Image: Risdale (left) entering court with his supporter, (now) Cardinal George Pell (Image source: Broken Rites)
Father Gerald Risdale (pictured above with George Pell) was the classic example of a serial offender protected by the Catholic Church by not being reported to police, moved around parishes, and sent to “therapy” classes. He abused dozens of children and was eventually convicted for his crimes. His case came up at the Victorian Parliamentary enquiry into clerical child sexual abuse when the involvement of the Ballarat diocese was being investigated.
In what appears to be a new tactic, both the present and former Bishops of Ballarat sheeted blame onto an old former Bishop, Ronald Mulkearns, who ran the diocese at the time Risdale was being protected.
It looked like a good tactic. Bishops Bird and Connors claimed that the failure of Bishop Mulkearns to appear was because he had had a stroke several years ago and his memory and ability to focus was “not very good.” Although Bishop Mulkearns was willing to appear, he “didn’t think he would be of much assistance” to the inquiry. They claimed poor old Mulkearns had “retired early before his time because of being over-burdened by all this” problem with Risdale and other abusive priests. Keeping everything under wraps must have been quite an ordeal for the poor Bishop.
The good Bishops then proceeded to blame Mulkearns for everything. For example, they acknowledged that a police officer had told Bishop Mulkearns about an incident involving Ridsdale in the Victorian town of Inglewood in 1975. Rather than removing Ridsdale from the ministry, Bishop Mulkearns sent him to the US for “therapy”, and then returned him to duties in other parishes in Australia, with “tragic consequences.”
When quizzed as to why Risdale did not face charges after attracting police attention, the Bishops indicated that Bishop Mulkearns had told police that the offender would be counseled and have therapy and the issue wasn’t taken any further. It was implied that police went along with this because of Bishop Mulkearns’ high standing in the community.
Asked whether Bishop Mulkearns had been willfully blind to the abuse, Bishop Bird said: “It wasn’t willful blindness; it was a tragic mistake on his part. It proved to be a terrible mistake.” Bishop Connors said: “He got bad advice and he very naively accepted that advice.” He also said Bishop Mulkearns was “naive” in his support for another pedophile priest, Paul David Ryan, who should never have been ordained, and agreed that by moving abusers between parishes the church had facilitated further abuse of children
Fr. Ryan had been sent, like Risdale, to the U.S. for “therapy,” where he abused more children. Bishop Connors put the boot in when he conceded that Bishop Mulkearns had to accept responsibility.
Frequent use of the word, “naïve” fitted nicely with the image of Bishop Mulkearn as being of frail mind. Bishop Connors said Bishop Mulkearns thought “any man who wanted to be a priest should be one, even if they had been rejected by other seminaries.” Clearly, according to Connors, this was just a case of being naïve, not in any way being opportunistic in a time of falling numbers of recruits to the clergy or of protecting the image of the Catholic Church.
Of course, many of the abuse cases and cover-ups may have overlapped from Mulkearns’ time into that of his successor Bishops. Blaming Mulkearn for everything neatly allowed Bishops Bird and Connors to sidestep any questioning along this line.
When asked by the committee whether Australia’s highest-ranking cleric, Cardinal Pell (pictured above), a former Archbishop of Melbourne, knew anything of the Ballarat problems, the good Bishops declined to comment, and suggested the Cardinal would speak for himself in due course. If Pell had also retired after a stroke, perhaps the reply would have been different.
Pell did have a connection with Risdale. He had escorted him to court as a supporter (see image above). In 1973, Father Ridsdale and (then) Father Pell were both located in a parish within the city of Ballarat, living together in the parish house.
However, the best laid plans of mice and men can go astray. For the Bishops, this occurred when the committee members did not accept the reason for Bishop Mulkearns’ no-show, and indicated they would like him to appear before them in due course. It remains to be seen if this will indeed happen. It will serve as a test of the authority of the committee.
Under the Royal Commission structure, Bishop Mulkearn would have no choice in the matter, which is precisely the reason why it was necessary in the first place. Next time, it might be a better tactic for the Catholic Church to blame deceased officials.
[Postscript: ABC-TV has aired an “Australian Story” episode on Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who put his career on the line to support calls for the Royal Commission. The link to the transcript is given below.]
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Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)