Never too late for help

REACHING OUT: Clergy sexual abuse survivor Rob Walsh is imploring other victims to report abuse to police.     Picture: Lachlan Bence
REACHING OUT: Clergy sexual abuse survivor Rob Walsh is imploring other victims to report abuse to police. Picture: Lachlan Bence

Rob Walsh’s soul has been broken.

His brothers Damien and Noel Walsh, and cousin Martin Walsh were all sexually abused by Catholic Clergy.

In the years following, each of them suicided.

“The church destroyed my family unit, it broke our souls,” he says his eyes filling up with tears.“I was once told you could break a man and you can. But how do you put that man back together?”

Noel, 19, died in a single car crash which Mr Walsh later determined by talking to police and doctors was suicide. Martin suicided at the age of 22, shortly after finishing his carpentry apprenticeship.

Damien was 46 when he was found dead in his garage.

Mr Walsh, 56, who was also sexually abused by disgraced Christian brother Robert Best and notorious pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, has devoted many years since then to retrieving justice and fighting for redress for victims of sexual abuse.

“It really hurt me, it broke my heart, I went off the rails and made mistakes,” he says. “But somewhere along the line it inspired me to keep going and to keep fighting because if I didn’t somebody else would fall down.”

Mr Walsh doesn’t want to lose another victim of sexual abuse to premature death. In the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he is speaking out to implore others to report their abuse to police.

It comes as a number of offending Catholic clergy face fresh allegations of sexual abuse, with the inquiry triggering a groundswell of victims to come forward. 

Mr Walsh was driving when he heard then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announce the child sexual abuse inquiry on the radio in 2012. He pulled over to the side of the road, tears streaming down his face.

“I felt happiness and relief that finally something would be done to help the people caught up in this,” he says.

Mr Walsh has put his heart on the line many times. He gave evidence to the royal commission in 2015 and to a parliamentary inquiry into child abuse by religious organisations in 2013. In 2012, he worked closely with police investigating more than 40 premature deaths, including by suicide, believed to be linked to clergy sexual abuse.

While the findings of the report have been disputed, Mr Walsh says the link cannot be denied.

“I’ve buried three members of my family, I’ve got classmates who died, I have been to funerals that never should have been,” he says. “I have felt the pain they have felt.”  

When he was in his last years as pupil at St Alipius Boys School, Mr Walsh stopped learning. The fear his teachers, including Best, had over him was so crippling he would crouch over at his desk, too afraid to look up. 

“You were just so scared all the time,” he says. “I stopped being able to learn or take in information. I just wanted to be invisible because if nobody could see me then they couldn’t hurt me.”

During grade five and six, Mr Walsh was repeatedly sexually abused by Best. When he was 12, Mr Walsh was raped by Ridsdale who preyed on him while he was an altar boy.

It was not until many years later, after problems with alcohol and truancy in high school, that Mr Walsh was able to disclose his abuse. He didn’t learn to read or write until he undertook an adult literacy course when he was 25. 

“I could barely write my name when I left primary school,” he says. 

The Christian Brothers have paid more than $1.5 million defending Best over the years. 

Mr Walsh has been dragged through more than a decade of court cases in his pursuit for justice. Best was sentenced to 10 years and five months in jail after admitting to the sexual abuse of a further 20 boys earlier this month.  

A catalyst for Mr Walsh to report his abuse to police came when he saw a photograph of Cardinal George Pell accompanying Ridsdale to court in 1993.

He keeled over and vomited.

“It morally destroyed me,” he says. “When I saw the photo I just had to suppress it to survive, I had to, so I did. It wasn’t until I started going to counselling that it all came flooding back to me.”

Cardinal Pell has previously told the royal commission it was a "mistake" to accompany Ridsdale and he did so out of a sense of Christian duty. About the same time Mr Walsh’s daughter turned the age he was when he was first abused and he couldn’t block it out anymore.

“I looked at my daughter and I saw how young she was and I fell into pieces,” he says. “She was so young and vulnerable.”

Last year, when a group of 15 other clergy sexual abuse survivors flew to Rome to bear witness to Cardinal Pell’s evidence to the sex abuse inquiry, Mr Walsh led a ceremony for victims back home.

The group released 100 white balloons in the middle of Sturt Street for the thousands of survivors of sexual abuse and the victims who had died when the pain had become too much to bear.  Mr Walsh says reporting his abuse to Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson saved his life.

“It empowered me to fight for change,” he says. “I encourage anybody, no matter how minor the abuse incidents are to go to police. The police are trained to deal with victims of sexual abuse and you can bring a counsellor along to support you.”

But he said there was a long way to go in terms of redress for the lives impacted by abuse.

Mr Walsh wants to see a national redress scheme which fairly compensated victims, provided them with ongoing medical support and an individual treatment plan. Like other Ballarat survivors, he called for a scheme which mirrored the support given to soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.   

“It’s not an easy road but with the right help there is so much more hope,” he says.

To contact the Centre Against Sexual Assault call 5320 3933 or 24 hours 1800 806 292. Victoria’s Police’s SANO Taskforce call 1800 110 007.  Lifeline: 13 11 14.