Vic priest Ridsdale an 'evil hypocrite'

Patrick Caruana

For many Catholic families in western Victoria, Father Gerald Ridsdale was God's representative in their community.

But in reality, he was one of the state's worst ever pedophiles whose depraved crimes were later denounced by a County Court judge as reaching the "depths of evil hypocrisy".

Ridsdale's appalling history of child abuse began in 1961 - the year he was ordained as a priest.

He spent the next 26 years abusing dozens of children across regional Victoria, often using his privileged status as a priest to earn the trust of victims and their families before striking.

Broken Rites spokesman Wayne Chamley says Ridsdale's heinous crimes have devastated entire communities.

"They affected hundreds and hundreds of children and hundreds and hundreds of families of victims," he told AAP.

The full scale of Ridsdale's offending is still being uncovered, with the 79-year-old now pleading guilty to another 30 charges, mainly indecent assault, against 11 boys and three girls between the 1960s and 1980.

So far the Catholic Church has accepted 67 complaints of abuse against Ridsdale, and he has already received three separate jail terms on a string of child abuse charges.

Upon sentencing Ridsdale in 1994 to 18 years in prison for 46 crimes of abuse, Victorian County Court Judge John Dee said his offending followed a similar pattern of shocking breaches of trust.

"Under the cover of clergy you inveigled yourself into the trust of your victims, and in a substantial number of cases, the trust of their families," he said.

"As a priest you held a privileged and trusted position and as such, were able to use that position to lure your victims to secluded places."

Judge Dee said Ridsdale had often preyed upon particularly vulnerable victims, on one occasion abusing a little girl just hours after he had presided over her father's funeral.

"You struck at them at a very early age in their life," he said.

"In each and every case you have caused significant emotional problems. Most of them have been living devastated lives as a result."

Much of Ridsdale's abuse would not have been possible had senior Catholic Church figures intervened when abuse complaints first came to light.

Former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns was told about abuse complaints against Ridsdale at least as early as 1975.

But instead of being sent to police, he was given in-house counselling and sent to another parish.

He was taken away from pastoral duties in 1988, before being sent to New Mexico in 1989 for a nine-month "rehabilitation" at cost of $70,000 and eventually defrocked in 1993.

Judge Dee said the church by its actions had put its own image ahead of the needs of victims.

"The victims were not given, in my view, any priority by your superiors in the Catholic Church," he said.

"The image and the reputation of the church was given first priority over any past victim or potential victim."

Fellow County Court Judge Bill White was equally scathing of the church's failure to protect children, when sentencing Ridsdale in 2006.

"The Catholic Church cannot escape criticism in view of its lack of action on complaints being made as to your contact, the constant moving of you from parish to parish providing you with more opportunity for your predatory conduct and its failure to show adequate compassion for a number of your victims."

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney have both tried to distance the current church hierarchy from the actions of the past, saying that mistakes were made by individuals which led to other children being abused.

But the findings of the landmark Victorian parliamentary inquiry into institutional responses to child abuse said the church as a whole needed to shoulder responsibility.

"It is unfair to allow the full blame to rest with these individuals, given that they were acting in accordance with a Catholic Church policy," the report said.

Stephen Woods, an outspoken victim of Ridsdale in Ballarat, said the whole episode was a terrible indictment on the church.

"The cover-up has just been disastrous for generations of Catholic families," he said.

"Clearly there have been lots of lost lives.

"The Catholic Church has been completely unwilling to face up to the systemic problem of abuse in their religion."

Cardinal Pell himself has been criticised for years for accompanying Ridsdale to a Magistrates Court appearance in 1993.

In a 2002 statement, the cardinal admitted it was a mistake to show "priestly solidarity", as he did not know the extent of Ridsdale's crimes.

"It misled people about my basic sympathies for the victims, borne out by all my subsequent work to root out this evil," he said.

Ridsdale's current charges spring from police taskforce Sano, which was set up to investigate the 135 abuse complaints which emerged during the Victorian parliamentary inquiry.

He pleaded guilty on Monday to 30 new charges against 14 victims.

After spending the past 19 years in jail, Ridsdale had become eligible for parole in June, but Dr Chamley said the new charges could mean he will die in jail.

"Presumably the jail time that he is serving now will be extended. I doubt that this person will ever come out," he said.

Mr Woods said it was small mercy for the victims not to face the emotional difficulties of a lengthy trial.

"It is such a relief that they do not have to face this monster in court, or cop the cross examination and haranguing from his lawyers," he said.

Dr Chamley said he expected more pedophile clergy members would be brought before the criminal justice system because of the work of the parliamentary inquiry.

"It's justice unfolding before our eyes," he said.