The dark history of Ballarat’s worst pedophile priest

Gerald ridsdale in Mortlake where he repeatedly offended.

Gerald ridsdale in Mortlake where he repeatedly offended.

One of Australia's worst pedophile priests has pleaded guilty to abusing another 11 victims during his time in Ballarat.

Former Ballarat priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale used his exalted position in the eyes of Catholic families and communities to find his prey.

Gerard Ridsdale - already convicted of abusing 53 children - appeared via video link at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court on Thursday and pleaded guilty to a number of child abuse charges.

Ridsdale giving evidence at the Royal Commission from Ararat.

Ridsdale giving evidence at the Royal Commission from Ararat.

Over these decades his modus operandi appeared to follow a pattern; he appeared to be a friendly and hardworking priest who helped his parishioners, particularly youths and the needy.

But it was all a ruse that was allowed to continue for decades and, as one judge put it, plummeted to the depths of evil hypocrisy.

Australia's most prolific pedophile priest has now admitted in five court cases that he abused more than 60 children.

His true number of victims is in the hundreds, victims' advocacy group Broken Rites spokesman Dr Wayne Chamley says.

"The original police investigation - it was estimated that he might have actually sexually abused up to 1000 children during his 30 to 40 years of crime."

Ridsdale, 82, has pleaded guilty to further offences against 10 boys and one girl in Ballarat and the surrounding area from 1961 to the 1980s.

Ridsdale spent three months in prison after his first convictions in 1993 and has been in jail since 1994, serving an effective total sentence of 28 years.

The former Victorian priest has already been convicted for sexually abusing 53 children, dating back to when he was ordained in 1961, although his offending began while he was studying in the seminary.

He abused the children, mainly boys and many altar boys, in the sacristy, presbytery and confessional, in his car, when he took the children away after gaining their parents' trust, before and after Mass, first holy communion, confirmation and weddings.

He took a boy and girl away from their father's gravesite after presiding over the funeral so he could abuse them.

First court appearecnes in 1993

First court appearecnes in 1993

"He was abusing children at every opportunity he could get," Dr Chamley said.

Ridsdale cannot remember the names of all the children he abused in parishes across western Victoria, as well as in NSW.

He knew it was wrong. He knew it was a crime.

"It was morally wrong and it was legally wrong," he told the child abuse royal commission in 2015.

"Yes, they were serious sins.

"I'd be fearful all the time of someone reporting me."

Two Ballarat bishops knew of Ridsdale's crimes, one as early as his first year as a priest, and two Sydney archbishops knew he had "sexual problems" and should be kept away from children, the royal commission heard.

Ridsdale had an established pattern of finding victims, befriending their families and setting up drop-in centres to trap vulnerable young boys.

"It's obvious now to me that a pattern would have been, or a way of seeking victims, would have been to look for the vulnerable or to recognise the vulnerable, but not always vulnerable or poor ones," Ridsdale told the royal commission.

"I would have made sure that I was in a situation where there was no one else around and I would have told the children to keep quiet about it."

There was no sense pretending - the drop-in centre he set up while parish priest in the Victorian parish of Inglewood in 1975 was a trap, Ridsdale admitted to a Catholic Church Insurances investigator in 1994.

"I was out of control, really out of control in those years."

Ridsdale left the parish overnight in 1975, panicking after a woman told him after morning Mass that the police were investigating talk around the town that he had been "interfering with the boys".

With Cardinal Pell in 1993

With Cardinal Pell in 1993

He was a prolific offender in the town of Mortlake in 1981 and 1982.

"I got out of control again. I went haywire there. Altar boys mainly. They came over to the presbytery," Ridsdale said in 1994.

"It was no secret around Mortlake eventually about me and my behaviour. There was talk all around the place, amongst the children and one lot of parents came to me."

His replacement as parish priest at Mortlake was stood up against a wall by four parents on his first night there, who told him if he interfered with any of the kids he would be gutted.

Ridsdale had attempted to molest nearly every boy in the school, they said.

The abuse destroyed the Catholic families in the town to such an extent that they still cannot talk about it, Dr Chamley said.

"In Mortlake it's considered he abused every child in the primary school in the two to three years he was there as a priest," he said.

"The whole town imploded.

"Some Catholics thought he was a great person and others realised he was a predator, so there was all this warfare within families."

The bluestone building in Mortlake where Ridsdale abused children no longer exists, Dr Chamley said.

"The parishioners used to go out night after night and remove the building, row by row of bluestones, and obliterated all signs that Ridsdale had ever been there."

Dr Chamley said Ridsdale was a skilled predator who was also devious in his dealings with adults.

"We know at times when adults raised questions about his behaviour, he would then mobilise other parishioners by bad-mouthing his accusers.

"He would play off one party against another just to enable him to go on with his criminal behaviour."

Ridsdale admitted to the commission that someone like him should never have been a priest.

He also admitted he should have been stopped by the church, which moved him between parishes and sent him for counselling.

He was laicised after his first convictions in 1993, after serving three months in jail.

Now Cardinal George Pell, then an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, walked his 1973 Ballarat housemate Ridsdale to that first court appearance in May 1993, in what he has since said was a mistake.

Ridsdale has been in jail since 1994, handed a total effective sentence of 28 years.

Ridsdale knows he would have been removed from the priesthood and jailed had the bishop he first discussed his offending with gone to the police.

"It would have, and I am now sorry that it didn't; that it didn't happen," Ridsdale told the commission.

"It would have saved so many others."

FRANCIS RIDSDALE'S LIFE AND OFFENDING

  • 1934 - Born May 20, St Arnaud, Victoria
  • Primary school St Aloysius, Redan
  • Secondary school St Patrick's College, Ballarat
  • 1954-1958 - Studied for priesthood Corpus Christi College, Werribee. Began offending.
  • 1958-1960 - Seminary, Collegio Brignole Sale, Genoa
  • 1960-1961 - Seminary, All Hallows College, Dublin
  • 1961 - July 25, ordained as priest at St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat
  • - Fills in at five parishes including Horsham, Inglewood, Camperdown and Ballarat North
  • 1962-1964 - Assistant priest at Ballarat North
  • - First complaint in Ridsdale's first year as priest - boy from Villa Maria boarding school in Ballarat East
  • 1964-1966 - Assistant priest Mildura
  • 1966-1969 - Assistant priest Swan Hill
  • 1970-1972 - Assistant priest Warrnambool
  • 1972-1974 - Assistant priest Ballarat East
  • 1974-1975 - Parish priest Apollo Bay. Puts in for transfer February 1975 after man tells him in a pub there's talk about him and kids
  • 1975 - Parish priest Inglewood. Panics and leaves overnight after a woman says there is talk he has been interfering with boys and police are making inquiries. Sent for counselling
  • Early 1976 - Temporarily appointed to Bungaree
  • 1976-1979 - Administrator then parish priest Edenhope
  • 1980 - Study leave, National Pastoral Institute. Offended there
  • 1981-1982 - Parish priest Mortlake. Prolific offender
  • 1982 - Starts on-and-off counselling
  • 1982-1985 - Catholic Enquiry Centre, Sydney. Within 12 months offends against boy from parish prayer group who became his altar boy. End of 1983 centre director says "I want him out of here"
  • Early 1986 - Short periods as Woy Woy assistant priest and Forestville administrator, both in then Sydney archdiocese
  • July 1986-May 1988 - Assistant priest Horsham
  • (August 1987 - Written complaint about offending while in Horsham)
  • April 1988 - Steps down from parish work
  • June 1988 - Priestly faculties suspended for 12 months
  • November 1989-September 1990 - Residential program at Jemez Springs centre in New Mexico. A document before commission says Ridsdale admitted to police he offended in US
  • - Ridsdale says didn't offend from time he returned to Australia and his 1993 arrest
  • March/April 1991 - Assistant priest St John of God Hospital, Richmond, NSW (role as a chaplain)
  • May 1993 - Admits indecently assaulting eight children. Now Cardinal George Pell and Father Adrian McInerney accompany him to court. Sentenced to two years and three months, suspended after three months
  • November 1993 - Laicised
  • August 1994 - Admits abusing 20 boys and one girl from 1961-1982. Held in custody
  • October 1994 - Jailed for 18 years (15-year minimum)
  • August 2006 - Sentenced to 13 years (seven-year minimum); admits abusing 10 boys from 1970-1987
  • April 2014 - Sentenced to eight years (five-year minimum); admits abusing 11 boys, three girls from 1961-1980
  • December 2016 - Charged with 36 fresh historical sex abuse charges related to offences that allegedly took place in Ballarat, Ocean Grove, Merbein, Edenhope, Quantong, Mortlake and Riverside
  • March 2017 - Two further charges added
  • April 2017 - Ridsdale pleads guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court to 20 new charges related the abuse of another 11 victims during his time in Ballarat.

With AAP