THE Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has exposed “catastrophic failure” in Church leadership in the Diocese of Ballarat.
“That failure led to the suffering and often irreparable harm to children, their families and the wider community,” commissioners said in a report released today (November 6).
“That harm could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interests.”
The report focuses on the responses of the diocese to allegations of child sexual abuse made against Christian Brothers, clergy and religious in institutions operating within the Ballarat diocese from the late 1960s and spanning three decades.
Sections of the report are redacted to “not prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings”.
Ten men provided evidence of sexual abuse at St Alipius Christian Brothers School, while a further seven who were abused at St Patrick’s College also spoke to the commission.
The report described the response to allegations of sexual abuse from the group as “grossly inadequate”, and said brothers were regularly shifted to a new location after an allegation had been made.
In one case, Commissioners said: “there was no effective response” to reports or complaints against Br Edward Dowlan, who taught at both Christian Brothers schools.
In one instance a student was required to apologise to the school assembly for “spreading lies”.
“These events are likely to be seared into the memory of a boy”, the commission said.
Br Dowlan was later appointed principal of a Catholic special school, where he had “access to the most vulnerable boys”, despite continuing allegations of misconduct.
Commissioners found this “was a complete failure by the Christian Brothers to protect the most vulnerable children in their care”.
A total of 78 claims were made against notorious convicted paedophile, Gerald Ridsdale, who held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest.
His appointments were typically short – averaging less than two years – after which he was transferred to a new role or location.
Commissioners found that “by late 1975 Ridsdale had admitted to Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns that he had offended against children and that Bishop Mulkearns knew Ridsdale’s conduct was known to the police in Bendigo.
Commissioners heard that in 1981 Ridsdale was appointed to Mortlake in southern Victoria, and that
Bishop Mulkearns and other senior priests in the diocese received numerous reports of Ridsdale sexually offending against children.
These included reports that Ridsdale had a 14-year-old boy, Mr Levey, living with him at the presbytery.
Mr Levey told the Royal Commission he was sexually abused “all the time, just about every day” while he lived with Ridsdale “it was common knowledge in Mortlake” that he lived at the presbytery and “on one occasion Bishop Mulkearns visited the presbytery while he was there”.
Commissioners accepted Mr Levey’s evidence, and found that Bishop Mulkearns was aware that Mr Levey’s mother was “concerned about the situation and sought his assistance, but he ignored her”.
“This was an extraordinary and inexcusable failure by Bishop Mulkearns, and his failure to act subjected Mr Levey to ongoing sexual abuse by Ridsdale. Bishop Mulkearns’ conduct was appalling,” commissioners said.
The report casts a spotlight on other senior clergy and what they knew, including Fr Brian Finnigan who rose to become Auxiliary Bishop of Brisbane, and retired in 2015 after more than 40 years as a priest.
In the 1980s Fr Finnigan held senior clergy roles as secretary, and later vicar-general, to Bishop Mulkearns, and as a member of the College of Consultors.
The Commission report was scathing of Bishop Finnigan’s evidence, noting changes between his words in public and private hearings and also some contrasts with an interview with a representative of Catholic Church Insurance in 1993.
“Bishop Finnigan’s evidence was highly unsatisfactory. He gave the clear impression that he was seeking to protect himself and the Church or the bishop at the time, and he made no effort to give clear and honest evidence,” the Report concluded.
“The result is that we have not accepted Bishop Finnigan’s evidence except where it is corroborated by other evidence or where it is inherently probable and not contradicted by other evidence.”
The Report also questioned the actions of Bishop Finnigan when he was in Ballarat, in particular when he was told of concerns about Ridsdale’s behaviour.
“Regardless of whether he passed the information on to Bishop Mulkearns, he clearly did not satisfy himself that there was no cause for concern before offering that reassurance to Mr and Mrs BAI. This was reckless as to the safety of Mr and Mrs BAI’s son. Father Finnigan’s failure to report … was unsatisfactory and unacceptable.”
The Commission report includes evidence that Bishop Finnigan was a minute taker at a meeting in 1982 at which moving Ridsdale from Mortlake parish was discussed.
In one response to questioning by the Commission, Bishop Finnigan had said:
“ Well, my vague memory of it all was they (the parents) came to say that he (Ridsdale) had these children around the place and they felt that it wasn’t a healthy thing for him to have these children around the presbytery.”
Bishop Finnigan had also said he did not recall the bishop having told the meeting that there was a problem with homosexuality in the diocese.
He agreed that if it had been mentioned that there was a problem in the diocese of sexual activity with children he certainly would not have put that in the minutes.
That was because he would have been concerned that the minutes not record any problems that were happening in the diocese by way of allegations of sexual abuse or touching of children.
Commissioners found that the “most likely explanation for the conduct of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior clergy in the diocese was that they were trying to minimise the risk of scandal and protect the reputation of the Catholic Church”.
“We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns’ overwhelming concern was to protect his diocese and the Church from further scandal,” the commissioners said.
The welfare of children was not the primary concern of senior members of the diocese, the commissioners said.
“There is no doubt it should have been,” they said.
Ballarat Bishop Paul Bird said the Commission had found serious failures in the way the diocese responded to child sexual abuse, which had led to unnecessary suffering from many victims and their families.
“Where the failures of my predecessors allowed abuse to occur, I offer my heartfelt apology,” Bishop Bird said.
He said the Church would learn from the Ballarat case study and the Commission’s final report to be published on December 15, “both to assist those who have suffered in past and keep children safe now and in the future”.
Ballarat Diocese today announced it would unveil a Memorial Garden in the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral Ballarat on Sunday, December 17 as a reflection space for those affected by child abuse in the Church.
There has been a box handmade at St Patrick’s College where remembrance ribbons currently on the cathedral fence will be placed and visible through a clear top.
Members of the public who have placed a ribbon on the fence will be invited to remove their own ribbon and place it in the memorial box.
And St Patrick’s College will also remove the name of Old Collegian and former Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little from a building, which had been named, in his honour.
The school will also revoke his status as an inducted Legend of the College.
In a statement the college said: “These actions have been taken in response to yesterday’s findings into Case Study 35 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which found that Archbishop Little had ‘abjectly failed to exercise proper care for the children within the Archdiocese’s parishes and schools’.”
The findings also found that the abuse of some children in the archdiocese “was directly attributable to Archbishop Little’s ongoing failure to take action”.