|RICHARD CARLETON: It's hard to imagine a graver charge. It's against one of the most powerful men in Australia, the man who is now the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. Now, the accusation is simply this "that 10 years ago, Dr George Pell attempted to bribe a distressed young man who had been sexually assaulted by a priest, and that Dr Pell did this to cover up a potential scandal to protect his church. And, as you'll see, there's more "money offered to silence the family of two young girls, other tragic victims of a predator in the Catholic Church.|
STORY - RICHARD CARLETON: David Ridsdale grew up in Ballarat in country Victoria. He had been born into a strong Catholic family. He was one of nine children. His uncle, Gerald RIDSDALE, was a priest.
DAVID RIDSDALE: When I grew up he was always like the shining light, and certainly for my grandmother he was the pinnacle of her Catholic achievement, I guess. He started to hang around more when I reached around the age of 11. He started to turn up when my mum was pregnant with my youngest sister and he started to offer to assist by looking after me for weekends or taking me away.
RICHARD CARLETON: Father Gerald was hanging around because he was a paedophile. Father Gerald began assaulting David when David was 11 and the abuse lasted until he was 15. What forms did the assaults take? Always masturbation of you?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Oh, no, no. Initially it was masturbation and then kissing and then oral sex. And I remember the first time we were in the bush somewhere and he tried to make me perform oral sex and I gagged. I was gagging and stuff and he would get angry if I couldn't perform the way he wanted it. He took me for driving lessons. "Do you want to learn to drive?" He let me drive a car in a paddock and surely any 11-year-old will tell you that's a pretty exciting thing.
RICHARD CARLETON: Sick as it may sound, the abuse would sometimes occur when priest was driving the altar boy to the next town to say mass.
DAVID RIDSDALE: Both as a man and as a priest he knew it was wrong.
RICHARD CARLETON: What would be his demeanour?
DAVID RIDSDALE: At the time, total blank. It wasn't ... it was ... you know, it was no words, no anything. It was an action, and then it would finish and he would just drive on as if nothing happened.
RICHARD CARLETON: You mean he would then start the car...
DAVID RIDSDALE: Start the car, go straight to the church and say mass and...
RICHARD CARLETON: It's hard to imagine.
DAVID RIDSDALE: Well, it's hard to forget.
DAVID FORSTER: He was probably the most notorious paedophile. He was shifted from parish to parish. Whenever the Church authorities were told of what he was up to, they seemed to just ignore it and send him on his merry way to another parish, and not warn the parishioners.
RICHARD CARLETON: David Forster is a Melbourne lawyer who has represented nearly 100 victims of sexual abuse. He says Gerald Ridsdale had been abusing children for 15 years prior to latching on to David.
Isn't someone culpable in circumstances like that? Someone has to take responsibility for that sort of thing.
DAVID FORSTER: Well, you'd hope that someone would take responsibility, but the fact is there is a complete lack of accountability for the disastrous way the Church has treated victims of sexual abuse.
RICHARD CARLETON: Another young priest who figured in David's childhood was George Pell. Pell is now Archbishop in Sydney.
This is where you'd see Pell quite a bit?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Often. He would swim laps here. He was a big man and kids would come and sort of... He was the man-mountain you'd jump on and he'd throw you off. He would have known my parents since before I was born.
RICHARD CARLETON: So it was a family relationship?
DAVID RIDSDALE: He didn't come around to the family or anything but you'd see him at functions. I mean, I'd see him in the pool. I saw him quite a lot and I've called him George from when I was a kid. I've never called him "Father", I never have, it's never...
RICHARD CARLETON: Father George.
DAVID RIDSDALE: No, never. He's George to me, always was.
RICHARD CARLETON: He knew you, David?
DAVID RIDSDALE: He knew who I was, yeah, yeah, definitely, and would greet me by name.
RICHARD CARLETON: Pell also knew well Uncle Gerald, David's abuser. They'd been to school together, seminary together and, as young priests, they'd shared a house. In the early 90s, David summoned the courage to tell the now Bishop George Pell what Father Ridsdale had done to him.
DAVID RIDSDALE: He was one of the few individuals that I trusted as a young man " that I could think back on all the people I knew in the Catholic Church and he was one of the few individuals that I thought I had a good rapport with and a trust relationship and a friendship. I knew he was the bishop in the area through my work and suddenly realised he was in a position of power within the Church and I honestly thought I would find a way to deal with my own emotional problems without having to tell the world what had happened. And my big fear, the reason I hadn't gone earlier, was actually my grandparents, especially my grandmother, who I loved to bits, and I was terrified that if she found out it would kill her.
RICHARD CARLETON: This is your grandmother, who is the mother of Father Gerald RIDSDALE?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Yes. I was terrified. So eventually I chose a course of action.
RICHARD CARLETON: Okay. Now, you called Bishop Pell out of the blue.
DAVID RIDSDALE: Yes.
RICHARD CARLETON: Tell me why, please.
DAVID RIDSDALE: I was getting so confused and so psychologically agitated and depressed and angry I had to deal with this issue. And I believed at the time that he was the best way for me to go " "Look, what help do you have?" Actually, I think my terms were, "What internal processes do the Church have to help with situations like this because I'm beside myself and I'm terrified."
RICHARD CARLETON: To the best of your memory, tell me what happened, please. You dialled up a number and then what?
DAVID RIDSDALE: I dialled a number, asked to speak to him. I said, "Hello, George", because that's what I called him. And he said, you know, "Hi, how are you?" I said, "Look, this assault has happened to me. I'm really beside myself. I need some assistance, some help." His reaction was so totally unexpected. He didn't respond to anything I said. He sort of cut me off and was using all sorts of language and quite confusing.
RICHARD CARLETON: Now, did you tell him specifically...
DAVID RIDSDALE: I told him specifically I had been assaulted by my uncle, Gerald RIDSDALE, very specifically.
RICHARD CARLETON: Okay. What did he say?
DAVID RIDSDALE: He took control then of the conversation and I could sense anger. At that point, I can categorically say I don't remember everything he said because it was overwhelming, it was very confusing and I started to get a sense he was insinuating things and I felt like I'd done something wrong.
RICHARD CARLETON: That you'd done something wrong?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Yes, that I was at fault and that I was causing him grief and then all of a sudden I just stopped and went, "George, I'm totally lost. Can you please tell me what you were trying to say here?" And his response to that was, "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet."
RICHARD CARLETON: Are there any doubts in your mind that those were the specific words that he used?
DAVID RIDSDALE: "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet". None at all. Not those last two phrases, no, because it triggered...
RICHARD CARLETON: Ten years after the event, how can you be so sure?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Because of what it triggered in me. It changed everything " all of a sudden the priorities got into place. My fear of my grandma had to be put aside, despite the fact that to this day I still believe that by becoming open with it, it actually did kill her. She became very ill not long after it came out and was soon bedridden and died.
RICHARD CARLETON: Do you realise the gravity of what you're saying? I mean, 10 years after the event, you're saying that the man that is now the Archbishop of Sydney, effectively the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, 10 years ago was offering to shut you up about child sexual abuse?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Yeah.
RICHARD CARLETON: You can't make a much more grave charge than that, I'm afraid.
DAVID RIDSDALE: Well, you know, that is definitely what happened. You know, that was because... That one phone conversation is the reason that I then went to the police and so on and everything that happened afterwards.
RICHARD CARLETON: Okay. Continue with the phone conversation. You then put the direct question, "What are you trying to say?" words to that effect?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Yes.
RICHARD CARLETON: And what was the response?
DAVID RIDSDALE: It was very definite. "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet."
RICHARD CARLETON: And you then said what?
DAVID RIDSDALE: You'll probably have to beep it, but I said, "Fuck you and fuck everything you stand for," and I hung up. And any minuscule faith I might have had in the Church and its people was exploded.
RICHARD CARLETON: David says he then rang his eldest sister, Bernie.
BERNIE: David rang me one " I think it was afternoon " and was very distraught when he rang and said that he had made a phone call to George Pell and asked him for his advice relating to sexual abuse by my uncle that David had suffered as a child and that the outcome of the conversation was that George had asked him what it would take for it to go away, to make it go away.
RICHARD CARLETON: How long after the conversation between David and Pell did David call you?
BERNIE: The same day.
RICHARD CARLETON: David told me he also reported the conversation to a second sister, Trish.
TRISH: David told me that after he had told George about the abuse, George asked him what it would take to keep him silent. In fact, David's words to me were, "The bastard tried to offer me a bribe."
RICHARD CARLETON: That same day, David says he rang the police.
DAVID RIDSDALE: I told them I wanted to press charges against my uncle.
RICHARD CARLETON: Did you tell them about the conversation with Pell?
DAVID RIDSDALE: I can't really remember. I don't... I was just... I was actually in tears talking to them and it was when I mentioned my uncle's name that everything changed all of a sudden.
RICHARD CARLETON: Unbeknownst to David, at that same time Victorian police were already investigating Father Gerald RIDSDALE. The day after David made his statement, Ridsdale was charged over the sexual assault of David and a number of other boys. When he appeared in court in May 1993, George Pell was by his side. Ridsdale eventually did three months. Tell me the timeframe. At that stage had your conversation with Pell taken place?
DAVID RIDSDALE: Oh yeah, yeah. Months before.
RICHARD CARLETON: So at the time he's walking into the court ...
DAVID RIDSDALE: He was fully aware of what I'd said to him.
RICHARD CARLETON: He was fully aware of what the man alongside him had done to you, or anyway your account of it.
DAVID RIDSDALE: What I'd told him, yeah, absolutely, fully aware.
RICHARD CARLETON: Not that long after these events, Father Ridsdale faced even more serious charges and was eventually sentenced to a minimum of 15 years. Stephen Woods was another victim of Ridsdale and two Christian Brother teachers.
STEPHEN WOODS: I was first abused by Brother Best. He was the Principal of St Alipius Primary School. And then the next year I went to St Pat's College where I was abused by Brother Dowlan. I went to the cathedral one day, to the presbytery looking for a priest to talk to after, you know, two years of being molested, and this priest who answered the door said, "Yes, there's a Father Ridsdale here." I knew him from connections long ago, and lo and behold, within a short while I was being raped by him.
RICHARD CARLETON: When you say "a short while", what do you mean?
STEPHEN WOODS: Well, within the hour.
RICHARD CARLETON: Within the hour?
STEPHEN WOODS: Yes.
RICHARD CARLETON: Now, the other two Christian Brothers who molested you, what is their connection to Pell, as you understand it?
STEPHEN WOODS: Well, Pell was the Vicar-General looking after religious education in Ballarat, and as Dowlan was moved to St Pat's College here straight after molesting a boy in Melbourne, Pell should have known. He damn well should have known. I mean, how incompetent does he have to be? That was his responsibility. He should have known what was going on in his school that he was supposed to be in charge of.
GEORGE PELL: It's a matter of regret that the Catholic Church has taken some time to come to grips with this sexual assault issue adequately.
RICHARD CARLETON: As Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Pell established a diocesan commission into sexual abuse.
GEORGE PELL: I would like to make a sincere, unreserved and public apology...
RICHARD CARLETON: Pell's Process, as it is known, was designed to keep cases out of court. Compensation payouts were capped at $50,000.
"GARY" and "ELIZABETH": It would appear to be a maximum based on protection of the Church rather than protection of the victim. I feel as though we have been told to take the $50,000 and shut up. It feels like the same thing.
RICHARD CARLETON: These parents, whom we'll call Gary and Elizabeth, have asked us not to identify them or their daughters. Over a six-year period, two of their three girls were sexually abused by their local priest, Father Kevin O'Donnell. The abuse began in 1987, but church officials received their first complaint about O'Donnell as far back as 1958. At the time of their daughter's abuse, the auxiliary bishop was George Pell. It is his duty to know, isn't it?
"GARY": He was a very senior part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He was the bishop for the area in which we reside. He should have known.
RICHARD CARLETON: The two girls were each five years old when the abuse started. In the years since, the eldest has attempted suicide several times. The very night before our interview with her parents she attempted an overdose. Her sister, according to the parents, started drinking to numb the pain, wandered in front of a car and is now confined to a wheelchair. Is there any doubt in your mind that there's a direct connection between the abuse your daughters suffered and their present state?
"GARY": Absolutely not. It is a direct connection. There's no doubt.
RICHARD CARLETON: Gary and Elizabeth applied for compensation through the commission established by Pell. For the eldest daughter, they were offered $50,000. In this letter from George Pell's lawyers they were told the compensation offered provided "a realistic alternative to litigation that will otherwise be strenuously defended." $50,000 for a destroyed daughter's life.
RICHARD CARLETON: Was that reasonable?
"GARY": I don't believe so.
RICHARD CARLETON: So their position was that no matter what had been done to your daughters, $50,000 was the ceiling.
"GARY": That's right, even if she had been abused by 10 priests.
RICHARD CARLETON: Have you signed on the bottom line?
"GARY": Our daughter hasn't, no.
RICHARD CARLETON: Father Kevin O'Donnell died in 1997, shortly after being released from jail. In February of that year, Archbishop Pell travelled to the Melbourne parish where O'Donnell had abused children for 17 years. Pell granted Gary and Elizabeth an audience.
"GARY": Well, we'd gone into that meeting I think hoping to get some answers as to how the church felt about it, how Pell felt about it, and really looking for an expression of great sorrow and open arms of "What can we do to help you?" Instead, we were confronted with a legalistic approach from someone just trying to manage the problem, trying to maybe dispose of us in a short 15 minute meeting and that would be it. We came away from the meeting after discussions with him feeling empty and angry. We had ... there was nothing came out of that meeting that made us feel as though the church or the hierarchy was really helping us or other people to come to terms with what had happened and to get through that whole process of recovery. It was just an awful feeling.
"ELIZABETH": We came out feeling worse than when we went in.
"GARY": We showed Pell a photo of him presenting our daughter with a confirmation certificate at her confirmation. His response was, "That's a very nice photo. That's lovely." As if to say, "That's how we want the children coming out of the church." We then showed him a photo of our daughter just after she had cut her wrists, with blood coming out of them, and his only comment with absolutely no change in attitude, in facial expression, was, "Oh, she's changed, hasn't she". And there was just ... that was it. That was it. I was nearly crying. My wife was nearly crying. He sat there with a stony face, "Oh, she's changed". She's certainly changed. There was no doubt he was right. And she'd changed because of the actions of a priest years before, the actions of a priest whose actions had been known previously in other parishes and he'd been moved on.
DAVID RIDSDALE: People are too afraid, they don't have the courage and I want to see people have courage. And people like George Pell are in the position to change it and you know, what he did to me was wrong, simple as that. He reacted like someone who was in damage control and already " I don't know what was going on before I rang " but he was in damage control the minute I rang. He knows, and I would sit and look him in the eye right now and say, "I dare you to lie to my face. I dare you."
RICHARD CARLETON: So why should we believe you?
DAVID RIDSDALE: George Pell knows the truth.
Go to a transcript of Part 2 of the story. Click here.