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In the Name of the Father
12 / 07 / 2012
Victoria Police are investigating 40 suicides in the graduate student body of St. Alipius school in Ballarat. All are thought to be linked to child sex offences committed decades ago by Catholic teachers and clergy affiliated with the school. In this piece, lawyer Viv Waller (representing victims of the Christian Brothers) examines the sinister realities of child sex abuse – the offences, the cover-ups and the untold damage done.
St Alipius, a Ballarat Christian Brothers School teaching grades 3–6, has the tragic distinction of being a school in which the entire male teaching staff was comprised of child sex offenders in 1971. The teachers were Christian Brother Robert Best, Brother Edward Dowlan, and Brother Stephen Farrell – all of whom have been convicted of child sex offences later in life. The School Chaplain was Father Gerald Ridsdale, another convicted child sex offender jailed in 1994. There are also many sexual assault allegations against Brother Fitzgerald, now deceased.
School Principal Robert Best was convicted of sexual offences against 11 victims, including two rape charges. The victims were all small school boys at St Alipius, and from two other schools Best subsequently taught at – St Leo’s in Box Hill and St Joseph’s in Geelong. One of Best’s rape victims reportedly confided in his class teacher. The Christian Brother forcibly and repeatedly struck the grade three child until he retracted the statement.
Complaints had been made about Best to the Christian Brothers yet he continued to teach. His convicted offences range from 1962 to 1986. We know also that on one occasion Best was interrupted by another Christian Brother, who, in a gross act of indifference to the child’s suffering, simply smiled and closed the door.
Father Ridsdale had been moved from parish to parish by the Archdiocese of Ballarat. There is evidence the Archdiocese knew of his sexual impropriety by the late 1960s or early 1970. Ridsdale was charged with 93 sexual offences against children in three separate criminal proceedings occurring in 1993, 1994 and 2006. He is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for multiple counts of buggery and indecent assault upon children – his offences (at least those we know about) span a 26 year period.
Victoria Police are investigating 40 suicides in the graduate student body of St Alipius – all are thought to be linked to sexual offences by Best and Ridsdale.
It is clear that the Catholic Church can no longer regard clergy sexual abuse as random criminal acts of rogue priests and brothers. The Church has presided over and often facilitated systemic child abuse perpetrated over decades.
Paedophiles ingratiate themselves into environments where they have access to children. The innocence of children, possessed with no intellectual framework within which to understand (let alone explain or report) the carefully planned grooming and abuse, further minimises any chance of apprehension. This means paedophiles continue unabated, working from victim to victim with impunity, sometimes targeting children in the same family. Child sex offenders routinely use their position of power and authority to insinuate their perverse version of reality into the child’s perception of the world, making them feel complicit, when clearly they are not complicit at all.
As a solicitor representing sexual assault victims for the last 18 years, I am all too familiar with the cavalcade of trauma, misery and intergenerational harm caused by childhood sexual abuse. After suffering attacks from persons in positions of trust and authority, children are often left to deal with the burning sense of trauma and frightened bewilderment on their own, with deeply imbedded scars remaining.
Most often attempts are made to bury the memories, but sadly the nightmare re-emerges later in life once the coping mechanisms fail. Victim impact statements and numerous studies into the psychology of those affected often tell a story of catastrophic psychological destabilisation. Many of Robert Best’s recent victims said they thought they were going to die during his attacks.
Even though sexual assault is a community-wide problem – occurring in families and across all social settings, classes, cultures and religions – I am all too familiar with the over-representation of Catholic clergy as offenders.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what is so disgusting, damaging and destabilising about Catholic clergy abuse. I don’t rank any kind of sexual abuse as more damaging or deserving of our attention than others, but there are specific trends and generalisations I have observed in relation to Catholic clergy abuse that are worth exploring.
Utter Abuse of Authority
The power, mystique and unquestioned authority of the Church and ‘God’s representatives’ here on earth sets up a phenomenal power imbalance between the abuser and the abused. It is not just the usual power imbalance – the cunning and intelligence of an adult pitted against the innocence and trust of a child – clergy abuse is delivered with the mantle of the authority of God, as well as the mantle of teacher, priest, principal, and Christian Brother.
The abuser also administered the last rites to a loved one, married an older sibling, buried grandma, or supported a parent through a troubled time. In short, the abuser is often dearly loved by the victim’s family members.
Ridsdale, as the family priest, had inside information he used to target the vulnerable. He knew whose mum was sick, whose dad was a drinker, which kids were being raised in single parent families and which kids would never tell or be believed. I have known of Catholic clergy who planted pornography in the boys’ toilets to then “catch out” teenage boys masturbating. The boy was then threatened with disclosure to his parents and raped. What child can come home from school to seek the help of his parents when the narrative must commence with, “I got caught wanking in the toilets by the family priest”?
Robert Best would prey on any injured boy who copped a knock to his testicles during cricket or football, or had an upset stomach. The boy would be called for a medical examination, rubbed down and sexually abused. Often Best abused boys under the pretext of administering punishment – by caning boys on the backside, or pulling their shorts up into the crack of their behind and belting them with a metre long wooden compass (used for drawing circles on the board in chalk).
The involvement of Catholic clergy seemed incomprehensible to parents (back then and even still). On many occasions, a child has attempted disclosure without having the language or understanding to describe what has occurred and the parent has misunderstood. The child has been dismissed, or counselled to behave, to avoid copping a belting from a Christian Brother. The message that, “You deserved it” is inadvertently reinforced.
Utter Hypocrisy on the Part of the Abuser
It is not just the trauma of the actual sexual assault and insult to the physical integrity and dignity of the body that affects victims. Clergy sexual abuse assails the mind of the young person to whom the abuse is utterly incomprehensible. The religious figure speaks with authority upon the sins of masturbation and the evils of homosexuality, and then engages with the child in the commission of a criminal offence.
I have heard many histories in which the victim reports being questioned, at a sensitive age for adolescent boys, about erections and masturbation. The boy is trapped between the horror of confessing masturbation to a priest or brother, or alternatively, the sin of lying to deny it. Caught off guard, agitated and finally in tears, the boy admits to masturbation, and is drawn on to the lap of the offender and comforted. He is told there may be a way to avoid disclosure to his parents if he just shows the Brother what he does, and in this way they can work it out together, in secret. The Brother then corrects the boy’s “technique”.
The act of making the boy feel complicit and ensuring his secrecy is complete – the Brother can proceed to abuse the child with impunity. As the acts of the offenders are incomprehensible to the child as criminal offences, the child will erroneously feel complicit and blame themselves. This burden of self blame and secrecy can be carried throughout adult life.
Institution of the Church
In a pastoral letter dated 1 July 2010, Archbishop Denis Hart said that 300 complaints had been dealt with in the Melbourne Archdiocese Response process (or ‘Melbourne Response’, as it is sometimes called) – an in-house sexual abuse complaint referral process. Not one of these was referred to the Victoria Police. I know this because recently the Victoria Police have criticised the Archdiocese of Melbourne for not once eliciting assistance or referring allegations of sexual abuse for investigation, despite requests by the police to do so. Denis Hart has said that the 300 complaints related to 60 priests in the Melbourne Archdioceses.
Think about that for a moment: sixty different priests in Melbourne are alleged to have committed sexual offences. There are at least 300 people who identify as victims – these are just the matters that have been reported within the Archdiocese of Melbourne Response process – and none of these have been reported to the Police by the Church. Some individual victims have reported to the Police, but the Church has not taken this initiative.
I know of no other community group, school, business, company, government agency or volunteer organisation who could preside over such astonishing and horrifying statistics and yet consider themselves to be above the law or somehow separate to it.
On at least two occasions, the ‘Melbourne Response’ has undermined the integrity of active police investigations by inadvertently tipping off the alleged abuser to their existence. The other internal complaints process, somewhat euphemistically called “Toward Healing”, is also deeply flawed. It creates the pretence of independence but falls far short of impartiality and integrity, often purporting to have conducted an investigation into the allegations while failing to approach even other students in the same class. Letting the Church deal internally with allegations of sexual abuse is like taking a complaint about the sexual impropriety of a star full forward to the footy coach during the finals.
The Church has had fifty years to demonstrate that it can respond to the sexual abuse crisis with integrity. It has failed. How the Church can attempt to assert leadership on social justice issues (their opposition to gay marriage, for example) beggars belief – it has presided over the wholesale criminal abuse of children and turned a blind eye to the significant suffering of victims and their families. Despite the good work performed by many Catholic agencies, the lack of authenticity in the Church’s response to the child sexual abuse crisis deems their assertions of moral authority empty and hypocritical.
The recently announced Parliamentary Inquiry is an important first step toward truth and accountability. What’s important now is to ensure that the committee overseeing the Inquiry is appropriately resourced to deal with the institutionalised power of the Catholic Church, its insurers and its lawyers – the very same organisations that have exerted their influence to make individual victims feel like they are isolated cases and who have kept matters from the police.
A Royal Commission would be a more appropriate vehicle to redress the significant power imbalance still silencing victims, but I am grateful for the first intervention of the democratic process and shot across the bows of the Church – a potent reminder that Church and State are separate and the Church is not above the law.
We need to make sure that concentrations of abuse and organisational conspiracies of silence no longer blight our young and vulnerable, and that no more sins are committed in the name of the Father.
Any feedback on Sheilas articles and content is always welcome. Please direct all feedback to Sheilas editor Sarah Capper at email@example.com.
Dr Vivian Waller
- Lawyer representing male victims of Robert Best and other Christian Brothers
- Vivian completed a PhD on child sexual assault litigation in Victoria and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childhood sexual abuse.
- Vivian is the Principal Solicitor of Waller Legal, a law firm dedicated to the exclusive representation of crime victims, particularly those who have been sexually assaulted.