QUESTIONS have been raised over the absence of former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns from the inquiry into institutionalised child abuse held yesterday at Parliament House.
Inquiry committee chairman Georgie Crozier asked the two Ballarat diocese representatives, current Bishop Paul Bird and former Bishop Peter Connors, why Bishop Mulkearns could not appear.
Bishop Bird said Bishop Mulkearns’ memory had been affected by a stroke but said under questioning from Ms Crozier he could still conduct mass.
“The Ballarat area has come under a great deal of scrutiny and focus in recent times,” Ms Crozier said.
“Bishop Mulkearns was in charge of the diocese when a lot of it happened.
“This committee has many questions in relation to the complaints.”
Inquiry committee member Frank McGuire said Bishop Mulkearns should appear to explain why paedophile priest Father Gerald Ridsdale was moved around parishes, even when his offending was known.
Bishop Connors also conceded Bishop Mulkearns had to accept responsibility for the 107 substantiated abuse complaints in the Ballarat diocese during his term, of which 67 were attributed to Ridsdale.
In response to Mr McGuire asking if Bishop Mulkearns had “wilful blindness”, Bishop Bird said he had instead made “tragic mistakes” and was just following the accepted opinions of his time.
“Dismissal was not the first option,” Bishop Bird said.
“They would go to be treated to correct the behaviour, which proved to be a terrible mistake with tragic consequences.
“Gerald Ridsdale should have been taken out of the ministry.”
AT A GLANCE: Child abuse in the Ballarat Diocese
- 116 abuse complaints since 1975
- 109 upheld - 67 against priest Gerard Ridsdale
- No reported cases of abuse by priests since 1992
- Ridsdale will be eligible for release later this year, at age 79
- Four years were added to Ridsdale's minimum jail sentence in 2006 for the indecent assault of boys between 1970 and 1987
- Ridsdale was already serving an 18-year jail term for similar offences
Committee member Andrea Coote raised questions about any knowledge Archbishop George Pell may have had about child sex abuse in Ballarat.
“It is not unreasonable to suggest George Pell knew about this,” Ms Coote said.
However, Bishop Connors said Archbishop Pell could give his own evidence and he didn’t wish to speak for him.
Mr McGuire asked why the police were not informed earlier of Ridsdale’s criminal behaviour, but Bishop Connors said police were called over an incident in 1975.
However, Bishop Mulkearns said the offender would be counselled and have therapy and the issue wasn’t taken any further.
“This was child rape, child sex abuse,” Mr McGuire said.
“Fr Gerald Ridsdale was one of the worst offenders in Australian history. In 1975 there was knowledge of his offences . . . why didn’t it become a charge?
“Why did he keep getting moved onto different parishes to commit these heinous crimes?
“Was the church also taking a narrow view of the issues and trying to avoid scrutiny and accountability?”
Ms Coote said the submissions to the inquiry had been very poignant.
“Ballarat was almost the worst of all,” Ms Coote said.
She asked if the church had protected the offenders rather than the victims.
Bishop Bird said the focus was now on the victims, which was clear in the Towards Healing documents.
Bishop Connors said the church at the time followed legal advice to admit nothing and never say sorry.
Ms Coutts asked if Bishop Mulkearns would have followed that advice.
“He retired early before his time because of being over-burdened by all this,” Bishop Connors said.
“Shouldn’t you have made sure Bishop Mulkearns faced it all the way through?”Ms Coutts said.
She also asked why there was now a church focus on the victims.
“The distress everyone has felt on learning of these crimes, they have hardly not touched everyone,” Bishop Bird said.
Committee member David O’Brien queried the treatment of disgraced priest Paul David Ryan.
“This was a serious, terrible mistake at best,” Mr O’Brien said.
He also queried if the church had understood its past faults and said the issue of celibacy needed to be put back on the table.
“This is just a question but, with a shortage of priests to keep the church going, did they draw upon a bad lot of apples.”
Bishop Connors said Bishop Mulkearns thought any man who wanted to be a priest should be one, even if they had been rejected by other seminaries.
Committee member Nick Wakeling said the whole church should be held accountable for the crimes.
“There was a fundamental breakdown in the whole diocese, covering up for priests with scant regard for victims,” Mr Wakeling said.
“There were 107 victims, 67 of them Ridsdale’s. The evidence is clear, the blame should be sheeted back to the diocese.”