Ballarat Diocese responds to Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse report

Bishop Paul Bird. Picture: Adam Trafford
Bishop Paul Bird. Picture: Adam Trafford

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released a scathing critique of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ballarat’s response to abuse claims, describing the lack of action as a “catastrophic institutional failure of the Diocese”.     

The report, which comes one day after documentation about the Melbourne Archdiocese was released, said “commissioners heard that there was a tendency by clergy in the Diocese to treat complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse dismissively and in favour of the priest who was the subject of the allegation”.   

Ronald Mulkearns

Ronald Mulkearns

The Commission was particularly scathing of the actions of former Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, saying “Bishop Mulkearns again was derelict in his duty in failing to take any effective action to have (infamous paedophile Gerald) Ridsdale referred to police and to restrict Ridsdale's contact with children". 

“The most likely explanation for the conduct of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior clergy in the Diocese was that they were trying to minimise the risk of scandal and protect the reputation of the Catholic Church", the report said of Bishop Mulkearns’ response. 

Christian Brothers 

The Christian Brothers operated and provided staff to six primary and secondary schools in Ballarat and Warrnambool, which included some of the country’s most notorious pedophiles. 

Across the Commission 10 men provided evidence of sexual abuse at St Alipius Christian Brothers School, while a further seven who were abused at St Patrick’s College also spoke. 

The report described the response to allegations of sexual abuse from the group as  “grossly inadequate”,  and said brothers were regularly shifted to a new location after an allegation had been made. 

Among those was the case of Brother Gerald Leo Fitzgerald, who died in 1987 before any charges were laid against him. 

ST PATRICK’S COLLEGE HAS JUST RELEASED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT

The school will issue a formal response to the Ballarat report in coming days. 

Brother Fitzgerald worked at St Alipius for 12 years until 1975, where complaints were made against him.  Despite senior Christian Brothers figures knowing of allegations, he was shifted into retirement on the Brothers’ residence at the St Patrick’s College, where he continued to have access to children. 

The Commission also found “each year, Brother Fitzgerald took grade 3 boys swimming naked at an annual St Alipius camp,”  and that “the practice was notorious among students at St Alipius and St Patrick’s College”. 

The Commission heard reports from several victims who claimed to have been sexually abused by Brother Fitzgerald while at St Alipius.

Complaints had also been made against Brother Stephen Farrell in 1974 while he was a teacher at St Alipius.  When head Brother Paul Nangle confronted Brother Farrell about the allegations, he admitted they were true. 

While the Commission accepted this was then passed onto higher authorities, Brother Farrell still managed to obtain another teaching role at a school in Pascoe Vale in 1975.  The St Alipius sexual abuse claims were in no way passed onto his new diocese. 

Responding to Ridsdale 

Gerald Ridsdale giving evidence to the Royal Commission

Gerald Ridsdale giving evidence to the Royal Commission

One of Australia’s most notorious paedophile priests, Gerald Ridsdale held 16 different appointments across his 29 years as a priest where he abused dozens of children. 

The Commission found “Ridsdale’s appointments were discussed at no less than 18 meetings of the College of Consultors,” and that “the frequency with which he was moved from appointment to appointment was unusual”.

In response to the specific case of Paul Levey, who lived with Ridsdale at the presbytery in Mortlake, the Commission described Bishop Mulkearns’ response as “appalling”. 

Mr Levey lived with Ridsdale between Easter and October in 1982, where he was sexually abused “just about every day”.

READ BISHOP PAUL BIRD’S STATEMENT BELOW

Mr Levey’s mother Beverley told the Commission she called Bishop Mulkearns soon after her son moved in with Ridsdale to ask for him to be removed, only to be told “there was nothing (Bishop Mulkearns) could do” as Mr Levey’s father had approved of the arrangement. 

“This was an extraordinary and inexcusable failure by Bishop Mulkearns, and his failure to act subjected Mr Levey to ongoing sexual abuse by Ridsdale,” the report stated.  

Church culture and corruption 

The report found the that “the structure of the Diocese was flawed and lacked any accountability”.

“The bishop was autonomous. He alone was the decision-maker about his priests. The structure was hierarchical and did not encourage priests to challenge or otherwise influence the actions that the bishop took,” the statement read.

“Even if the structure had done so, other priests in the Diocese, including consultors and vicars general, were part of the same culture as the bishop. They too sought to avoid scandal and negative publicity and protect the Church and fellow priests. Such a hierarchical structure of Church authority has the obvious potential for mismanagement and abuse of power."

“The most likely explanation for the conduct of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior clergy in the Diocese was that they were trying to minimise the risk of scandal and protect the reputation of the Catholic Church. The grave consequence was that the safety and welfare of children were not given the highest priority

“The response primarily revealed a desire to prevent or minimise the risk of scandal and to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church. It also revealed a tendency by Bishop Mulkearns and other clergy to treat complaints or allegations dismissively and in favour of the priest the subject of the allegation. 

“The result of these inexcusable failures was that more children were sexually abused by Catholic clergy in the Diocese. There was a catastrophic institutional failure which resulted in many children being sexually abused. We heard about the devastating, often lifelong, consequences in the lives of those children. The welfare of children was not the primary concern of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior members of the Diocese when responding to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse against their priests. 

Vicar-General speaks out 

Ballarat Catholic Diocese Vicar-General Justin Driscoll has spoken following the Commission’s report into the Ballarat Diocese, saying “we’ve been waiting with anticipation and some anxiety and I really welcome the Royal Commission’s work and capacity to bring together testimony and documentation”. 

“It’s highlighted not just failure of individuals, but it also points to some serious failures and complete inadequacy in response.

“From where I stand today it’s hard not to be angry about (the inaction of former leaders), it’s angered many people that not only children were abused but that the organisation ignored it.

“The distribution of power needs to be checked and the possibility of a clerically dominated church needs to be eradicated.” 

Read the full report here. 

More to come...