GARY HUGHES and LARRY SCHWARTZ. Sunday Age Melbourne, Vic.:Mar 24, 2002. p. 1
A Roman Catholic priest who sexually abused young boys in Melbourne for more
than 20 years is unlikely to ever face prosecution after fleeing to Britain.
The Catholic Church has so far paid out more than $50,000 in compensation,
provided counselling and made formal apologies to victims whose lives were
shattered by Father Ronald Dennis Pickering.
A Sunday Age investigation has revealed that Pickering moved from parish to
parish around Melbourne, selecting vulnerable boys. His preferred victims were
members of church choirs or altar boys.
A number of deaths from drug overdoses and attempted suicides among suspected
victims have been linked to Pickering's activities.
But despite detailed statements having been given to Victoria Police by two of
Pickering's victims, it is unlikely he will ever be extradited to Melbourne to
One victim said police told him the case was not serious enough to justify the
cost of extradition proceedings.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said it was prepared to "fully cooperate"
with any extradition.
But Victoria Police refused to say whether the Pickering case had been
investigated and refused to comment on why there had been no attempt to
The Sunday Age has traced victims dating as far back as 1966 through to the
early 1980s. One of the victims says he believes up to 100 boys may have been
abused by Pickering before he fled to his native Britain in 1993.
Pickering, who was ordained in the Melbourne archdiocese in 1957, served as a
priest in Essendon, St Kilda East, Warburton, Clayton and Gardenvale.
The Vicar-General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, Monsignor
Christopher Prowse, confirmed that three victims had so far contacted the
church, with the most recent application for compensation being made earlier
this month. The church was satisfied in each case that abuse had occurred and
has made two ex gratia compensation payments, with an offer being made in the
A further suspected victim, who was befriended by Pickering during the early
1980s, died of a drug overdose in 1992 at the age of 22. In a letter to the
man's mother in November, the head of the Melbourne archdiocese's Independent
Commission on Sexual Abuse, Peter O'Callaghan, QC, admitted Pickering "had a
proclivity for child abuse".
Mr O'Callaghan wrote to the mother, Rosemary Gaudin, who is receiving
counselling paid for by the Catholic Church, that her "suspicions that Matthew
(her son) was a victim of Pickering are well justified".
Matthew had been a member of the choir and an altar boy at St James in
Gardenvale, where Pickering worked before fleeing Australia.
Ms Gaudin said another Gardenvale choir boy had died of a drug overdose a year
before her son and a third had attempted suicide and was receiving psychiatric
care. She believes they may also have been victims of Pickering's abuse.
Two of the victims who have received compensation payouts from the Melbourne
archdiocese also received written personal apologies from the former Archbishop
of Melbourne, George Pell, who is now Archbishop of Sydney.
"On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to
those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of
Father Ronald Pickering," Dr Pell wrote.
Last week Pope John Paul, breaking his silence on a wave of child-sex scandals
in the United States, said Roman Catholic priests abusing minors were carrying
out the worst form of evil possible.
The Sunday Age believes that Pickering fled to England after lawyers
representing one of his victims began making inquiries.
Monsignor Prowse said Pickering left his parish in Gardenvale "without warning
or notice" in May, 1993.
He said the archdiocese first learnt of abuse allegations in December, 1993,
when contacted by a solicitor acting on behalf of one of Pickering's victims.
Pickering's right to act as a priest in Australia was revoked the following
A later bid by Pickering to become a priest in England was blocked by the
archdiocese, which received a request from a bishop in Britain for information
concerning his status.
Attempts to trace Pickering in England last week for comment were unsuccessful.
According to police statements from victims, copies of which have been seen by
The Sunday Age, Pickering would lure his young victims with promises of
watching television or receiving pocket money for doing odd jobs.
He would often encourage boys to consume alcohol in an attempt to get them
drunk before abusing them. He also took groups of boys away with him on weekend
trips, where he abused them.
While working as an assistant priest at St Mary's Catholic Church in St Kilda,
he used binoculars to spy on boys in the playground of a school near his
In one statement, Pickering is linked to a number of other Roman Catholic
priests who have been convicted of sexual abuse.
But Monsignor Prowse rejected the existence of any "network" of priests
involved in sexual abuse.
Victims who spoke to The Sunday Age said they were frustrated and angry that
Pickering had been able to flee from Australia so easily and would not be
extradited to face charges.
The president of victims' lobby group Broken Rites, Chris MacIsaac, said that
since 1993 at least 44 Catholic priests and 29 brothers from Catholic religious
orders had been sentenced in Australian courts for sexual offences.
"Those figures understate the scale of the problem because most victims of
clergy abuse remain silent," she said.
"Those who complain merely tell the church authorities. Therefore the crime is
successfully kept out of court."
Ms MacIsaac urged victims of Pickering and other abusive priests to contact
VICTIM 1- St James, Gardenvale
Matthew Gaudin was just 22 when he was found dead of a heroin overdose at the
back of a block of units in St Kilda.
He had once been "a beautiful, loving, intelligent boy", says his mother,
Mrs Gaudin had flown to Dublin the day before he died in November, 1992, to be
with her mother, who died of cancer days later. At her suggestion, the family
invited the priest at St James, Gardenvale, to conduct Matthew's funeral.
Father Ronald Pickering initially accepted but rang on the day to say he was
The Gaudins have not heard from him since.
Mrs Gaudin believes Matthew was among the victims of the priest with a "plummy
English accent" he dropped in bouts of drunkenness to reveal working-class
Peter O'Callaghan, QC, who heads the Independent Commission into Sexual Abuse,
wrote to Mrs Gaudin late last year that, however difficult, "you must try to
look forward and not dwell too much on the regrettable past".
The commissioner said "whilst I consider that your suspicions that Matthew was
a victim of Pickering are well justified, there is simply no proof upon which I
could make a finding that such abuse had, in fact, occurred".
Mrs Gaudin and her husband, Hedley, had been devastated by the tragedy. Mrs
Gaudin was admitted to hospital after a mental breakdown. The couple's younger
sons, now aged 27 and 28, were faring well now but had endured much hurt.
Mrs Gaudin says a Gardenvale choir boy at the same time as Matthew had died of
a drug overdose in late 1991; another had attempted suicide. Others led
Mrs Gaudin had loved the Catholic faith. "I guess in Ireland nuns and priests
were very special," she says. "We were told they were called to God."
Now she feels betrayed. "I just don't think they took enough care to
investigate what was going on," says Mrs Gaudin, who has heard from others in
St James parish that it failed to respond to complaints in the years before
Pickering returned to England in 1993.
"I feel they've just done a total cover-up job."
She holds herself accountable, too, and regrets her "blind assumption that
priests could do no wrong".
She says Matthew, an altar boy from age nine to 13, had been Pickering's first,
and for a while only, altar server.
Mrs Gaudin says his life "went downhill" after he was dismissed from the church
choir for non-attendance.
He completed his schooling at Brighton High School after being expelled from
Christian Brothers St Kilda. "I think, why didn't I listen more to the
rumours?" she says. "I thought people were being malicious."
Matthew was 14 when a parishioner mentioned that boys climbed a ladder to
Pickering's bedroom. "I said, 'why would he have a ladder?' " Matthew said the
boys did not want to disturb the housekeeper.
A friend's son later said they watched videos up there. The priest would lie on
his bed as if asleep. "But he had one eye open watching them." Now she wonders
what sort of video they watched.
Her husband had been particularly troubled by the thought that he had
negotiated the sale of a St Kilda unit to Pickering the couple believe might
have been used for abuse.
She says Pickering could "go on to the altar in all his robes and so forth and
be quite holy, for want of a better word".
At other times, the heavy smoking, heavy drinking clergyman would talk
explicitly about sex. "It just got to a point where I found it very hard to
think of him as a priest," Mrs Gaudin says. He once told her someone had
reported him to the archdiocese for an unspecified action.
Mrs Gaudin rarely goes to church these days. "I used to go to Mass every week
and I was reasonably involved in parish life," she says. "It has shaken my life
She's not so sure any more if there's a heaven or a hell but says there must be
some punishment for the likes of Ronald Pickering.
Shattered lives - innocence stolen, trust betrayed
VICTIM 2 - Xavier College, Kew
He'd drive a red 900cc Ducati up through the Snowy Mountains or down the
Victorian coastline, buoyed by the rush of oxygen as the motorbike surged
beyond 230 kmh.
"It's the closest thing you can get to flying," Tom Manning says. "You feel
like you're totally free. It can clear your head of any trauma. It's like
meditating on wheels."
But the wheels always slowed. The breathing quickened. He was brought back
always to long periods of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide.
"It's always been there," he says. "Because I buried it."
For more than 20 years, Mr Manning, 38, could not understand what caused him
such distress. He was confused about his sexuality, found it difficult to
maintain personal relationships, succumbed to bouts of anger.
"Yeah, it was a big load," he says. "But I didn't know what it was from."
It was not until his early 30s that a psychologist helped him see the reason -
a series of incidents in his mid-teens when he was sexually abused by Father
Ronald Pickering, then parish priest at St James, Gardenvale.
Though confident he will eventually come to terms with the deep sense of
betrayal and hurt, the audio accessories wholesaler remains frustrated at the
failure to bring the fugitive priest back to Australia.
He has tried unsuccessfully to use the Internet to locate Pickering. "Oh, if I
could find him," he told The Sunday Age, "I'd kill him. There is no question.
Only if I could be certain I wouldn't be caught. And I'd be fully aware of what
I'd be doing as well."
Mr Manning received a $27,500 compensation after an independent tribunal headed
by Peter O'Callaghan, QC, and set up by then Archbishop George Pell in 1996,
found he had been abused by Pickering while still a student at Xavier College,
Kew, in 1978 and 1979.
He was one of a group of boys who would visit Pickering at the presbytery
alongside the church on North Road.
In a statement to police in September, 1998, he said he went with several
friends on visits before he was first assaulted, to drink wine with Pickering
in the presbytery. On one occasion, he was so drunk he had vomited in
He was surprised during this period that the priest would talk as openly as he
did then about sex. While telling the boys about his sexual experience with
women, he would speak in a derogatory way "and I quickly became aware that he
had a hatred for women".
He was 14 when first assaulted by Pickering. The boys would climb a balcony to
gain access to the presbytery through Pickering's bedroom.
Mr Manning, who regarded himself as a loner then, explained Pickering's lure.
"He was like a mate or a friend or someone I could talk to. Just slightly
naughty. He'd talk about sex."
After the assault, Pickering, who had been on his bed as he entered the room,
had told him, "Now you won't get me into trouble with this will you?"
Later, he felt ashamed. "I also felt that my religion had betrayed me," he told
police. "As a child I was always taught that a priest was God's representative
on our earth, so this made me feel very disgusted and betrayed."
In a March, 1999, letter, Dr Pell apologised "to you and to those around you
for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father Pickering".
He regards Dr Pell's 1996 initiative to deal with sexual abuse by priests as "a
reasonable attempt to get something started" and that Dr Pell "had some sense
He has considered taking legal action but says "it's too hard. I'd still be
fighting it today." "They can afford any amount of QCs they like," he says.
"They'll just line them up."
Mr Manning says that after such abuse by a priest "your whole sense of the
sacred is destroyed".
"To many people it's a lot of money," he says of the payment detailed in a
March, 1999, letter to him from David Habersberger, then chairman of an
archdiocese compensation panel, which awards up to $50,000 for abuses by
"Really it's a trifle. It's no amount of money. It's my sense of the sacred.
That's what it comes down to."
Notification of the payment came 20 years after he was assaulted on the fourth,
and last, occasion. Pickering had invited him to a flat he used on the
Esplanade at St Kilda. He had ceased to visit the priest after this incident.
Mr Manning says before the assaults, he had been a top student, gaining 98 per
cent in mathematics in year 8 and, the following year, placed in the top 5 per
cent of students at Xavier College. But his schoolwork had suffered and he had,
afterwards, worked at a series of menial jobs before entering his present line
of work. The church compensation payout then enabled him to set up his own
Mr Manning regularly receives counselling funded through the archdiocese
service, Carelink. But he refuses to deal with the organisation itself.
"They ring me up to ask me how I'm going," Mr Manning says. "I say it's for
your conscience. You can't do anything for me."
And Ronald Pickering? "I think he should be brought back to face trial," Tom
Manning says. "I'd discharge a shotgun in his face. No worries. Any day of the
VICTIM 3 - St Mary's, St Kilda
He seems secure in domesticity, with fine paintings and woodcarvings. The piano
is open; a gangly pup peers through a glass door.
"I'm scared," says the man on the leather lounge. "There's a real fear of that
past. That's why I've got to keep it in a box. So I've got control of it."
Now well into his 40s, "Michael" lives with the secret of nearly a decade of
sexual abuse. He was an 11-year-old altar boy at St Mary's Catholic Church, St
Kilda, when first molested by a man he looked up to as a father; his own father
had died three years earlier.
"The priest was like a prince with a manor," he says, remembering his awe at
the two-storey presbytery and its residents.
On a hot day in 1966, an assistant priest - tall, thin, blue-eyed with "mousy
brown" hair - offered to read him a story and led him up a wooden staircase.
"I think faith is all built on a pyramid," says the man, who agrees to speak
only if we do not disclose his identity. "If you pull out one layer of the
pyramid, the whole thing just collapses."
Few know. Not even his own children.
Michael received a $30,000 compensation payout in 1998.
Then Archbishop George Pell wrote to apologise "on behalf of the Catholic
Church and personally . . . for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the
hands of Father Ronald Pickering".
The priest had molested him that first day in the early months of 1966 and
approached him again about a week later.
Soon Michael was receiving small amounts of money to help wash the priest's
grey Rover sedan, cart coal for the kitchen stove or assist at weddings,
baptisms, funerals, Sunday Masses, and, with his teacher's permission, during
Pickering would use excuses - money in the bedroom, for one - to lure him
upstairs for sex.
Michael was 13 or 14 when he revealed the abuse in confession to the priest at
St Colemans, Balaclava. He told police years later that Father Wilfred (Bill)
Baker, who was jailed in June, 1999, after pleading guilty to child sex
offences spanning almost 20 years from 1960, spoke to him immediately
afterwards and invited him to discuss the matter further in the presbytery.
Months later Pickering demanded to know why he had approached Baker. "He said I
was stupid to do it," he told police.
Until he revealed his secret to his wife in the early 1980s, "I hadn't told
anyone, except Baker . . . because I didn't have a father, and Pickering was a
father figure for me . . ."
Also in the St Kilda parish in the early period of his abuse was Father Desmond
Gannon, who in July, 2000, received a three-year suspended sentence for
indecently assaulting four boys aged 11 to 14 between January, 1963, and
Michael recalls that Pickering would arrange outings for altar boys, mostly to
Tooronga Village drive-in or a cottage at Warrandyte where, on one occasion,
Pickering slept in a double bed with a boy from his previous parish, Essendon.
One school holiday in December, 1967, he accompanied Pickering to the
Mornington Peninsula, the week Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at
With his brother and another youngster, he had helped Pickering pack when the
priest was transferred to Warburton in 1969.
The abuse continued. Pickering was transferred to Clayton parish in 1973 and
Gardenvale in 1976.
Up to 10 boys at a time would visit the priest. Michael says Pickering had
given one boy a small motorcycle, another an old car.
"It affected my trust in professionals," he says of the abuse. "My trust in
police. My trust in authority. My trust in the system.
"I've lost the value system that I had."
He speaks of "the shame that I was so stupid that this happened to me and I
wasn't gutsy enough to do something about it".
His mother died oblivious to the abuse. "I haven't been able to forgive Mum for
not looking after me."
He last saw Father Pickering at a wedding in Gardenvale during the 1980s.
He still remembers Pickering's flamboyance - "the smells and the bells and the
big flowing cassocks".
He says Pickering spent lavishly. " Savile Row suits, not one but 10. He'd shop
at Georges all the time, or Henry Buck's. Drove a BMW or a Rover or another
Michael regards the $30,000 he has received as a pittance that shows the church
does not take sexual abuse by priests seriously.
"He's ruined so many years of my life," Michael says. "Absolutely ruined them."
CRIMES UNDER THE CROSS
Wilfred James Baker: 62 when sentenced to four years' jail in June, 1999, for
17 child sex offences spanning 20 years.
David Daniel: 57 when sentenced in July, 2000, to six years' jail for 16 sex
offences against four victims between 1978 and 1994.
Desmond Laurence Gannon: 70 when he pleaded guilty in 1995 to 11 counts of
indecent assault and four counts of gross indecency for assaults on four boys
aged 11 to 14 between January, 1963, and December, 1976. He served a 12-month
Michael Glennon: was convicted in 1991 of five charges of sexually assaulting
children. He was 53 when released from Ararat prison in 1997 after serving
seven years of a sentence of nine years and one month's jail.
John Kevin O'Donnell: then 78, was sentenced in 1995 to a non-parole jail
sentence of 15 months. He had pleaded guilty to 12 counts of indecent assault
on 10 boys and two girls under the age of 16 between 1946 and 1977.
Gerald Ridsdale: then 60, was sentenced to 18 years' jail in 1994 after he
pleaded guilty to 46 charges involving incidents with 21 children between 1961
and 1982, while a priest at churches throughout the Western District, Bendigo,
Swan Hill and Melbourne.
for a listing of alternate locations.