Abuse and secrecy rocks

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to hear Anne Levey has not stepped foot inside a Catholic church for more than two years. 

Damaged: Anne Levey refuses to step foot in a Catholic church following the extensive sexual abuse suffered by her son Paul in the mid-1970s. Picture: Mark Jesser

Damaged: Anne Levey refuses to step foot in a Catholic church following the extensive sexual abuse suffered by her son Paul in the mid-1970s. Picture: Mark Jesser

Her son Paul’s tale of being sent to live with notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale in Mortlake in the mid-1970s was among the most harrowing heard across more than two years of testimony. 

Despite her best efforts to have her teenage son removed from Ridsdale’s control, disgraced former Bishop Ronald Mulkearns claimed he could not fulfill her wish despite knowing of the priest’s abusive history.

Now living in Albury, Ms Levey said her once devout commitment to the cross had evaporated after hearing countless cases of rampant sexual abuse and systematic cover-ups. 

“I was totally devastated when I went to the commission.  I thought it was just Ridsdale,” Ms Levey said upon hearing of the volume of paedophile priests operating throughout the Diocese.  “I used to go to church every Sunday but I just couldn’t go down to the church now and look a priest in the face.” 

Nowhere clearer was the commission’s damning effect on a once mighty institution of western Victoria felt than in the 2016 census, which delivered a blunt critique of the Catholic Church’s standing within Ballarat. 

Those who registered as having ‘no religion’ jumped by more than 10 per cent, while the city’s official Catholic population dropped to less than 25 per cent. 

The role faith had played in allowing abuse to proliferate throughout the Diocese was not lost on the nation's most powerful legal inquiry.  The commission heard countless instances where clergy used their unquestioned standing within the community to break into families and gain access to children.

For the parents of Ballarat survivors, it was this betrayal of trust which shattered their affiliation with an organisation which had once been a pillar of their lives. 

New approach: Vicar-general Justin Driscoll says the church has a mountain of work ahead of it to regain trust in the community. Picture: Jeremy Bannister

New approach: Vicar-general Justin Driscoll says the church has a mountain of work ahead of it to regain trust in the community. Picture: Jeremy Bannister

Once an active member of the Ballarat Catholic community, the boys’ father said the family was willing to “do without a bit themselves” to put their children through the revered Catholic education system.

The family felt “honoured” to host senior clergy for meals at their home and were thankful for one particular priest who seemed willing to go out of his way to spend time with the children. 

The couple recalled when their boys fronted police with the allegations in the early 1990s, it was not just the senior church hierarchy who sought to silence the scandal.  “Once they knew this had happened to our kids the parishioners dumped us,” the boys’ mother said.  “I think they thought we were blaming the church for what happened to our kids.  They thought you should never criticise the church.

“A lot of people who we thought were friends have never contacted us to see how we are.” 

In just a few weeks the pair will make their annual trip to St Patrick’s Cathedral for Christmas mass, an unlikely ritual which has survived the trauma.  Despite an unwavering belief in the Catholic doctrine, both affirmed the bulk of the church’s leaders and followers “simply don’t get it”. 

“I’m still a good Christian, and a much better Christian than a lot of those in the Catholic Church,” the mother said.  “What’s happened is heartbreaking.  We try to move forward and live a good life but we're still broken.”

All up the commission heard of 140 harrowing accounts of sexual violence across the Ballarat diocese.