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Report into Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat released

6 December 2017

A redacted version of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse's report into Case Study 28 – Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat was released.

The report follows a public hearing held in three parts in 2015 and 2016 in Ballarat and Sydney. The public hearing examined the response of the Congregation of Christian Brothers in the St Patrick's Province of Ballarat and the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat (the Diocese) to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse by Christian Brothers, clergy and religious in institutions within the Diocese.

Commissioners heard evidence about the response of the Diocese to allegations of child sexual abuse made against four of its priests and about the response of the Christian Brothers to allegations made against five of its Brothers.

Commissioners also heard evidence about the short- and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse on survivors, their families, their faith and the wider Ballarat community. Commissioners report that based on the evidence they heard "there can be no doubt that the sexual abuse of a child has very significant consequences, not only for the survivors but also for those around them".

Redactions

The Royal Commission's Terms of Reference require that the work of the Royal Commission not prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings. For this reason, Commissioners recommended that at this time a redacted version of the report be tabled and published. It is expected that an unredacted version of the report will be tabled and published at a later date.

Christian Brothers' grossly inadequate response

During the period the focus of the inquiry the Christian Brothers operated or provided staff for six primary and secondary schools in Ballarat and Warrnambool in Victoria. The Christian Brothers who taught at these schools lived together in the St Patrick's community on the grounds of St Patrick's College. Although located within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese, St Patrick's community was not subject to the authority of the Bishop of Ballarat.

Commissioners heard evidence from 10 men that they were sexually abused while students at St Alipius, a primary school in Ballarat East, and from seven men that they were sexually abused at St Patrick's College, a secondary school in Ballarat. These schools were the principal focus of the inquiry.

A number of former students of St Alipius and St Patrick's College told Commissioners that the sexual misconduct of Christian Brothers towards students was common knowledge around the schools. Commissioners report that this evidence was "powerful and compelling". It was "not challenged in any way". Accordingly, Commissioners conclude that "there were widespread rumours about the Christian Brothers' sexual misconduct around boys and those rumours were known by many, if not most, of the students" at St Alipius and St Patrick's College.

Most of the allegations Commissioners heard about in relation to the Christian Brothers related to sexual abuse by Edward Dowlan, who taught at St Alipius for a year in 1971 and at St Patrick's College from 1973 to 1975. In 1973, a member of the St Patrick's College student representative council reported to the provincial, Brother Nangle, that Dowlan had been putting his hands down students' pants. Commissioners accept the evidence of the student that he was required to apologise to the assembly for "spreading lies". "These events are likely to be seared into the memory of a boy", Brother Nangle's response to the complaint was "humiliating" and "wrong".

Brother Nangle received further complaints about Dowlan in 1973 and 1974. These all related to Dowlan touching students in a sexually inappropriate way. Commissioners were satisfied "that there was no effective response to any of those reports or complaints in order to manage the risk to children posed by Dowlan. Brother Nangle consistently and unreasonably declined to obtain the details of such reports and complaints". Dowlan left St Patrick's College in 1975 and continued to hold a number of teaching appointments at a number of schools. Allegations about his conduct continued to emerge.

Dowlan was appointed principal at St Vincent's Special School, a position in which he had "access to the most vulnerable boys", at a time when at least four member of the provincial council suspected or knew of allegations of his sexual behaviour towards children. Commissioners found this "was a complete failure by the Christian Brothers to protect the most vulnerable children in their care".

Commissioners concluded that the "response of those in positions of authority within the Christian Brothers in St Patrick's Province to victims, their families or others in the community to these rumours as well as complaints of sexual abuse was grossly inadequate".

Commissioners heard that on some occasions the response to allegations or reports of Christian Brothers conducting themselves in a sexually inappropriate manner with children was dismissive. Often the Christian Brother in question was allowed to remain in the position he held with continuing access to children. However, on many occasions the Brother was moved to a new location after an allegation was made about his conduct. "In some cases, the reason given for the move was to conceal the true reason for it and to protect the reputation of the Christian Brothers and avoid scandal and embarrassment".

Commissioners found that the Christian Brothers, similar to other Catholic orders, have a structure in which ultimate power and responsibility rests with one person: the provincial. "A system without checks and balances has the obvious potential for mismanagement or abuse of that power and neglect of that responsibility," the report says.

Catastrophic institutional failure of the Diocese

The public hearing of this case study revealed that the response of the Diocese to complaints and concerns about four of its priests was "disturbingly similar". Commissioners heard that there was a tendency by clergy in the Diocese to treat complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse dismissively and in favour of the priest who was the subject of the allegation.

Commissioners reported:

"This case study exposed a catastrophic failure in the leadership of the Diocese and ultimately in the structure and culture of the Church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by its priests. That failure led to the suffering and often irreparable harm to children, their families and the wider community. That harm could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interests."

The result of the inexcusable failures identified in this case study was that more children were sexually abused by Catholic clergy in the Diocese.

Commissioners found "the response to reports was characterised by the encouragement of secrecy, assurances that the matter would be dealt with and failure to follow up, ask questions or investigate reports".

When allegations or complaints about a priest's behaviour became known, the offending priest was often removed from the parish where the allegations had arisen and moved to a new location – including interstate, to other dioceses and overseas – where the allegations were unknown. Untrue or misleading reasons for the priest's departure were given to the old parish, and no warning was given to the new parish. Restrictions or conditions were not imposed on the priest in his new parish nor was there effective supervision of his conduct. Often, more allegations against the priest emerged in the new parish.

The majority of survivors who gave evidence during the public hearing about sexual abuse by clergy in the Diocese gave evidence that they were sexually abused by Gerald Ridsdale. Ridsdale's conduct was the source of gossip among priests and in the community. He held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest. His appointments were typically short, with an average of about 1.8 years per appointment, after which he was transferred to a new role or location. Commissioners were satisfied that "by late 1975 Ridsdale had admitted to Bishop Mulkearns that he had offended against children and that Bishop Mulkearns knew that Ridsdale's conduct was known to the police in Bendigo and it is likely he knew of the general talk in the community about Ridsdale".

Commissioners heard that in 1981 Ridsdale was appointed to Mortlake in southern Victoria. Commissioners report that "During his time at Mortlake parish, Ridsdale sexually abused a large number of children, including Mr David Ridsdale, BPS, BPT, BPW, BPU, BPX, BPR and Mr Paul Levey".

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 boy, 14 year old 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. Commissions found that Bishop Mulkearns was aware that Mr Levey's mother was "concerned about the situation and sought his assistance, but he ignored her". Commissioners concluded:

"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."

In late 1982 Ridsdale was transferred to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. Commissioners found that Bishop Mulkearns wanted to remove Ridsdale from the Diocese and preferably from access to children "to avoid further complaints and public scrutiny". It had the effect of protecting Ridsdale. Commissioners also found that Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. "Ridsdale continued to sexually abuse children while he was at the centre". Commissioners conclude "Bishop Mulkearns again was derelict in his duty in failing to take any effective action to have Ridsdale referred to police and to restrict Ridsdale's contact with children".

On no occasion during the public hearing did Commissioners hear evidence that Bishop Mulkearns or any other member of the clergy reported allegations or complaints of child sexual abuse to the police or other authority.

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".

The welfare of children was not the primary concern of senior members of the Diocese when responding to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse against their priests. Commissioners conclude, "There is no doubt it should have been".

Data in relation to the Diocese and Christian Brothers

The Royal Commission conducted a comprehensive data survey of all Catholic Church authorities in Australia, including the Christian Brothers and the Diocese of Ballarat. The data survey sought information about all claims and substantiated complaints that were received by Catholic Church authorities during the period 1 January 1980 to 28 February 2015.

The survey indicated that 140 people made a claim of child sexual abuse against priests and religious operating within the Diocese. Ninety per cent of all claims were made against seven priests, who were each subject to three or more claims of child sexual abuse. The highest number of claims of child sexual abuse relating to an individual priest was 78, being those against Gerald Ridsdale.

Fifty-six people have made a claim or substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse against one or more Christian Brothers in relation to a Ballarat Christian Brothers school. Sixteen of these people made allegations against more than one accused.

Read the report.

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