Ballarat's good men of the cloth
By Peter Ellingsen
June 14, 2002
It was a triumphant homecoming. The tall, gangly figure, once a sickly youngster, was back with credentials that marked him for greatness. At 30, George Pell had not only proved his sporting prowess, trying out for champion football team Richmond, but had been to Rome, and earned an Oxford doctorate. It was a combination that made the young Father Pell a glittering prize when he returned to the Ballarat diocese in 1971.
In those days, priests, especially in Ballarat, the most devout of Victoria's four dioceses, were all-powerful, and Pell, who would go on to be archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, was not only a priest, but a priest blooded in Rome. Few doubted he was a prince of the church in the making.
But as he went about his first Australian appointment, the diocese in which he had grown up, and to which he was returning, had much to hide. While Pell prepared to hear confessions in Swan Hill, some of his colleagues in the diocese were sexually molesting young boys in the classrooms of East Ballarat's St Alipius primary school. In 1971, the year Pell returned from Oxford, a disturbing number of the school's male personnel were paedophiles. Indeed, they were part of a flowering paedophile ring that would go unchecked by the church for more than 20 years. By the time the church faced up to it, hundreds of lives would lay in ruins, a policeman who tried to break up the ring would be out of a job, and Pell would insist that he knew nothing of the abuse until it was too late.
The story of the gifted archbishop and the gutter lives of Ballarat's paedophile priests and brothers is a study in contrasts. It is not just that Ballarat, built around the old gold mining town, is - according to current bishop Peter Connors - probably the worst of Australia's 32 dioceses for sexual abuse. It is also that while Pell came back from overseas full of moral entreaties, men he knew, serial child abusers such as Father Gerald Ridsdale, denied the faith by systematically sodomising young boys.
The pattern continued for decades. As Pell rose through the ranks, due in part to his tough, conservative moral stance on sex and schooling, his Ballarat colleagues talked saintly and behaved sadistically. And through it all, the church went on placing criminal clergy where they could prey on children, while at the same time frustrating police inquiries and persuading complaining families to remain silent.
It was the kind of hypocrisy and manipulation that can, and did, drive victims and their families to the edge, and over it. Pell, who was never bishop of Ballarat, says he did not know the extent of Ridsdale's evil until the priest was first put on trial in early 1993, although he said yesterday he "did hear rumours about the time Ridsdale returned from treatment in the USA in 1990".
And it is true that Pell, whose first job in 1971 was as an assistant priest in Swan Hill (still in the Ballarat diocese), was a fair way from St Alipius when Ridsdale became the school's chaplain. But the two men were familiar. Though separated by seven years, both attended St Patrick's College in Ballarat. Their families knew each other, and for a year they shared a house. Both went to Corpus Christi seminary, though at different times.
Ridsdale - who was finally jailed for a minimum of 15 years in 1994 after pleading guilty to 46 counts of sexual offences committed over two decades on 21 victims - arrived at St Alipius from Warrnambool after a decade in the priesthood. He was older than Pell, and having left school early, did not have the academic sparkle of the younger man. Like his sister Shirley, he was born in St Arnaud, 245 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, but grew up in Ballarat and, like Pell, returned to the diocese for his first job. A tall, big-boned man, often seen as jovial and extroverted, he was a popular figure when he returned in 1971. No one knew it at the time, but he was a confirmed paedophile.
At the four-classroom St Alipius he found like company. Brother Robert Best, who taught grade 6, Brother Edward Dowlan, who taught grade 5, and another brother, Fitzgerald, now dead, were all paedophiles. So was former Christian Brother Stephen Francis Farrell. All, except Fitzgerald, were later convicted of sex crimes. During Dowlan's County Court trial in 1996, the prosecution alleged that three St Alipius boys were each sexually abused by Dowlan, Best and Ridsdale.
"Derek" said he was assaulted by Dowlan in grade 5in 1971, by Best in 1971-72 and by Ridsdale at the church in 1972, while he was making his confession to the priest. Last week, "Derek" revealed he had been paid $200,000 and asked to sign a confidentiality clause as part of a compensation payout from the church.
"Stephen" said he was assaulted many times by Best in grade 6 in 1973, and by Dowlan and Ridsdale. Now aged 40, and happy to have his name used, that boy, Stephen Woods, says it was a brutal time for the boys at the school.
"The culture was one of incredible violence," he says. He says he was raped by Ridsdale after the priest was no longer chaplain at the school. It was 1975 and 14-year-old Stephen knocked on the door of St Patrick's cathedral presbytery, the imposing building where Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns had an office. He asked to see a priest and was introduced to Ridsdale. "Straight away he started molesting me," Stephen says. "He took me to a toilet at Lake Wendouree and raped me."
From the toilet, Stephen could glimpse the 15-room bluestone mansion that was the official residence of Ballarat's bishop. It sat on 1.3 hectares on the west, or Adelaide, side of town. On the east, or Melbourne side, was St Alipius, and the flat land where the gold miners settled and built shanties, pubs and brothels. It was not salubrious, but it was where Ridsdale lived.
In 1973 Pell joined him, and several other priests, in a house just one door from St Alipius. Pell never worked at the school: his new post of vicar for education for the diocese was not an executive one. His main task was chairing the board that advised on school policy.
Pell says he strove to work amicably with his brother priests, but was never close friends with Ridsdale. "I lived there with him and there was not even a whisper," Pell said later.
The church's leadership, however, did know of Ridsdale's abuse. At Ridsdale's 1994 trial, it was claimed the church had sent him to a psychologist as early as 1971 and that before arriving at Ballarat, he had been shunted around the diocese because of complaints.
Bishop Mulkearns, now retired, says that he did not know of Ridsdale's problem until 1975, when the priest was at Inglewood, a gold rush town 180 kilometres north of Melbourne. Mulkearns did not return calls yesterday, but in a letter to Shirley Mitchell in June, 1994, he said that after a parishioner had complained about Ridsdale he "immediately removed" the priest.
Like other Catholic bishops at that time and later, Mulkearns did not, however, keep the paedophile priest away from children or report him to police. After "psychological counselling", he was given a new job and he continued to offend.
Mulkearns' 1994 letter to Ridsdale's sister says: "It could, therefore be said that I was aware of a problem, but I was certainly unaware of the extent of that problem and I did endeavour to do something about it."
Like Pell, he says he had no idea of the extent of the problem until criminal charges were laid. Shirley Mitchell, who was angry with both her brother and Bishop Mulkearns, partly for the damage done to victims, her parents and family, now accepts that church leaders in the '70s just did not understand paedophilia.
Others, like victims' support group Broken Rites, however, question how Pell, who moved to the city of Ballarat in 1973, did not know, at least by 1975, when Mulkearns admits he knew that Ridsdale was a serial sex offender.
Pell says that by 1974, while he still lived in Ballarat, he spent up to two days a week working in Melbourne as director of Aquinas College, Institute of Catholic Education. He said Mass at Ballarat parish at weekends. "I was never chaplain to St Alipius Boys School or worked there," he said yesterday.
It was in late 1975, when Mulkearns moved Ridsdale from Inglewood, that the abuse first came to the notice of police. A Detective Sergeant Mooney was contacted by a prominent Inglewood identity whose son had allegedly been molested by Ridsdale. Inquiries were frustrated, however, when the parents would not allow their son to be interviewed and Ridsdale disappeared.
Mooney visited Mulkearns to tell him what he had learnt of Ridsdale's behaviour. The bishop said he would handle it. In fact, he moved the paedophile priest on. The abuse continued, building up to the point where, by 1995, 20 years after Mulkearns says he was first alerted, police mounted a three-month investigation - Operation Arcadia - examining the bishop's role. They concluded that "it does appear that Mulkearns has had knowledge of events as committed by Ridsdale much earlier than he suggests".
There is no doubt that a cover-up was in full swing, and it ranged to the far edges of the sprawling Ballarat diocese. It is not just that the Christian Brothers spent an estimated $400,000 defending St Alipius' paedophiles, Dowlan and Best; the diocese was shielding paedophiles as far away as Mildura, on the NSW border.
In 1971, when the St Alipius paedophile ring was taking shape and Pell had just returned, a Mildura detective, Denis Ryan, gathered 16 written statements from 14 boys and two girls detailing child abuse offences against Monsignor John Day. Day, Mildura parish priest from 1957 to 1971, died in 1978 aged 69. Ridsdale had worked with Day for two years until 1964, and was a good friend. Ryan, a veteran detective stationed at Mildura, first came across Day when, as a young constable, he arrested him in St Kilda at 2 o'clock one morning in 1956. The then Father Day was in a car with two prostitutes. He had his pants down. Day was not charged.
Ryan renewed his acquaintance with Day when a Mildura headmaster told him in 1971 that a 12-year-old girl had been indecently assaulted by the priest. It is believed that police notified Mulkearns around 1971-72 about the evidence against Day, but he was not moved, nor taken out of contact with children.
In 1997, the year Mulkearns resigned, Ryan said Day had not been charged with molesting children, despite the sworn evidence he had amassed, including that from a girl aged 14.
Ryan, a Catholic, said at the time that the case had cost him his job, his first marriage and tens of thousands of dollars in superannuation. "When it was learnt by police command that I had begun an investigation into Monsignor Day, I was instructed by some of my superiors to cease," he said. "I was also given strict instructions not to make any more inquiries. Shortly afterwards I was informed I was to be transferred to Melbourne." Ryan, who had family reasons for staying in Mildura, chose to resign rather than leave.
Dr Pell said yesterday that although they were in the same diocese, he was not aware of Day's activities except that he heard some gossip about him in the 1970s "which was fiercely rejected by many".
But in a 1997 letter to parishioners, Mildura parish moderator Father Pat Mugavin said there was evidence to support claims that Day sexually assaulted a number of children. He expressed regret and sorrow, adding, "when trust is betrayed by church leadership, we all feel betrayed and outraged".
Day was taken out of Mildura and allowed to go overseas until the heat came off. In 1972 State Parliament was told that pressure had been bought to bear, not only in the police force, but in the chief secretary's department. Les Shilton, an MLA and former detective, objected to Day being able to leave the country and called for a judicial inquiry. No inquiry was held, and Day returned to Australia to be given a new post at Timboon, near Warrnambool, the coastal town where Ridsdale had served before returning home to Ballarat.
It was like a game of musical chairs, with paedophile priests in a ring ravaging children until the music stopped, and one of them had to leave the circle. The people were kept in the dark. No one at Timboon was told why Day was moved to their parish. No warnings were issued. No one seemed concerned. Why this should be when the devastation Ridsdale and the others were wreaking was horrendous - "Derek", one of Ridsdale's victims who gave evidence in court, spoke of seeing the priest straddling one boy while the other, who was bleeding from the anus, cried - is hard to fathom.
Shirley Mitchell did not know her brother had abused one of her family until he was about to be charged in 1993. Then Ridsdale had no explanation, though he denied his paedophilia was due to celibacy. He later claimed he was sexually assaulted while a boy by, among others, a Christian brother. In his teens he became aware of his sexual leaning towards boys. It was, he told someone close to him, more about "power" than sex.
Known by some as the "poofter priest from Inglewood", Ridsdale was, in 1976, moved to a more remote parish, Edenhope, near the South Australian border. He was, his victims from that time say, still upbeat and apparently unchastened by the brush with police. Victims talk of him coming into classrooms in Edenhope and selecting boys whom he would abuse in the nearby presbytery.
"He'd lock the door. He'd offer you lollies, soft-drink, anything," one of his victims, "Andrew", told Age reporter Ian Munro in 1994.
By 1980, his behaviour was so out of control the church took him out of direct ministry and packed him off to the National Pastoral Institute in the southern Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick, where, though denied easy access to young children, he continued to offend.
Yesterday Pell said "there was nothing unusual" about Ridsdale studying at the institute. "Before 1996, Ballarat had a committee to deal with this problem of accusations of sexual abuse. I was never a member of such a committee and no allegations or reports on any of the men mentioned were made to me."
In 1981 Ridsdale was sent even further away, to Sydney, where he had a desk job. Yet he still found victims and is wanted for sex offences there.
Ridsdale's last parish appointment came in 1986 when he was posted to the town of Horsham, in Victoria's Wimmera. He is reported to have told a colleague there that his past was catching up with him. And it was. In 1988, one of the Edenhope victims made a complaint, as did a Horsham woman whose son had been molested. But still the church protected him. In 1990, the year that Pell, by now an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne diocese, was made a member of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog - Ridsdale was packed off to New Mexico, where he was supposedly going to be reformed. In fact, he had a nine-month holiday, during which he did "locums" for the local diocese, and sexually abused children, some of whom have confronted the American church.
Time was, however, running out. In 1992, after being appointed chaplain at St John of God hospital in Richmond, NSW, a victim phoned Operation Paradox, a Victorian police child sex abuse phone-in. Three months later he was charged.
When he made his first court appearance in 1993, Pell was by his side. "My sympathies were always with the victims," Pell said last week, adding that he "had little idea of the full extent and gravity of his (Ridsdale's) crimes". Pell now says his accompanying Ridsdale was a mistake, as it misled people about his position.
Just before the trial, Ridsdale travelled home to Ballarat to tell his family about his crimes. They were deeply shocked. He had, unbeknown to them, sexually abused some of his nephews, including David Ridsdale. David has claimed that Pell tried to silence him when he phoned him about the abuse in 1993. Pell denies this, and says, "David's claims are inconsistent, discredited and wrong".
What is not in dispute is the breadth of Ridsdale's crimes. When he told his family, one asked: "How many, Gerald. Four, or five?". He paused. "Hundreds," was his reply.