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  Home :: 2006 November :: TRAIL OF SIN

The presbytery at St Alipius in Ballarat stands as a disquietingmonument to the Catholic Church's shame over child abuse, as RUSSELLROBINSON reports

CATHOLIC priest Matthew Downing earned widespread regard for hiswork among the downtrodden diggers on the Ballarat goldfields in 1852.

His church, St Alipius, was a wood and canvas structure, from whichsuccour and spiritual comfort were dispensed to the miners and theirfamilies.

Later a more permanent structure was built, two blocks from the site of the Eureka rebellion.

The chapel and school were erected by voluntary labour, and financed from nuggets placed on the Sunday collection plate.

Aside from its historical connections St Alipius, at first glance,is not unlike many Catholic church complexes in country Victoria.

But dark secrets which continue to shake confidence in the Catholic Church lie within the substantial walls.

The St Alipius presbytery once housed some of the church's mostnotorious convicted child molesters. Its activities brought down abishop, and more recently forced former Melbourne Archbishop GeorgePell to publicly defend himself against attacks by sexual assaultvictims and their supporters.

The crisis now engulfing Dr Pell is fuelled not only by accusationsthat the cash compensation to sexual assault victims is contingent ontheir silence, but his association with St Alipius while pedophilepriests such as the evil Gerald Ridsdale were raping children as youngas nine.

Now Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Pell shared the St Alipius presbyteryfor more than 12 months in 1973 with Ridsdale, but said he was unawareof his pedophile housemate's activities.

Dr Pell's predicament was compounded when he was filmed accompanyingthe disgraced priest to court to face the first of his sexual assaultcharges in 1993.

Known as "Fozzie Bear" to some victims, who included his nephew, Ridsdale served three months jail on the initial charges.

The archbishop this week conceded it had been a mistake on his part to provide public support to his former house mate.

Ridsdale, who was defrocked in 1993, is now in Ararat Jail serving aminimum of 15 years after later pleading guilty to 46 serious sexualassault charges involving 21 more children. A serial offender, between1961 and the late 1980s Ridsdale left a trail of shame and despair ateach of his parishes, which included Apollo Bay, Swan Hill, Edenhope,Inglewood, Mortlake and Horsham.

Ballarat builder Robert Walsh alleges that in 1970 he was frequentlyassaulted by Ridsdale, who passed him on to Christian Brother RobertBest, then headmaster of St Alipius Primary School.

Best was given a nine-month suspended jail sentence in 1996 after being convicted of indecently assaulting schoolboys.

"Ridsdale and Best would hand around the children," he told theHerald Sun. "They had me in the bedroom, in the garage and even insidethe church."

Other Ballarat Christian Brothers exposed as child molesters were Edward Vernon Dowlan and Stephen Francis Farrell.

Dowlan was sentenced to nine years after admitting 16 charges ofindecently assaulting 11 boys, aged nine to 13 between 1971 and 1982.Two of the assaults took place in St Alipius.

The court was told that one of the boys Dowlan molested fled to the presbytery for help. He was then sodomised by Ridsdale.

Farrell received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to ninecharges of indecently assaulting two boys, aged nine and 10, between1973 and 1974.

As a result of the St Alipius scandal, Ballarat Bishop RonaldMulkearns resigned in 1997. He had allegedly been aware of Ridsdale'sactivities since 1971, but moved him about the parishes withoutinforming the police. To this day he stands accused of covering up forother pedophiles in the clergy.

"The movement by the hierarchy of sexual offenders from parish toparish was like sending an alcoholic from pub to pub," a prominentCatholic teacher of the time said this week.

His resignation was seen as confirming the widespread fear that theproblem was not just being swept under the carpet, but being shiftedfrom room to room.

Today, Dr Pell and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart -- through anadvertisement on Page 10 of the Herald Sun -- publicly issue "sincere"and "unreserved" apologies to victims and the Australian community forthe "wrongs and hurt suffered".

Their apology states: "We again acknowledge with deep sadness andregret the evil of sexual abuse and other betrayals of trust, whichhave been committed by a small minority of Catholic clergy."

THE apology has received a lukewarm response from some victims andtheir support groups who say it had been said before and besides, apolice contact number is missing from it.

Pedophile watchdog MAKO -- the Movement Against Kindred Offenders --has taken extreme and controversial steps to expose offenders movingabout the unsuspecting community, the latest involving a campaign in aMelbourne suburb.

MAKO founder Peter Morell organised a letter drop to alert residentsto a wayward priest who allegedly sexually abused an 18- year-old malein 1976 after giving the last rites to his victim's dying mother.

As a result, the Catholic Church paid $15,000 compensation to theyouth. The church refused to sack the priest and he was moved aroundparishes.

"It's disgusting and it's wrong that these people should be sent into unsuspecting communities," Mr Morell said.

"They should be struck off the register, let alone being allowed to take communion."

Former State Historian Dr Bernard Barrett harboured a dark secretfor 38 years, too ashamed to tell his mother, fretting the informationwould affect her health.

The retired academic told the Herald Sun he'd been sexuallyassaulted by Brother Fintan Louis Dwyer on his first night as a boarderat De La Salle Brothers (now St Bede's) Primary School in Mentone. Hewas only seven.

"My father had died suddenly and my devout relatives entrusted me to the De La Salle Brothers," he said this week.

"Still grieving, I arrived there after dark on the first Sunday night in February 1942.

"Brother Fintan was in charge of the boarders, and he ordered me to stop crying and get undressed for bed.

"Then he took me to the bathroom, sat me on his knee and tried to masturbate me, while I cried and struggled.

"I knew he was breaking the rules. I now know that this is a criminal offence, called indecent assault.

"Finally he ordered me back to bed and said I was a wicked boy,deserving punishment. To protect himself from complaint, he continuedterrorising and punishing me throughout the year I was there."

Dwyer, who died in 1990, was for 25 years until 1970 the order's"vocations director", a promotion which took him around Australiarecruiting teenage boys to become trainee Brothers. Dr Barrett said hefinally told his mother when he was 45.

A former student from St Joseph's Christian Brothers College,Geelong, told the Herald Sun of having been repeatedly sexuallyassaulted by two teachers in the mid-1970s, an ordeal that hasdestroyed his life.

He named John Patrick "Jackie" Coogan, a lay Catholic physicaleducation teacher who was sentenced to five years jail after pleadingguilty to 17 charges of indecently assaulting boys, aged 10 to 15,between 1962 and 1983.

Also named was Alan Edward Swingler, serving seven years on 14 childsex charges against four students aged 12 to 14 between 1968 and 1979.

THE student received $10,000 under the Pell Process, a procedureestablished in 1996 by Archbishop Pell to compensate victims of sexabuse by Catholic clergy.

He said the money did little to turn around a life blighted bymistrust of everybody, and an inability to form relationships withfemales or males.

He tells of being molested in a room while his abusers would talk ofwhere they would get their next "fresh fish" -- virgins. "That's howthey would refer to the boys at St Joeys -- and it was while theyassaulted me," he said.

He claimed the church hierarchy knew what was occurring.

One of the clergy's most notorious offenders was Father KevinO'Donnell, who served 15 months jail after pleading guilty toindecently assaulting 11 boys and one girl, aged from eight to 14between 1946 and 1977.

O'Donnell, who died after his release in 1997, admitted havingcommitted the offences while parish priest at Chelsea, Dandenong,Hastings, Oakleigh, Rosebud, Seymour and Tallarook.

His victims were assaulted in presbyteries, sacristies, church halls and school camps.

Two of his victims were molested as five-year-olds. One girl hasattempted suicide a number of times, harmed herself, battled a seriousheroin problem, while the other drank to excess and is now confined toa wheelchair after being struck by a car.

Their parents told the Herald Sun this week they had no idea that O'Donnell had been a serial offender.

Nor did the 40 or so other parents from the Oakleigh parish knowwhen they confronted Dr Pell at a specially-convened meeting inFebruary, 1997.

They were demanding answers from the church, and the parents say they're still waiting.

THE Doveton Holy Family parish is regarded by victim support groupsas having been "battered" by a number of alleged or convicted priestssince 1974. It is now run by Father Michael Shadbolt, a founder of theVictorian Catholic Priest Anti-defamation League.

A short drive away in Cranbourne is fellow league member Father Herman Hengel.

He said the process of reporting sexual assault had changed in his 35 years as a priest.

"Moving them from parish to parish should never have happened," he told the Herald Sun.

"But that was 30 or 40 years ago when pedophilia wasn't understoodas much as it is today. It was not seen as a sickness, like alcoholism.

"Today people have the courage to report these things, and the waythe church is dealing with it is different. As soon as a complaint ismade the person is stood down."

A one-time colleague of O'Donnell, Father Hengel said he'd been unaware of the pedophile priest's offences.

"He was bad news. I didn't have a clue he had this dark side. I was staggered," he said.

Asked what he would do if confronted by an allegation a member ofthe clergy was involved in sexual misconduct, Father Hengel said if itwas a criminal offence he would give two pieces of advice: Go to thepolice, and to the church authorities.

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia