Lou Ridsdale: the past does not define us

The way forward: Lou Ridsdale with her father Keith. Picture: Caleb Cluff.
The way forward: Lou Ridsdale with her father Keith. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

“Ridsdale is not a common name like Smith or Jones. You can’t get away without having heads turn.”

When she returned to Ballarat from her life in Melbourne as a successful television, radio and music producer in 2012, Lou Ridsdale was aware that the memories of childhood security and happiness she had enjoyed being a member of a large, well-known Catholic family in the city had been erased.

Born in Ballarat in 1972, she had been educated at St Columba’s Primary, Sacred Heart College and St Martin’s in the Pines. 

Her upbringing in the Catholic strictures of human dignity and the common good had been reinforced by the Sisters of Mercy.

None of those teachings prepared her for what had been uncovered in her absence: unmitigated treachery to the most vulnerable in society.

Her uncle had been the subject of an extensive police investigation in the 1990s. In 1993 he was charged with 30 counts of indecent assault on young boys.

The assaults saw him imprisoned for 12 months and led to other charges for which he was jailed for 18 years.

More charges and jail time followed as the extent of his horrendous abuse of children was revealed.

Former Catholic priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale was convicted yesterday on still further charges of the sexual abuse of 12 children.

He will now most likely die in prison.

As a child, Lou Ridsdale remembers family functions where cars had to be arranged in driveways so the family’s priest could get the ‘pole position’.

“You look back and think just what a privileged life he had,” says Ms Ridsdale.

“My grandmother put him on a pedestal, never knowing how far he had to fall; what a horrible ripple effect he has caused so many people, those that are here today and those that aren’t.”

In the face of what was being revealed, of the crimes that had been hidden and ignored by the church, Lou Ridsdale could have chosen to leave Ballarat again. Instead, she chose to make a difference.

For Ms Ridsdale, there seemed to be clear paths available to help give succour to the survivors of her uncle’s abuse. The first was her wholehearted support of the Loud Fence movement begun by Maureen Hatcher and others.

“Anything that appears and no-one is sure where it came from, that kind of guerrilla movement – I gravitate towards that, because it amplifies what you're wanting to say. So many people don’t have a voice, so putting a ribbon on a fence is a voice in itself.”

In Melbourne, Lou Ridsdale working at legendary community radio station 3RRR and at RMIT’s television station Channel 31, where she worked on producing the program Under Melbourne Tonight and helped launch the careers of Rove McManus and Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell stalwart Stephen Hall.

She truly believes that strong community media can have palpable social outcomes.

“I think there is real power in communication,” she says.

“The fact that Loud Fences is a permanent fixture is wonderful, because it is not going away. The situation with the Catholic Church and the clergy in Ballarat – people are prepared to play the long game. You can’t unring that bell.

Her career as a music publicist and as one of the early production and ticket managers of the Meredith Music Festival are two of her great joys and lasting legacies, but she is most well known in Ballarat at present for her Food is Free Laneway, and the movement resonates with her.

“Ballarat has a really dark cloud at the moment, and there are people out there who are in such need that you wouldn’t imagine. Food is Free is about empowering people, about making them self-sufficient and giving people hope – and not letting themselves be defined by the traumas of their past.”