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Child sexual abuse inquiry: Catholic Church did not understand paedophilia at the time of Gerald Ridsdale’s offending.

May 30, 2015 · 

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Ridsdale, an 81-year-old former priest, this week gave evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Ballarat.

He is currently at Ararat Prison, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for the rape and abuse of children.

The commission heard his offending first came to the attention of a bishop in 1961, but he was left to assault possibly hundreds of victims over the next three decades.

Ridsdale admitted the church should have notified authorities about his offending, saying “What I’ve done and the damage that I’ve done … I’d say, definitely”.

John McKinnon, now retired, spent much of his time as a priest in western Victorian, including the Ballarat Diocese.

He told the ABC that, at the time, the church did not fully understand the nature of paedophilia and the offenders.

“Even though in the church we knew it was wrong, I don’t think there was any sense of the harm it did,” he said.

“I think there wasn’t any sense either that it was virtually irreversible. [It was thought] that you tried hard and you would improve.”

He said many priests back then would not have seen Ridsdale’s actions as a reportable offence.

“It’s clearer that it’s a crime now, because we know the effects of it. Then, I don’t think even the psychiatrists and psychologists knew,” he said.

“Just as you wouldn’t go to the police if someone was an alcoholic [they didn’t report offending to the police], it was the wisdom of the time.

“So we’re a lot wiser, but a bit late.”

Retired priest says moving Ridsdale a ‘mistake’

Ridsdale acknowledged to the commission that at least three members of the clergy, including Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, knew of his prolific offending.

The inquiry also heard Bishop Mulkearns moved him around parishes in western Victoria.

Many survivors and their supporters were hoping Bishop Mulkearns would give evidence at the hearing but he was not on the witness list.

He also did not appear at Victoria’s parliamentary inquiry, citing ill heath.

The ABC approached him following Ridsdale’s appearance at the hearing but he declined to speak.

Father McKinnon said Bishop Mulkearns had suffered a stroke and his “recollection of the times may not be useful”.

“He’s so sad at the effects that have happened, so sad,” Father McKinnon said.

“It was a mistake but it certainly wasn’t a poorly motivated mistake, it was in the hope that the psychological help would bring about a change in [Ridsdale].

“But knowing what we know now, we see it was misguided. I think he would grieve at what’s happened to the victims.

“It was thought that if you gave them the support they needed, that they could change. It would have been how I would have felt in those days.”

Damage done to victims was ‘awful’: McKinnon

Father McKinnon said the church needed to learn from what happened.

“In some ways we see the event now is enormous, I don’t think we had the ability to see it as enormous then,” he said.

“[We] certainly saw it in terms of sin but beyond that, we didn’t.

“It’s awful to think of the damage that has been done.

“[We need to] develop our sensitivity to victims, to all those affected. It’s a tough time, but I think it will be a time of growth for us, too.”

Father McKinnon also said he was able to forgive the Bishop Mulkearns for the decisions he made decades ago.

“Forgiveness is not excusing, forgiveness is not saying I haven’t done wrong,” he said.

“Forgiveness is saying I can still treat you with respect, speak to you with respect.”

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