A notorious paedophile priest abused every boy at a regional Victorian school between the age of 10 and 16, the child sex abuse inquiry has heard.The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is holding long-awaited public hearings in Ballarat to examine historical abuse suffered by children at a number of schools in the regional centre, at the hands of Catholic clergy and other members of the Church. Some of Australia's most notorious abusers were part of a paedophile ring operating in and around Ballarat for years, including Gerald Ridsdale, Robert Best and Edward Dowlan. In her opening address, Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission, Gail Furness SC, outlined the extent of Ridsdale's offending. She said the inquiry would hear evidence of Ridsdale's time at the Mortlake parish during the early 1980s, including comments from the priest who took over from Ridsdale. "Father Dennehy told the Catholic church's insurance investigator that he thought every male child between the ages of 10 years and 16 years, who were at the school, had been molested by Ridsdale," she said. Ms Furness said Ridsdale was a "prolific offender" during his time at Mortlake. "There will be evidence that his behaviour around boys was no secret," she said.
Ballarat was one of the most horrific sites of abuse and it was revealed that in 1971 all male teachers and the chaplain at the St Alipius primary school were molesting children. Ms Furness said the royal commission would also hear from a survivor who had a photograph of his grade four class at St Alipius in the 1970s. She said he would tell the hearing, of the 33 boys pictured, 12 had committed suicide. In his opening address, inquiry chairman Justice Peter McClellan urged those attending the hearing to remember the victims and survivors. "The evidence in the first stage of this hearing will include the personal stories of a number of survivors," Justice McClellan said. "That evidence will describe the gross violations of individuals by ordained members of the Catholic Church. "As you are aware, the royal commission has revealed many shocking stories of the betrayal of children. "As we listen to the evidence in this hearing we should all reflect on the impact for those who have suffered in the Ballarat region, and the thousands of others who have suffered throughout Australia."
Justice McClellan said the inquiry would also hear from perpetrators but not directly about the circumstances of their offending. "That has already been dealt with by the courts," Justice McClellan said of Ridsdale's crimes. "However, the evidence has an important part to play in the royal commission coming to understand both the way ordained members of the Catholic Church became abusers and how the Church responded to allegations of their abuse." Ridsdale will give evidence, possibly next week, via video link from prison. The hearing will also consider why Ridsdale was able to move around to so many locations in Victoria, without being reported to police. He offended and re-offended in Horsham, Inglewood, Camperdown, Ballarat North, Mildura, Swan Hill, Warrnambool, Ballarat East, Apollo Bay, Edenhope, Melbourne and Mortlake. Ridsdale is serving an eight-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to 30 child sex offences in 2014. It is the fourth time he has been jailed after three previous stints in prison for more than 100 other offences. "I appreciate that the evidence of perpetrators may be confronting for some people, in particular survivors," Justice McClellan said. "However, without the evidence of perpetrators the true story of the response of the Church in Ballarat may never be completely revealed. "I am aware that there may be different and strongly held views about the conduct of ordained people and the appropriateness of the response of leaders in the Church in the Ballarat Diocese. "Many want this hearing. There are others who doubt the need for a public hearing. Some may not want the story told. "Unless the truth is revealed and known publicly then [the] prospect of effective healing for survivors and institutions is diminished."
Today's hearing is packed with survivors and their supporters and a spill over court was set up in an adjacent building to cope with demand. Justice McClellan said support would be on hand for survivors as the hearing progressed. The Catholic Church also warned of a gruelling few weeks of evidence. Bishop of Ballarat Paul Bird released a statement urging people across the region to support one another throughout the hearing. He will also give evidence, as will Brother Peter Clinch, the Province Leader of the Christian Brothers Oceania Province. Former Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who is accused of moving perpetrators and destroying documents to avoid detection, is not on the witness list. He did not appear before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse, citing ill health. Ms Furness said 17 abuse victims would give evidence and the commission would also hear from a psychiatrist about the post-traumatic effects of child abuse on survivors. Some victims will give evidence anonymously, under a pseudonym. "Many witnesses are expected to say that they were reluctant to disclose their abuse to anyone," Ms Furness said. "They are expected to give reasons such as feelings of shame, guilt, disgust, fear of punishment, fear of judgment and a belief that they would be disbelieved."
The hearing continues.