Ridley believes that the physical and emotional abuse he suffered at home set him up for the sexual abuse that was to follow at the orphanage. Born in the early 1950s in coastal New South Wales, he was raised in an atmosphere of dread that emanated from his father. A typical evening, Ridley recalled, involved ‘laying in bed, wetting the bed, listening to the violence’.
From his father, Ridley learned that if you spoke up or fought back or did the slightest thing wrong, the consequences would be catastrophic. He carried these lessons with him at 10 years old, when his mother fell too ill to care for him and he was sent off to a Catholic orphanage. Ridley arrived with all his timidity and fear on display, as obvious as a bruise for those men who were attuned to notice such things.
One such man was Mick Tonkin, an unofficial ‘volunteer’ who dropped round to the orphanage every now and then to bring presents for the kids, and to take them for little excursions. He started taking Ridley out on weekends in his car. The orphanage didn’t object to Tonkin’s behaviour; in fact they encouraged it.
Ridley’s memories of the abuse are limited – another gift from his father was the ability to black out and ‘go to another place’ when things got too awful to bear. All that Ridley remembers is that Tonkin masturbated him.
This continued for some time until eventually Ridley’s mother recovered from her illness and Ridley was able to move home. It seemed like a fresh start.
‘When I got away from [the orphanage] I got some energy back, I felt alive. Safe again. Even though I was getting belted at home.’
Then he was sent to a Christian Brothers’ school. His teacher was a man named Brother Wilson. Like Tonkin, Wilson was quick to spot and exploit Ridley’s vulnerability.
‘For some reason he’s called me up the front. He’s grabbed me and started masturbating me in front of all the class. Made them put their heads down and read. He’s started masturbating himself, in front of everyone.’
Ridley begged Wilson to leave him alone. In reply, Wilson made Ridley an offer. He said that if Ridley told him the names of some of the other boys who were sufficiently sexually developed to be ‘masturbating at home’ like Ridley was, then he’d leave Ridley alone.
‘And yeah I did. I dobbed in two other kids and he got them as well. … And I’ve lived with that for so long.’
Ridley left school at 14 and got a job. Around this time he started drinking. From drinking he moved onto drugs. ‘Seventeen years alcohol on a daily basis. Eleven years Serepax and other pills. Because I couldn’t live with myself.’
In his early 30s Ridley managed to turn his life around, signing himself into a drug and alcohol clinic and eventually sobering up. With sobriety came insight, and not all of it was pleasant. Memories of the abuse began creeping back and Ridley realised that he had to do something. He reported his abusers to police.
‘And they said, “No. Too long ago”. So they negated me and just dismissed it.’
That encounter squashed Ridley’s determination for many years, and it was not until the early 2000s that he decided to report his abusers to the Catholic Church through their Towards Healing process.
Ridley’s first contact with Towards Healing turned out to be a confronting ordeal.
‘She said, “You have to tell me their names”. I said, “I’m struggling breathing, lady, let alone saying their names”. But I actually was able to say their names to her. I was able to say their names. I was 51 years old before I could actually speak their names.’
Ridley was wrecked after that. He huddled at home, wrapped in blankets. ‘I was cold for a week … It was a horrible experience.’
But from that rocky start, things rapidly improved. Towards Healing organised for Ridley to meet with one of the leaders of the Christian Brothers order. The meeting was, Ridley said, ‘a beautiful experience’.
‘I got a beautiful apology from that guy, and he actually had showers in his eyes. And I went to rescue him … I said, “Mate, you didn’t do it”. He said, “No, but people representing us did”.’
Ridley has been sober now for over 30 years. The secret of his success, he said, is his ability to live in the here and now. ‘What I did is I studied and studied and learned and practised this “here and now”. It’s the safest place I can ever find: the here and now.’