BALLARAT’S former Catholic Bishop Ronald Mulkearns withheld knowledge of child sexual abuse offences committed by paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, a damning Victoria Police report found.
The September 1995 report, released as part of a Freedom of Information request and provided to The Courier last month by the Broken Rites organisation, was prepared by the Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit after Ridsdale was convicted in October 1994 of abusing 21 children.
Details of the month-long investigation codenamed Operation Arcadia are expected to be included in evidence heard today by the state inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse by religious and other organisations, including the revelation that Bishop Mulkearns had knowledge of the offences “much earlier than he suggests”.
It said the now-retired Bishop Mulkearns displayed a “reluctance/inability to properly handle the matter” dating back to the 1970s.
“The families who approached Mulkearns or his representatives to complain of the assaults by Ridsdale remain perplexed and angry at the attitude adopted by the Church representatives,” the report said.
Established at the direction of officers including Ballarat Police Chief Superintendent Noel Perry, the investigation sought information about Bishop Mulkearns’ actions from 59 people, including victims, priests, a Catholic nun and relatives of Ridsdale.
Ridsdale himself refused to speak to investigators while incarcerated at Pentridge Prison.
An attached briefing note said Bishop Mulkearns was at various times advised of summary and misdemeanour offences committed by Ridsdale, including in a March 1995 letter from seven victims which was given to the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police and various government agencies.
Police considered whether Bishop Mulkearns, 81, should be charged but found he had not committed any criminal offence.
The report outlines calls for an inquiry into the actions of Catholic leaders and forecasts civil litigation by victims.
In April the Victorian government established an inquiry into the handling of abuse after at least 40 suicides in the Ballarat region were linked to abuse.
A list of persons spoken to by Operation Arcadia also includes information from the father of a victim who reported an alleged assault to the Bishop’s secretary Fr Nolan in the early 1980s.
Another victim said he was told by Fr Nolan that the offence “was a one-off due to the death of Ridsdale’s brother”.
Bishop Mulkearns was said to be “visibly shocked” when told police would be contacted about one instance of abuse by Ridsdale, who was later moved to another parish.
Catholic Church spokesman Father Shane Mackinlay said church leaders would respond very differently to abuse complaints today.
“These kinds of circumstances are one of the reasons we developed the Towards Healing (response protocol) which puts clear procedures in place,” he said.
“Any complaint today would receive an immediate and effective response. The first thing which would happen would be assistance offered to the victim and priority made to encourage the victim to take their complaint to police.”
Fr Mackinlay said the Catholic Church supports the extension of mandatory reporting rules to ministers of religion outside the sacrament of confession.