballarat diocese between 1971 and 1997, when Catholic clergy, including teachers, abused hundreds of children.

Many clergy sex abuse survivors believe he could have stopped much of the horrific abuse that occurred in the region. 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard the bishop moved priests, including serial child sex offender Gerald Ridsdale around the diocese despite being told they had abused children, and also destroyed documents in Ridsdale's file.

Ballarat's current bishop, Paul Bird, said: "Those who knew him personally will remember a man who was dedicated in his service over those years and, indeed, over the 60 years he served as a priest.  At the same time, Bishop Mulkearns himself acknowledged that he had made some tragic mistakes during his time as bishop."

In February, Bishop Mulkearns appeared at the commission via videolink from his nursing home. He said then he was "terribly sorry" he did not take sexual abuse allegations seriously and admitted he did not know how to handle the situation.

He said he knew that the rape of children was wrong and admitted he was motivated by a desire to protect the church's reputation: "I wanted to make sure these incidents didn't happen in the future and tried my best to work in such a way that it wouldn't happen in the future.

He said his memory had been failing since he suffered a stroke and he could not recall whether he ever asked priests accused of sexual crimes about their alleged offending.

The hearing was adjourned after about 90 minutes on medical advice. The commission had planned to schedule another appearance, but Bishop Mulkearns never returned to answer more questions.

He had previously avoided testifying to the commission and the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child abuse because of his ill health.

A number of senior priests who advised him on priest movements when he was Ballarat's bishop have told the commission that Mulkearns ultimately made the decisions.

Father Adrian McInerney, who was Bishop Mulkearns' secretary for five years, last year told the commission the bishop was the "pivotal person" responsible for addressing child abuse. "In retrospect, he needed to remove people completely from ministry."

Another former adviser, Father John McKinnon, also previously told the commission Mulkearns struggled to sleep because of his concerns about this period.

Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Dr Cathy Kezelman said Bishop Mulkearns "oversaw many more children being harmed and with incredibly damaging repercussions for their lives. Some lost their lives to suicide".

Clergy abuse survivor Phil Nagle said Bishop Mulkearns had failed to fully answer questions around abuse allegations at the commission. 

"His passing means a lot of secrets and sins will go to the grave with him," he told The Ballarat Courier.

Seventeen survivors of Gerald Ridsdale's abuse have lodged civil claims against Bishop Mulkearns in the Victorian Supreme Court.

Their lawyer, Dr Viv Waller, said all cases alleged the bishop was negligent in allowing Ridsdale to have access to children despite knowing he had been accused of child sexual abuse.

She said that the cases, adjourned while survivors discussed the possibility of private settlements with the Ballarat diocese, could continue despite Bishop Mulkearns' death because they involved civil claims. 

A spokesman for the Ballarat diocese said it would stand in as a defendant in these cases, and that any compensation the court awarded survivors as a result "will be covered by [the diocese's] assets or insurance".



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