Inside the Ridsdale child sexual abuse inquiry
In this story
Philip was 10 when he first thought about killing himself. It was at school camp in the Grampians, a Victorian national park of lush mountains and valleys. Some of the Brothers thought you could see God more clearly here, within the trees and hills and rocky vesture. But Philip was just a boy. He didn’t know much about the Spirit, about the infinite and ineffable love of God. He knew only that one of His emissaries, Brother Farrell, had been hurting him all year.
So Philip climbed to the top of the Pinnacle, a rocky spur and famous lookout. At the edge is an impressive vista, but Philip saw only an abyss, an end. “I was standing over the edge and the wind was the only thing holding me up,” he remembered last week.
For months, Farrell had sexually abused Philip at St Alipius Boys’ Primary School in Ballarat. Once, in the first aid room, Farrell wrestled him to the floor and pinned him there. He removed Philip’s pants, then his own. The boy could not understand afterwards why there was wetness between his legs. He told no one. On camp, Farrell had already twice abused him. And so Philip had made his way to the top of the cliff while the other boys were playing.
Philip didn’t understand what was happening to him. He felt only putrid confusion. His vocabulary didn’t yet contain “predation” and “victim”. He could no more separate himself from the filth than he could see God. He felt impure, somehow complicit in the transgression. Everything was internalised, the dread given to a boy’s logic of causation – if something bad happens to me, it is because I am bad.
As he stood on the edge of the cliff, the wind keeping him upright, there were other forces Philip couldn’t know about. Like the brutal utility of the pious, who saw themselves doing the work of the Lord by protecting the church. It was the cold conviction that the Word is best transmitted when its messengers are considered righteous – more will be touched by Christ than paedophiles. Philip was collateral damage. In denouncing church cover-ups, Catholic writer Garry Wills once wrote that the prevailing ethic was to serve the truth with lies. And so it was. Philip backed away from the edge, and into a future of bleak dysfunction.
We are now halfway through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It has been a marathon of awful revelation. From that – from the mountains of testimony – the commission will draft findings. Public hearings have been undertaken in every state and territory now. More than 21,000 calls have been fielded, 11,000 letters or emails received, and more than 600 cases referred to police. Even today, almost 300 people contact the commission each week.
This, the 28th public hearing, focuses upon abuses committed in Catholic institutions in Ballarat, in the Victorian goldfields. It is vulgar to suggest a hierarchy of suffering, but the Ballarat abuses appear especially egregious and, once, ubiquitous. Over decades, hundreds of children were abused in schools and churches. The Ballarat diocese housed many paederasts, including one of Australia’s worst – Gerald Ridsdale, a serial predator with about 150 convictions. Victoria Police has estimated that about 30 suicides in the area are attributable to the historic abuse. “I have got to get rid of this hatred in me because it’s making me sick,” a victim said in the commission last week. Another held up a school class photo and said that a third of the boys depicted had since taken their lives. He asked the judge if the court could observe a minute’s silence for them, and it was granted.
The commission is as much about making findings as it is about bearing witness, about granting victims a dignified audience. It is needed. In the supermarket car park across from the Ballarat Magistrates Court, survivors met with brutal utilitarianism once again this week – harangued by the sharp-tongued and dull-eyed, screamed at with accusations of sabotage and mischief. The insults were familiar to many survivors. They expressed the same defensive aggression that prevented some from declaring their abuse much earlier. “After my brother and I came forward about our abuse,” a victim said last week, “my family lost Catholic friends.”
I wondered about these people’s conception of the church that is both divine and vulnerable to truth. It is a stiff cognitive dissonance that makes this contradiction tolerable. They might do well to read the poet, philosopher and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, who once wrote of a man: “What constituted his Catholicism was that he accepted the ultimate arbitration that reconciled free will and grace, and did not exclude either.”
Last week’s hearings were mostly given to victims, most – all? – sworn in with the secular affirmation. They have long abandoned the Bible. There were long days of pained declarations, stories of abuse and its lingering consequences. The testimony of David Ridsdale, nephew of Gerald, captured the most attention. In addition to being abused by his uncle, he testified that Cardinal George Pell – then the bishop for the southern region of Melbourne – not only knew of Ridsdale’s criminality, but had attempted to bribe David’s silence. From Rome, Pell issued a statement denying the allegations and said that he will make himself available to attend the hearings in person, should the commission wish. That Pell supported Ridsdale is already established – they worked together, and Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court in the early ’90s. What is crucial is what Pell knew, and when.
This week’s hearings began not with a victim, but a woman who has spent a professional lifetime counselling them. This Monday morning, Dr Carolyn Quadrio was sworn in and – not for the first time during the commissions 28 hearings – I travelled back in time.
Only the week before I had responded to some questions put to me by a primary school teacher. He had never been molested, but was planning to write a novel about child abuse – it was a subject that apparently haunted him. This man had read my various reports on the royal commission and paedophilia, and my personal accounts of sexual abuse.
And so it was that on Monday I watched Quadrio’s testimony in a heavy communion – she was clinically confirming my own experiences, the ones I had loosely outlined to the teacher just days before. It was both validating and awkwardly resonant, and suddenly I grasped the awesome power of these hearings: I am not alone. And I don’t use “alone” to mean the upsetting delusion that you’re the only one to have been abused. I mean discovering that there are universal patterns to a child’s reception of abuse. That there is a common modus operandi to grooming, as common as the fear the abused have that they will inexorably replicate their own abuse. “I was really cautious and questioned everything that I did,” a victim said last week, “particularly when my son reached the age when I was abused. The idea that the abused becomes the abuser has always played on my mind.”
The teacher who contacted me had been struggling with questions of disclosure: “Why don’t the children tell someone?” he asked. And then, “Why do they [the children] continue to let it happen?”
To which I responded: “Shame, fear, confusion. I can personally attest to these things. You seem to be applying adult criteria to children, though – an emotional and intellectual capacity to judge the situation, to grasp the power imbalance and danger, to focus condemnation upon the abuser. But this doesn’t happen. They’re kids... I was malleable. Naive. Generous of spirit – I wanted to give him the benefit of doubt. All this meant that I felt complicit in the act. This sense of complicity birthed guilt, shame. I felt part of something dirty, impure. And I have to take exception to your wording. ‘Let’ assumes some agency on the part of the children. We’re talking about kids.”
And then… Quadrio’s testimony. She had decades of experience, was tough and plain-spoken. There was not the garrulousness of some experts, but a heartening directness. She had spent time in the 1980s with 32 men, childhood victims of the Christian Brothers boys home in Bindoon, Western Australia. They were “child migrants”, a popular but euphemistic term.
“They were not really migrants,” Quadrio explained. “Some of them weren’t here voluntarily. Often they were children of single mothers who hadn’t been able to care for them because there was very little social security for single mothers in the 1940s. Some of them had been left by their mothers in the institutions. They were extremely damaged men. There was sadistic physical abuse, very severe privation… and there was a lot of sexual abuse as well… So they led very difficult lives. There was a lot of depression, unemployment, alcoholism. Very few of them were able to make relationships.”
Quadrio said she found the same dysfunction bedevilling men of a very different background – boys of warm and stable families sent from rural homes to boarding schools. Boys subject to “prolonged and effective grooming” and abuse, for whom the stability of their homes was no defence to the internalisation of the mistreatment. A child is a child is a child, and he will integrate the abuse so it becomes a gross and inscrutable stain. An oil slick.
And so it was that Quadrio testified to the deep and stubborn structures of abuse. These have been a secondary story, necessarily relegated by cover-ups, suspected cover-ups and pointed accounts of abuse. This is as it should be – the commission must contemplate institutional crookedness. The media, by definition, is less engaged by what happens afterwards. But Quadrio was giving us a story about what lies beneath, and it resonated with me and the many stories of abuse I have heard in the past year. That boys largely externalise their trauma and girls more likely internalise it, setting one lot on a path to prison and the other to a therapist. That abused children live shorter lives than the average population, stricken by disease or depression. That the abused come to destructively abhor authority, and that they struggle with relationships. Spirituality is relinquished, and sexuality painfully questioned. Flashbacks are confused for fantasies. A victim may come to doubt the organisation of his mind, query the province of his instincts. How does one separate trauma from an idealised self? Or is such a project specious?
But it was Quadrio’s next point that arrested me. “About 20 to 40 per cent of children who have been abused won’t show any symptoms at all,” she said, “and that’s because some of them are what we describe as resilient, children who somehow survive trauma and make a reasonably good development. But some of those apparently non-symptomatic children become symptomatic later on. That’s called the sleeper effect: that they look fine at the time and then some years later something else triggers it.”
Would I ever display symptoms, or had I already without knowing it? I doubted it, but wasn’t sure. And where did resilience come from? The literature I read suggested much of it is mysterious.
It was this that preoccupied me while I watched Tuesday’s witness, Father Adrian McInerney, mumble his way through questions put to him. Questions such as why, as part of the College of Consultors – a select group of priests who advised the local bishop – he never realised the group was filled with paederasts. I had read about McInerney earlier, and saw a man determined to convince himself that he was still the smiling innocent of the church, a gregarious and good man. And as frustrated as I was by his memory lapses and opacity and inarticulacy – not to mention my distraction by his bizarre defence of having accompanied Ridsdale to court, claiming he didn’t know of Ridsdale’s charges when he came along to serve as a character support – well… I was thinking of the sleepers.
On Wednesday morning, Gerald Ridsdale appeared before the commission via videolink. He has been in prison a long time now, and spent his 81st birthday there last week. The commission’s intention was not to examine the crimes – they had been detailed in his trials – but to attempt to understand the reasons of his criminality and the church’s inability to curtail its virulence.
Ridsdale appeared in a green, prison-issue windcheater. It was oversized. He is almost totally bald now, but for white wisps on the sides of his head. Liver spots blemish his cheeks and scalp. The monster is old. His eyes are small, ringed by wrinkles their focus sharpened by large glasses. His face looks like a synoptic chart. Everything is heavy – his skin, his eyes, his largely monosyllabic speech. It all falls downwards.
Like McInerney’s, his testimony was rarely illuminating. It was spotted with forgetfulness. When he admitted to not remembering earlier instances of molestation – or his victims’ names – I immediately considered the pain this would cause them. Ridsdale confirmed he had been abused by his own uncle and an older cousin, and that he had left school when he was 14 to join an accountancy firm. Across the road from his family home was the local church, and priests were daily welcomed to share breakfast with the Ridsdales. It was a Catholic town and Gerald recognised the status a priesthood would afford him. So about the age of 17 he joined the seminary. As he tells it now, he wanted to impress his mother. It was about 1950.
He began offending immediately. The first time a church elder spoke to him about rumours of transgression was his first year out of the seminary. Ridsdale had wasted no time. He would continue to offend for decades, rotated between countless churches. In one small country town, a drunk man confronted him after hearing stories in the local pub. The heat was on. Ridsdale was transferred again.
When he was younger he had once gone to confession to seek absolution for masturbation. It was a grievous sin, according to dogma. He would sit in the booth and seek sexual guidance, eager for holy parameters to be placed upon his instincts. But he would never confess to molestation.
Ridsdale opened youth rooms, enticingly appointed with billiard tables and computer games. “It was a trap,” he agreed this week. “It’s obvious now to me that a pattern would have been, or a way of seeking victims would have been, to look for the vulnerable or to recognise the vulnerable.”
In the early ’90s, after his first convictions, a psychologist examined him and proposed the following as Ridsdale’s modus operandi:
“It is very clear that his subsequent career in parish work indicated that in each of the parishes to which he was appointed there was a group of five or more children with whom he had close and ongoing relationships, plus a number of other casual contacts. His usual pattern was to become involved in one or two families, often with an absent father, develop close relationships with the children, which then merged into the sexual, in the context of a variety of opportunities within the presbytery, on various outings and camps, et cetera. The targets were predominantly prepubertal or early prepubertal boys.”
As other Ballarat clergy were doing, he was ingratiating himself with the very families he was destroying. Sitting for dinner, holidaying with them. These family doors were always open. Despite the successful manipulations, Ridsdale was emotionally defective. His psychologist found a lonely man, confused and emotionally estranged from adults. He had long craved intimacy – “warmth and cuddles”, as Ridsdale described it this week – but rarely if ever with adults. It is remarkable that his dysfunction might have been so successfully masked before his victims’ families, or perhaps it was merely status that protected him. “That’s all part of the paedophile thing,” he said this week. “The deceits, hiding things, cover up, trying to look good. That’s what I was doing all the time, all my life.”
Many times this week, Ridsdale spoke of the fear he had of being defrocked if he admitted his crimes. He feared losing his status, of having infamy replace distinction. He argues now that priests who admit their abusing in the confessional should be referred to police. But it is an argument made only in hindsight.
The following exchange is between Ridsdale and counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness, SC.
Q: You would have been troubled deeply by the thought that you could lose the priesthood when you were just in your first year as a priest, wouldn’t you, Mr Ridsdale?
A: I would have been, yes.
Q: Because you would have lost face with your family, wouldn’t you?
Q: You would have lost the status you had as a priest?
A: Yes, I would have lost faith with myself because I was a very proud person. It just would have been devastating.
It is a perverse thing: the institution that unquestionably extended Ridsdale’s offending, by shifting him from parish to parish, is the very institution from which he feared approbation. The church, however, had its own fears of consequence.
Ridsdale has already admitted to “hiding things, covering up, trying to look good”. It is his protectors who now must do the same.
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Contact for Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse 1800 099 340
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Inside the Ridsdale child sex inquiry ". Subscribe here.