The church robbed us of our sons : mothers

GUILT STRICKEN: Anne Levey's son Paul was sexually abused by disgraced priest Gerald Ridsdale. or PICTURE: Mark Jesser.
GUILT STRICKEN: Anne Levey's son Paul was sexually abused by disgraced priest Gerald Ridsdale. or PICTURE: Mark Jesser.

Anne Levey is racked with guilt.

Once a devout Catholic, Ms Levey still has faith in God — but she can’t bring herself to step inside a Catholic Church.

She doesn’t accept dogma from any church, not since her son Paul was sexually abused at the hands of disgraced paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale. 

“I blame myself, every day I blame myself,” she says. “I can’t help it.

“You go to bed and you’re thinking about it. You wake up and you’re thinking about it, but you just have to keep going. You live with it every day, the guilt, regret and the shame.”

Ms Levey is one of scores of secondary victims of the child sexual abuse scandal caught up in a cycle of entrenched pain. 

Brought up to worship the Catholic Church, Ms Levey, 74, would get down on her knees and prayed the rosary daily.

Up until last year, she attended church every Sunday. 

Anne Levey (far left) with Paul (far right) and other family members before the family met disgraced priest Gerald Ridsdale.

Anne Levey (far left) with Paul (far right) and other family members before the family met disgraced priest Gerald Ridsdale.

But after she gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Ms Levey couldn’t go into a church without breaking down.

“It’s taken that away from me and it was a big part of my life,” she says.

Paul was 14 when he was sent to live with Ridsdale by his father after he struggled to cope with his parents separation in 1982.

In a harrowing submission to child abuse inquiry in 2015, Paul revealed he was "sexually abused all the time, just about every day".

Paul says it was common knowledge he was living there and that he was being sexually abused by Ridsdale.  

When Paul comes to stay at her house in Albury, Ms Levey hears him crying out in the middle of the night.

“He tries to keep the impact of it all to himself, but I hear him screaming out half the night and my heart breaks,” she says.

It was during a parish camping trip to White Cliffs, in far-western New South Wales in the early 1980s, that Ms Levey met Ridsdale for the first time.

Paul Levey aged 11.

Paul Levey aged 11.

She remembers him as an arrogant, aloof man who took a instant liking to Paul.

When they returned home to Melbourne, Ridsdale would turn up unexpectedly offering to take Paul on outings to the football or the zoo.

“I thought it was fabulous to begin with that Gerry (Ridsdale) had taken an interest in Paul and was doing all these things with him that I couldn’t afford,” she says.  

But it was her mother’s instinct that told her something was wrong when Paul was sent to live in Mortlake.

“I hated the idea of him there, I just wanted him home with me,” she says.

She repeatedly called then Bishop Ronald Mulkearns pleading with him to intervene but was told her ex-husband had given his permission.

“I said ‘how can you let a child live at a presbytery with a priest? That’s not appropriate, I want Paul taken out of there’,” Ms Levey says.

When she threatened to call the police, Bishop Mulkearns hung up on her. 

Paul returned home from Mortlake months later a different boy.

“He was angry, out of control and in trouble all the time,” she says.

After problems with truancy in high school, he attempted to end his life in his late teens. It was not until years later Paul disclosed his abuse to his mum. 

“Those priest and clergy would have no idea the impact it’s had on these boys or their families,” she says.

“There is pattern of destruction that runs through lives of all of these victims and their families.

“I’d like to live long enough to see proper public acknowledgment from the Catholic Church of the devastating impact this whole thing has had on people.”

One afternoon in the early 1990s a group of Ballarat mothers met inside the empty hall of the old St Alipius Boys School. 

It was days after news emerged disgraced paedophile Christian Brother Robert Best was facing a string of child sexual abuse of charges.

Many of their children were abused inside the four walls of the building they were standing.

At least four Christian Brothers at the school in the early 1970s were child sex offenders, as was parish priest Ridsdale.

The women stood in a circle and wrapped their arms around each other.  

One of the women was Mary.*

"We didn't know what else to do,” she says.

“They were all women who were touched by it, they all knew somebody who was touched by it. None of us could speak openly about it, yet we all knew and felt it. We just held each other as we cried."

Mothers across Ballarat have absorbed the pain silently.  

With broken hearts, many have buried their children following suicides and premature deaths brought on by the abuse. 

They’ve watched on helplessly as their children and have grown into troubled men, spiralling down a road of self-destruction and despair. 

They’ve been grappled with their own misplaced guilt and shame.

“We said to each other ‘no matter what they'll never take our faith’,” she says.

“They'll never knock St Alipius down, it will never fall apart, we'll be a part of it because they can’t take our faith.”

Mary’s faith is stronger than the men who corrupted it.

"You either go with your faith or against it, it's a defining moment when you think perhaps God isn't there after all or you realise God is there and you need him more than ever,” she says. 

“I still pray everyday.”

Two of her sons were sexually abused, one by Ridsdale and the other by Best.  

"I feel like they robbed me of my sons ... of the good side of their childhood, their innocence," she says.

"I blame people like Best and I’ve blamed myself all these years. But falling apart wasn’t an option, you just had to carry on for your family.”

Mary still attends St Alipius parish every week. 

Like so many women of her vintage, the foundation of Mary’s life is built on her faith.

She’s lived a selfless life, a devoted mum, wife and carer to her husband who died after a long battle with ill-health.  

When Mary’s children were growing up in 1960s and 1970s St Alpius parish was the thriving centre of their lives.

"It was more than just a parish, it was our community," she says.

“Everything we did revolved around the parish.”

But behind the facade of parish, was a dark culture of grooming parents and families.

Cardinal George Pell, Best, Ridsdale and disgraced Christian brother Gerald Fitzgerald were regular dinner guests at their home. 

Mary didn’t drink, neither did her husband, but they kept cold beer in the fridge for clergy. 

The best meat would be given to Cardinal Pell, Best, Ridsdale and Fitzgerald. 

“When I look back I feel so foolish and ashamed we gave them so much,” she says.

“But it was the way we were brought up.”

It’s Mary’s entrenched guilt and shame which makes her unable to identify herself for fear of public scrutiny. 

"You're afraid of how people will react and what they will think of you and you feel so vulnerable," she says.

“Women had to be strong because if the man was gone or the man was in trouble the women have to do what has to be done with the children.

There are times when I feel I have failed my children."

“I hope I live enough to see a change in the church hierarchy so no other family has to go through this.

“The pain stops here.”

The night Peter Watson told his mum Helen he’d been sexually abused by disgraced Catholic priest Paul David Ryan she later found him in bed clutching a shotgun.

HEARTBROKEN: Helen Watson lost her son to suicide years after he was raped by a Catholic priest. PICTURE: Jeremy Bannister

HEARTBROKEN: Helen Watson lost her son to suicide years after he was raped by a Catholic priest. PICTURE: Jeremy Bannister

He was trembling. 

It would be the first of many attempts Peter would make to end his own life.

“I just feel the church has raped my soul,” she says.

“There’s no other way to describe it.”

Peter was just 15 when he was was raped by Ryan.

The abuse sent Peter on a path of self-destruction that ended with him taking his life at 24.

Years of Peter’s life were spent in a haze of drugs and alcohol as he descended into madness and was moved in and out of institutional care.

It was not until years after the abuse Peter told his mother the identity of his perpetrator and she tried to get psychiatric help for her son. 

“He said he’d been sexually abused if I ever told anyone he’d kill himself,” she says.

 “I was so caught between not wanting him to take his life and taking the risk and telling somebody but I often wonder if I had of reported it if he’d be here today.”

When Peter went missing in March of 1999, Ms Watson went to the police station every day searching for her missing son.

Peter Watson, who sucided in 1999.

Peter Watson, who sucided in 1999.

But it would be six years before his body was formally identified after a check of fingerprint records.

He had suicided in a boat shed in  Aspendale late in 1999.

Unable to identify him, police buried him as a John Doe.

Until his body was found, Ms Watson never gave up hope.

“I never stopped searching,” she says.

“The impact on us as a family has been absolutely horrific. The journey looking for Peter and finding Peter came with other layers of trauma. I still suffer from it. It’s had ripple effects on my other son and husband. My husband still blames himself.”

Ms Watson recalls the exact moment she lost her son. 

He had returned from spending the night in Ararat at the parish presbytery.

The stench of alcohol was dripping off Ryan when he dropped her son home. 

“He was just this beautiful young boy, full of life and intelligence but he just changed,” Ms Watson says.

She remembers looking through a window and seeing Peter outside their home that afternoon. 

He had tears pouring down his cheeks as he built a bonfire in the middle of an empty paddock. 

He was screaming as he threw the logs into a pile. 

“I’ll never forget the look on Peter’s face, he was an absolute mess,” Ms Watson says. 

“He was throwing huge logs no man could ever physically lift and he was only a lad. I kept asking him what was wrong and he was just sobbing and yelling at me to go away.”

Ms Watson was brought up a devout Catholic in the 1950s. She’d walk a mile every day to attend church during her teenage years.

“I really struggle with my faith now, I’m not sure if I believe in God,” she says.

She describes the ongoing trauma as a wound that won’t heal. 

“I have highs and lows,” she says.

“Then something comes up and it’s like this scar on your arm and you scratch that scar and you bleed again.

Because I am his mum, that scar will never heal. You never forget. You learn to live with it.”

She wants the church to be stripped of its tax-exempt status.

"They should pay the price the rest of Australians have to pay," she says.

 "They need to stop thinking they're above the law. They've hidden behind their own laws far too long. They need to be held accountable.”

She says a national redress scheme for survivors of clergy sexual abuse should be wholly funded by the Catholic Church. 

But it also must take into account the a catastrophic toll of mental illness and trauma which has ruined the lives victims.

To contact the Centre Against Sexual Assault  located on the corner of Vale and Edwards streets, Sebastopol, call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours 1800 806 292.

Lifeline can be accessed on 13 11 14.

*Mary is not her real name