Catholic clergy and child sex abuse

By Anne Manne
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Trigger warning: this content deals with accounts of sexual assault.
25 minute read

“It wasn’t only wickedness … it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.” Ian McEwan, Atonement.

It was 1975. A frightened school boy knocked on the door of the Presbytery at the Catholic Cathedral in the old gold mining city of Ballarat. He was seeking the person his devout family had taught him to trust above all others – a priest. Deeply troubled, he had come about a terrible secret. Only 14, he had been raped numerous times over several years by Brother Robert Best and Brother Edward Dowlan while a student at St Alipius. The heavy door swung open, and there stood a priest.

The priest gave his answer to the child’s plea for help by taking him to a grubby toilet block in Lake Wendouree and raping him. As the boy was being raped, he stared in despair out of the window where he could see the palatial bluestone mansion that so handsomely housed the Bishop of Ballarat. The boy was Stephen Woods. The priest was the notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale.

Stephen was not alone. There were so many others. Like “Derek.” Incredibly, all four male teachers at St Alipius were child sexual abusers. “Derek” also suffered sexual abuse by three priests. It began with Dowlan in Grade Five and Best in Grade Six, while Ridsdale, his chaplain, assaulted him during confession. Later giving evidence in court, “Derek” spoke of  “seeing the priest straddling one boy, while the other, who was bleeding from the anus, cried.”

Then there was the little deaf boy. Hearing impaired, he was used to being viciously beaten on the buttocks by the headmaster, Brother Robert Best, for nameless crimes. But a worse day came. Best anally raped him. So used to being punished he thought this was simply a worse – no, the worst – punishment. The distraught child returned to his Grade Three class in a state of high distress. His teacher, Brother Fitzgerald – also an abuser who died before being able to be prosecuted – interrogated him as to why he was so upset. When the little boy told of the rape in graphic terms, Fitzgerald flew into a rage and belted him. He asked again. “What happened?” The little boy repeated his account of the sexual assault. Fitzgerald continued to punch him. The child got the message. He retracted what he had said. He had not been raped.

The day you only copped a beating was a good day. There was nothing a priest could not do to a child, with impunity.

But … he had been raped. The child, nothing if not brave, still believing the deep lessons of his Catholic childhood, that a priest above all others would help him, then went to the Presbytery and spoke to a priest about being raped. At this point in strolled Gerald Ridsdale, who offered to “deal with the situation.” The priest he was speaking to declined Ridsdale’s offer, but “dealt with it” himself. He hit the child repeatedly, and then roughly shoved the victim out of the Presbytery. Shocked and bewildered, now outside the front door of the Presbytery, the priest then said, “And if you tell anyone I will fucking kill you.”

The terrified boy believed that the priest had the power to kill him. He would now live in fear of his life. There was nothing in the regime of terror, of sheer adult tyranny that this boy experienced at St Alipius, to suggest otherwise. “The culture was one of incredible violence,” Stephen Wood later told The Age journalist Peter Ellingsen. Boys were beaten with hard objects like wheel braces, kicked with heavy boots, choked, thrown against walls, whipped with a cat-’o-nine tails, and punched with closed fists. But the worst fear was being raped. The day you only copped a beating was a good day. There was nothing a priest could not do to a child, with impunity.

According to evidence before the recent Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations, George Pell listened to him tell of the crime of rape, but did nothing. Of Ridsdale’s sexual crimes, Pell later said, despite sharing a house with him at that time; “There was not even a whisper.”

The Church hierarchy, however, knew. As early as 1966, according to one source, only five years after ordination a psychiatric report was commissioned on Ridsdale. Evidence before the courts shows that at least by 1971, and possibly as early as the 1960s, the Bishop of Ballarat James O’Collins knew. His successor, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns knew. In 1971 an altar boy complained to him and Mulkearns said merely, “It will be alright, son” and removed him from Ridsdale’s roster.

About these crimes no cleric contacted police. They did what the Church did in Australia and the rest of the world – kept it a secret, took his confession, forgave him his “sin,” urged more prayer or sent him for some ineffectual “counselling.” When the offender was considered to have repented of his “sin” he was moved to another parish of unsuspecting, devout parents and a whole fresh crop of child victims. Ridsdale raped children in Ballarat, Mildura, Swan Hill, Warrnambool, Apollo Bay, Inglewood, Edenhope, Horsham, and even while under “treatment” in Elsternwick, Victoria and in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Unreformed and unrepentant, his sexual appetite undimmed, sometimes Ridsdale only lasted a few months or even weeks, before the whiff of his sexual interest in children meant suddenly and without explanation he was moved on to fresh pastures.

Like Edenhope. The man who told children to call him Fozzie Bear arrived in the wide flat plains and the rich wheat fields of the Wimmera with a flourish, in a sleek iridescent blue Datsun built like a racing car. He seemed a breath of fresh air, a modern man, not a crusty old fuddy duddy with ancient black robes like the previous priest. He was a high energy extravert, loud, fun, the life of the party, installing a pool table and a colour TV at the Presbytery. All this was a magnet for the boys. He was a Pied Piper, soon they began coming around to see the new “super cool” priest. “Fozzie Bear loves you,” he would say.

He was good at insinuating himself into families too. Grooming, they call it. Parents were thrilled and honoured when Father, a holy man, a representative of God on earth, so revered and above ordinary folk like them, began taking a “keen interest” in their boys. Worn out Catholic mothers, exhausted by caring for their many children were too pious to suspect anything. Priests were celibate and therefore sexless. Safe. They were relieved to have some help, a child taken off their hands for the day.

One of the shocks of writing this essay was to discover that celibacy does not necessarily mean what ordinary, non-ordained folk like the parents of sexually abused children might think – that a celibate priest is meant not to have sexual relations with anyone.

One such child was John Ruth. Then 13 years old, he was a typical farm boy, sunny-natured, cheeky and fun-loving. Ridsdale would drop in and ask for the boy to come and help out with odd jobs around the Presbytery. “I don’t know how many times the car came here, and he picked John up and off they would go. We thought how lucky John was,” his sister, Rosemary Nolan, later recalled. But there were no jobs. Ridsdale wanted a different sort of “help.” He locked the Presbytery door and raped him. He raped him every week. John tried to find ways of evading “helping” Father, but his mother always insisted he go with Ridsdale.

“She’d say ‘You must help the priest, they need helping. So he’d screw me out there. He once had sex with me and soon afterwards insisted on hearing my confession … trying to turn the blame back on me for turning him on.”

Ruth’s life as a teenager spun out of control. In his early 20s he tried to tell his family. His father and brothers walked out in disgust. They did not believe him. His mother defended the Church. “We just had no idea it was all true,” said Rosemary Nolan. “Even now it is very hard to comprehend what happened to my brother.” Not even believed by his own family, he was a wrecked man. Ridsdale’s bulky form cast a long shadow over him that he never escaped. The effects were devastating but predictable – crippling anxiety and depression. In his loneliness and despair, Ruth took to drink and drugs. Police would later say that they encountered none so badly traumatised and hopelessly damaged as John Ruth. On a huge amount of medication, anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, and methadone, his health failed. He died aged 39.

John Ruth did not die however by his own hand. Others did. The Victorian police are currently investigating as many as 50 suicides now linked to the Ballarat paedophiles.

Ridsdale, the golden boy and apple of his mother’s eye, confessed just before his trial to his shocked family. According to The Age journalist Peter Ellingsen, a family member asked: “‘How many, Gerald. Four, or five?’ He paused. ‘Hundreds,’ was his reply.”

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In the last few decades the Catholic Church around the world has faced what one observer has called a tsunami of sexual abuse cases. At the outset it should be acknowledged that there are many admirable Catholic priests who observe a difficult vocation with caritas and the vow of celibacy with integrity. However, the Catholic Church has the largest number of convicted child sex offenders; just under six per cent compared to an estimate of one-two per cent of the general population having sex offences, including against adults. And while no denomination is without guilt, and information is still being collected, the Catholic Church has 10 times as many victims as the Anglican Church, for example. Hence, it is on the Catholic Church I will concentrate here.

At the centre of this story is what is at the heart of every abuse of human rights; denial. In Stanley Cohen’s penetrating study of the phenomenon, States of Denial; Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, he illuminates the different forms of denial on the part of perpetrators and bystanders which allow evil to be done. Many of these forms of denial figure in the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse.

The first form, of literal denial, is very direct. It is the denial that simply says, “It did not happen.” Embedded in this denial is a self-serving, self-protecting bias, the wishful thought that surely, it did not happen, for if it did happen my beliefs, my faith, my world, is torn asunder. If Nietzsche’s acerbic aphorism was, “when pride and memory collide, it is memory that yields,” this is “when inconvenient truth and faith collide, it is truth that yields.”

Peter Ellingsen reported a telling example of literal denial by Archbishop Frank Little. Brian Cosgriff and Brendan Murphy summoned the courage to go to the grand Archbishop’s palace, Raheen, to speak to Little on behalf of a fellow parishioner whose boy had been sexually assaulted by Father Bill Baker for a year. Little was outraged. Cohen remarks on the importance of “condemning the condemners.” Little denounced their claims as “despicable.” Did they not know the meaning of the word defamation, he demanded angrily? These two talented lawyers, as Ellingsen remarks dryly, knew precisely what defamation was. Little did nothing, and Father Baker continued to assault children. He continued to be moved from parish to parish, in the typical pattern, for another 20 years before finally being convicted in 1999.

The next form of denial, however, was more widespread, more insidious, and more dangerous: interpretive denial. This acknowledges that something has happened, but by techniques of rationalising, minimising, and normalising, denies the meaning and significance of what has occurred. I will concentrate on interpretive denial in this essay, for it was this that allowed the Church in so many cases, to minimise both the moral seriousness of the perpetrators’ behaviour, and the devastating impact on victims.


When “celibacy” means “sexually active”

“I did not have sex with that woman,” Bill Clinton famously declared after having a fully sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, which involved not intercourse but a lot of oral sex including ejaculation. Clinton simply reinterpreted “sex” very narrowly to mean vaginal intercourse. He rationalised and minimised his actions. He was not really being unfaithful to Hillary. He was not really having sex. He was not really lying. He had not really done anything wrong.

“Some priest-offenders rationalise their abusive behaviour on the basis that sex with boys is not a breach of their celibacy vows, whereas sexual relations with a woman would be …”

One of the shocks of writing this essay was to discover that celibacy does not necessarily mean what ordinary, non-ordained folk like the parents of sexually abused children might think – that a celibate priest is meant not to have sexual relations with anyone. Devout mothers like Chrissie Foster believed what they were told in their Catholic childhoods, that celibate priests were special; above and different from ordinary mortals, they were sexless. And therefore safe. Her daughters Emma and Katie were both raped as five year olds in the parish of Oakleigh by one of the most voracious and aggressive paedophiles, Father Kevin O’Donnell. O’Donnell was estimated by Melbourne lawyer, David Forster, who has represented many victims, to have abused as many as 2,000 children over 50 years, despite many complaints from parents. Emma, after terrible battles with anorexia, depression, drug abuse and self-harm, committed suicide in her 20s. Her sister Katie became an alcoholic and stepped in front of a car when blind drunk, sustaining a devastating brain injury.

The laity were in the dark. Notwithstanding the many Catholic priests who live according to their extraordinarily difficult vows of celibacy with honour, it was not long into my research before I had a growing file containing cases of sexually active priests. It kept growing. It was the same all over the world; in the USA, Ireland, the UK, Italy, Australia – priests who lived with women and fathered children, priests who had active gay lifestyles, including at the Vatican, priests who had sex with children but, à la Bill Clinton, often maintained it wasn’t really breaking their celibacy vows. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk, claims that up to 50 per cent of Catholic priests in the USA are sexually active. Not since I read My Secret Life about the sex life of a gentleman from the Victorian age, had I encountered such a double world; a world of public piety and punitive prudery, coupled with a shadowy sexual underworld of private libertarianism.

Celibacy, it turns out, has been interpreted by some priests in a very Bill Clinton kind of way. Patrick Parkinson is a Professor of Law and Child Protection at Sydney University, a moral conservative and evangelical Christian, and by his own declaration, a “friend of the Catholic Church.” When reviewing the Towards Healing initiative of the Catholic Church to deal with victims of sex abuse, as Parkinson outlined in his recent Smith lecture, a survey of offenders found:

“Some priest-offenders rationalise their abusive behaviour on the basis that sex with boys is not a breach of their celibacy vows, whereas sexual relations with a woman would be … [they] disassociated their abusive behaviour from celibacy. Indeed a high number of respondents described offenders they knew as having a strong commitment to celibacy.”

Although Canon Law 1395 forbade sex with other men and children, by far the greatest emphasis and energy has been on controlling reproduction, thus sex with women is the greatest sin.

It is all dependent, Parkinson says, on a “cognitive distortion” which “may well be an important factor in sex offending against boys.” Here we come to interpretive denial. “If priest-offenders have a strong commitment to celibacy then sex with women or girls will not be permissible.” But sex with men, teenage boys and younger can be “rationalised” as “either not being a breach of their celibacy vow at all or a sexual peccadillo which will be tolerated in the Church and forgiven by God.” Sex with boys might be resorted to, as a “situational same-sex activity as men in prison or in other confined all male environments” – even without a predilection for paedophilia – an actual desire for children.

Parkinson is right. Consider the strange and disturbing views of Ronald Conway. Conway, a prominent conservative non-fiction author and psychologist during the ’80s and ’90s was employed as archiepiscopal consultant in Melbourne assessing seminary candidates. He also counselled troubled Catholics with sexual problems in psychiatric hospitals and in private practice. Several Archbishops ­– George Pell and Denis Hart – thought very highly of him. He died with full Catholic honours given in a Requiem Mass in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Hart praised Conway’s “immense contribution” as an advisor to the Melbourne Archdiocese on priestly vocations. Prime Minister Abbott wrote a glowing obituary of him, although he mentioned, intriguingly, that Conway never considered marriage or the priesthood. “He seems largely to have come to terms with any demons of his own, and in any event, chose not to make a spectacle of himself.”

What kind of demons Abbott meant we do not know. What we do know is that Conway had the same rationalisations of celibacy and sex as the offending priests Parkinson discusses. Conway went on public record in newspaper articles saying that “being ‘celibate’ merely means not being married … clerical concubinage and clerical homosexuality have been commonplace in church history.”

So celibacy, by this account, allows any sexual activity outside of marriage! Moreover, there is evidence that Conway had sex with patients. A number of former patients have come forward. Conway not only experimented on them with psychedelic drugs like LSD, likely to free their sexual inhibitions, but engaged in sexual practices with them, such as mutual masturbation. But, by his own “interpretative denial” he wasn’t really, any more than Bill Clinton was, having “sex.”

It is even more important to know that Conway, this man of influence within the Catholic Church, advisor and counsellor to seminaries, also wrote newspaper articles minimising child sexual abuse. He defended the sexual abuse of the notorious paedophile, Robert Best, who was, as we have seen, a brutal child rapist. In an article in the Melbourne Age in 1996 when Best was convicted of indecent assault of a student at St Alipius, Conway took a permissive view of his activities. Best, Conway claimed, was “seen by some students as more a nuisance and embarrassment than a threat.” He doesn’t deny what happened, but minimises the victim’s pain; the meaning of what sexual assault meant to the child. Minimisation has its ugly fingerprint all over the next element in the strange case of the Catholic clergy and child sexual abuse.


A confessable, forgivable sin – not a crime

For ordinary folk who attend mass, the confessional is meant to be a place of honestly acknowledging wrong doing, of forgiveness, penance and absolution. But confession for abusing priests did not work that way. Sexual abuse of children was treated by confessor priests and the Catholic hierarchy as a forgivable sin but not a crime.

The priests abused, they confessed, they were forgiven, they did penance and they abused again. And again. Here, at the very heart of an institution concerned with enforcing a strict moral order about sex, was a practice, unbeknownst to anyone in the laity, which quite unintentionally was operating as the perfect, permissive system for a compulsive, recidivist paedophile.

“After each abusive occurrence I felt full of guilt and at the earliest opportunity sought to confess and receive absolution … I used confessing to clear the slate.” That is an Irish priest speaking to Marie Keenan, author of Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture. An academic at University College Dublin, and former psychotherapist to predator priests, Keenan persuaded convicted offenders to talk to her about how they perceived their abusive behaviour. One perpetrator admitted to her that he “carefully selected” certain priests to confess to, because he knew they were softer on abuse than others, “time and again I recounted my temptations and falls, my scruples and shame. They were bound by a strict code of secrecy. I was known personally to them all. They were my lifelines.” Secrecy was crucial in allowing priests to continue to reoffend. Sexual abuse then became a private matter between the abuser and his confessor and God. One priest told Keenan that he could not hide from God, who was all seeing, but nonetheless God was love, God was all forgiving; so long as confession was made and penance was done, it was not so bad.

It was as if what occurred was a sin without a victim. Absent is the full human, vulnerable presence of the child who has been so profoundly harmed.

Research shows that minimisation of what one is doing is central to child sexual abuse. Heinous, criminal acts by being carefully shared – heavily edited – with the Father confessor, became “no big deal.”

I minimised everything … I certainly agonised how to present the abuse, and maybe the language used probably veiled the horror of the action. It was not open denial, but it was not the unadulterated truth either. I knew God would forgive me if I repented and did my best … I suppose I excused myself too easily and minimised what I was doing. Dare I say it, I may have normalised it …”

This priest is honest enough to record the narcissism of the whole process. All the accent of the confessional box is on him, the abuser as a sole individual. On his sin. On the state of his soul. On his relations to God. That is what is present, and that is all that is present – the offender, the listening priest taking confession, and God. It was as if what occurred was a sin without a victim. Absent is the full human, vulnerable presence of the child who has been so profoundly harmed. As one priest put it: “Not confronted adequately we experienced only a short duration of guilt and no sense of responsibility for how we hurt others, only the alleviation of our own guilt and shame.”

Astonishingly, only once in his entire lifetime of abusing and confessing was this priest properly confronted with the criminal nature of what he was doing.

“[O]ne day towards perhaps the second last abuse I went to confession and this man absolutely went for me … he just said to me ‘you know what you are doing is not alone morally wrong, but it is a criminal act.’ In all the times I confessed to abusing a minor, I can only remember one occasion when I got a reprimand or advice not to do this thing. In a strange way the sacramental confession let us off the hook lightly…”

Yet note how this priest, who has gone so much further than many of those tried and jailed in Australia in showing remorse, in facing what it is that he has done, is still using vague, impersonal and self-protective language – not “my abuse” but “the abuse”, “abusing a minor” not raping a child. He speaks of “inclinations,” “pleasure,” and “the activity,” of “each abusive occurrence” and of “inappropriate intimacy.” It is rare to find an offender speaking directly; that he touched a boy’s penis, masturbated him, forced the boy to masturbate him, or forced his penis into a little child’s anus, or into his mouth and made him suck his penis.

Language matters. George Orwell urged writers to use concrete language, lest they obscure truth. The more inhuman the language, the more easily we can do or accept inhuman things. It helps us distance and detach ourselves emotionally from what has happened. Much of the language about child sexual assault tends to take us ever so subtly away from a full resonant moral and emotional responsiveness to what is being done to these little children.

Judith Courtin, who is doing research for a PhD on child sexual abuse at Monash University, says:

“People talk about child abuse. I don’t like that term, because it’s a benign term; it wraps it all up in a pretty little bow. We’re talking about cruel rape; little children as young as five being anally, vaginally, orally raped by a grown man. How do they deal with all of that? … This is a little kid, for God’s sake. [In] Hell on the Way to Heaven by Chrissie Foster and Paul Kennedy, ‘One of the little girls [who was orally raped by Father O’Donnell] cried hysterically about going to the dentist. She said: “The dentist wants me to open my mouth wider and wider and I can’t open it any wider.”’ This is just horrendous. It is so horrendous people can’t talk about it. It is evil.”


The protectors and bystanders

Perpetrators, Cohen notes, always need bystanders and protectors. Another crucial aspect to be considered is clericalism. This word allows the all-male clergy to imbibe a sense of superiority, of a specialness, of having a higher calling than the laity. They feel they have been called to God and therefore have authority from a divine origin; “the trap is thinking of oneself as belonging to an elite group of particularly ‘good living’ people,” says the founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, Father Tony Flannery. “I don’t want to live in a paradise from which the bulk of the human race is excluded.”

In seminaries, priests were instructed by the Vatican and taught that the only law applicable to them if they committed sexual offences was Canon Law, not criminal law.

But many did. Above ordinary mortals. Above even the laws of the land. What is clear from the material on confession is that few felt the need to consider the sexual abuse of children a crime. The clericalism of the Catholic Church, Parkinson says, gives it the belief that it has “its own jurisdiction, its own legal system, and that the proper place for judging clergy is within the structures established by Canon Law.” In seminaries, priests were instructed by the Vatican and taught that the only law applicable to them if they committed sexual offences was Canon Law, not criminal law. Parkinson said in his recent Smith Lecture:

“In 2001, Bishop Pierre Rican of Bayeux was given a three-month suspended sentence for not reporting Fr René Bissey, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2000 for sex offences against children … the bishop indicated at his trial that the admission of guilt by the priest had not been in the confessional. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy [responsible for handling sexual abuse cases], wrote to the Bishop, congratulating him on not denouncing a priest to the civil authorities. He was said to have acted wisely in preferring to go to prison rather than denounce his priest-son.”

Just as law allows family members not to testify against one another, the logic was that neither should one priest denounce another. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, admitted at a conference in 2010 that he had written the letter after consulting with Pope John Paul II: “It was the Pope who authorised him to send this letter to all the bishops.”

Another form of denial, deeply embedded in this culture of clericalism, of preferential treatment of one’s Brother Priests, concerns not what constitutes sex, but rather what constitutes evidence. Some revealing examples come from David Marr’s riveting Quarterly Essay, The Prince; Faith, Abuse and George Pell. George Pell, for example, was given evidence time and again about child sexual abuse. Time and again he reinterpreted what he was told as “gossip”, as the idle wagging of forked tongues. Confronting a hall full of angry parents in the parish of Oakleigh, a number of whose children had been raped by O’Donnell, like the Foster children, Pell declared, “It’s all gossip until it is proven in court.” When an anguished father of an abused child begged him to find the paedophiles, and get them out of the church, Pell responded, a touch self-pityingly, that this was “a cop out, putting all the onus on me.” Parents “had an obligation to report” to the “relevant authorities.” He promised “if you come to me, I will put the proper processes in place to deal with those.” The parents lost no time in “coming to him” and began immediately, right there and then, naming abusing priests. But the Archbishop had suddenly shifted ground. As it turned out, what they were saying didn’t count because it was mere hearsay and “gossip.”

Marr cites another occasion of interpretive denial of evidence. When auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop Little, Pell had at least three aggressive paedophile priests within the regions he was responsible for – Doveton, Oakleigh and Gardenvale. Let us take the example of Father Searson in Doveton. Searson already had a shocking reputation in Sunbury where he had been parish priest. Like so many priests however, nothing was done and he was just moved on. Head teacher at Holy Family Primary School, Graeme Sleeman, was telephoned and warned by Sunbury people of what his new priest was like. At Doveton, children immediately began complaining. Marr quotes Sleeman’s testimony before the Victorian Inquiry:

“Some of the children came to me and said, ‘Father’s creepy. I don’t like going to confession with him.’ Boys used to say to me, ‘I’m not keen to be an altar boy’… I think it was his second year there when they were all taken over to confession on a particular day and a young girl came out of the church screaming. I found her and asked her what had happened and she informed me that Father had interfered with her.”

When Sleeman notified the local Catholic educational consultant, “There was to-ing and fro-ing and eventually the consultant informed me that he had spoken to Father and it was “all a blow out; he’s doing such a good job in the parish. People are out to get him.”

In 1989 a delegation of desperate teachers, horrified by what they saw, came to complain to Pell about Searson. There was also a meeting of 50 parents and parishioners who called for the priest to be removed. A petition with 70 names went to the Archdiocese. A second delegation of teachers complained in 1991. But Pell did nothing. Searson was left to abuse children in Doveton for another six years. Other flagrant violations of priestly celibacy, and even theft, were treated indulgently. At one point Searson had a 14 year old Indian girl living with him in the Presbytery, but the Catholic Education Office merely counselled him. He stole $40,000, but rather than face police charges, was merely allowed to pay it back.

In every human rights abuse, there is a denial of the full humanity of the oppressed.

Marr recounts how teachers were left struggling to do their job and monitor the out of control paedophile by trying to never leave him alone with children. The frightened, hysterical children continued to beg teachers to protect them from Searson’s clutches. Searson got more and more out of control, according to one teacher Carmel Rafferty, “exhibiting a violent desperation in his what looked like to me, although I did not know the word then, grooming attempts, he began frequenting the boys’ toilets several times a day.” He had a gun. He used a knife to threaten a girl when she was putting overheads in the church. Rafferty recalls that this “was the final straw, a big concern to us. The principal authorised the three years 5 and 6 teachers to make a deputation to the area Bishop for the south-eastern area at the time, who was Bishop Pell, to advise him of the danger to children and the need to remove the priest.”

Pell did not remove the priest. He resorted to his favoured “gossip” defence. He said that most of the delegation’s complaints were not evidence but “no more than general information” and “that Searson was extremely difficult to deal with and disliked by parents, staff and children.” The fact that Searson had two police inquires being made into his activities at this time, was apparently not enough. The whistle-blower head teacher Sleeman, and teacher Rafferty resigned. The predator priest was protected and stayed.

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We must now go even deeper into the question of interpretive denial. The philosopher Raimond Gaita points to Simone Weil’s insight, that if one saw others as another perspective on the world, as one is oneself, one could not treat them unjustly. In every human rights abuse, there is a denial of the full humanity of the oppressed. The assumption of the dominant group is that those they harm, as Ian McEwan says, “are not as real as they are.”

Cardinal George Pell has admitted his shame over sexual abuse by Catholic Clergy, but also told the Australian newspaper late in 2012, “Back in those days, they were entitled to think of paedophilia as simply a sin you could repent of.” Entitled? Simply a sin? Entitled is a revealing word to use. After all it had been a crime in Australia from the moment the colonies stared in 1788. A man was hanged in Beechworth in 1867 for sodomising a toddler. The crime has for a long time, like adult rape, carried serious prison terms. It is not complex.  It is and was always a crime.

There were those in the Church who knew. “We are amazed to find how often [we encounter]a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest entrusted with the cura animarum [care of souls].” Those words were written in 1957 by Father Gerald Fitzgerald, who founded a treatment centre in Jemez Springs, New Mexico to rehabilitate “fallen” priests from all round the world. Set up in 1947 by the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, it was the first of its kind in the world. (Very belatedly, it was this very clinic that Gerald Ridsdale was sent to in 1999.) Father Fitzgerald’s impassioned and outraged letters about sending paedophiles back to reoffend were fired off to three Popes and numerous Bishops and senior Catholics within the hierarchy. He favoured compulsory defrocking, or laicisation, and warned against:

“… leaving them on duty or wandering from diocese to diocese … we find it quite universal that they seem to be lacking in appreciation of the serious situation. As a class they expect to bound back like tennis balls on the court of priestly activity … Moreover, in practice, real conversions will be found to be extremely rare …”

His tone becomes more desperate. Paedophile priests like Ridsdale even offended while under treatment at Jemez. “Experience has taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the parish and the neighbourhood for us to be justified in receiving them here …”

So dangerous to children that in 1957 Fitzgerald even urged the Catholic hierarchy not to bring them to New Mexico, but to establish a kind of moral leper colony, by buying an island in the Caribbean, and house paedophiles there for the remainder of their lives, far away from little children they could harm. The Church did accept his views, because in 1965 it agreed that he put a deposit of $5000 on an island in Barbados, the full price being $50,000. Writing to Archbishop Byrne, co-founder of the Paracletes, he wrote:

“May I beg your Excellency to concur and approve of what I consider a very vital decision on our part – that we will not offer hospitality to men who have seduced or attempted to seduce little boys or girls. These men Your Excellency are devils and the wrath of God is upon them and if I were a bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary laicization … It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished the island retreat – but even an island is too good for these vipers of whom the Gentle master said – it were better they had not been born – this is an indirect way of saying damned, is it not? When I see the Holy Father I am going to speak of this class to his Holiness.”

This makes it impossible to accept Pell’s statement to the Victorian Inquiry that, “Many in the Church did not understand just what damage was being done to the victims.” Rather, for some in the church there was a complete failure of a moral imagination for the soul murder of child victims. The Church would not have regarded the rape of an adult man or woman as “simply a sin to repent of.” Why this blindness then? The answer is terrible. Because the victims were not adults but children.

Just like the great movements against human hierarchy of the ’60s, when we finally identified age-old injustices, like racism and sexism, we now need a movement aimed against things that happen to children because they are powerless, or at least are considered less significant because they happen to children. “I don’t really think of children as people,” a parent when drunk once confessed to the famous child psychologist Penelope Leach.

More than a movement is needed however. For injustice to be overturned it needs to be given a name. The psychoanalyst Elizabeth Young-Bruehl has provided it. She calls it childism. Like racism and sexism, childism is about prejudice. It is a shorthand term which briskly sums up a distorted, even dehumanising way of seeing the world which gives greater human value to some human beings over others. Young-Bruehl came up with the name after listening in her practice to story after story of cruelty to children and sexual abuse by adults meant to care for them. Childism, she says, is a form of prejudice against children that permits every form of injustice, including child sexual abuse. Injustice occurs because of a prejudice that children – their feelings, hurts, suffering, hardships – “are not as real as we are.”

Feminism has brought to public view the way sexism can allow domestic violence to be normalised, minimised and accommodated. In the same way, a new discourse and movement on behalf of children is now penetrating the force field of privacy and secrecy behind which lies, misconduct and dark secrets of adults have been sheltered and allowed to flourish. It is confronting us with the moral carelessness involved when a less powerful group is treated as inferior – and thus not within that human constituency to whom equal respect need be granted. It has punctured forever the notion that injustice matters less because it’s not happening to “chaps like us.”

Gaita continues in A Common Humanity, “… we must be open to the distinctive voice of others, and that in turn means we must encourage the conditions in which those voices can form and be heard.” It is the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse that properly, for the first time, has the power which establishes the conditions whereby we can respectfully hear the voices of children, now adults, who have been abused.

The Royal Commissioner, Peter McClelland, said in his eloquent opening remarks that one of the Commission’s most important functions is to bear witness, to listen to what child sexual abuse victims have to say. He is right. We all must bear witness, just as we did in the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the Stolen Generations, to the harm done by child sexual abuse. We need to listen to all of the stories. But we need to do even more than that. The central issue at the heart of the Commission – the institutional response to child sexual abuse – demands answers to certain questions. Who knew, what did they know and when did they know it?

The Royal Commission must be fearless. Wherever possible, not just perpetrators but protectors should be prosecuted with the full force of the law. Enough already about how “it was a different time” and how we were “entitled” to view it differently. There is not now, and never has been, any such entitlement. Members of the Catholic Church, however lofty, along with any other church, any institution, to the highest reaches of our society, who have withheld evidence, or harboured criminals in the worst category – paedophiles – can and must face justice.


  • Tony Hogan

    As a victim of the Franciscan Order at Waverley in the late sixties I testified at the Australian Royal Commission into child abuse. I was molested by a number of adult men at the age of 11. This is a violation of Human Rights and ultimately the Vatican should be closed for its crimes against humanity. Even the so called good priests were aware of what has gone on and the hierarchy of the church has knowingly protected its child abusers.
    The Vatican also sent Nuncio Lazarroto to Australia as their representative after being recalled and claiming diplomatic immunity in the Irish Inquiry . They have knowingly supported and aided criminals who rape children and due their place in the community have been outside the law

  • 1. Organised criminals, serial rapists and clerics who sexually abuse children have been protected since an English judge ruled in 1894 that evidence of a pattern of criminal behaviour must generally be concealed from jurors.

    2. A cover-up of a crime is a crime in itself, perversion of the course of justice.

    3. Willful blindness to criminal behaviour is a crime.

    see my book Our Corrupt Legal System.

  • jesse pruzak

    I am sorry. I am horrified at the crime and psycho pathology of child sexual abuse wherever it occurs – in Catholic clergy or in Jewish rabbis or indeed in many married men – as the family is where most abuse occurs.

    However Anne – it is grossly unfair to suggest/imply that the vast majority of Catholic priests and religious are not celibate and hence lack integrity. I find you write emotively as a prosecutor not rezoned balanced observer. Sipe – for example is a not a researcher at all ( he is not qualified research psychologist at all ) – but an ex priest with very dubious agendas.
    Even if you take a worst case scenario of some serious studies and accept there is a 4% to6% incidence of this behaviour – what about he 94% other priests and religious who ? No attempt is made to nuance and this leads also to a grave injustice. But that’s ok apparently as Catholic priests and religious apparently can be scapegoated . What about their human rights?

    • RC

      Very fair points Jesse, yet the issue is not that there may have been a higher instance of sexual abuse of children by priests than in the general population, but that the Australian Catholic church systemically, knowingly, deliberately and negligently covered up the abuse. That they therefore condoned the behaviour and facilitated recidivism is entirely criminal. In short, the church executive should be subject to criminal proceedings.

      As for drawing a correlation between the “human rights” of priests (all of whom are presumably mature, adult individuals and more than capable of deflecting such accusations) and sexually abused children, well, I can only imagine you’re joking.

    • Lynne Newington

      What 95%?
      Chris McGillion and John O’Carroll’s survey and ‘the enormous debt of gratitude for the many priests who completed and returned the survey for their book”, Our Fathers.
      Then there’s Helen Last, past Advocate for the Melbourne Archdiocese until “she had to go” most likely for her public statement at a forum on abuse in reference to celibacy, “the expectations of the laity are not the same as the hierarchy”.
      You cant’ get any clearer than that.

  • Frank Golding

    “The central issue at the heart of the Commission – the institutional response to child sexual abuse – demands answers to certain questions. Who knew, what did they know and when did they know it?” Absolutely spot on. This will be seen as a classic essay in years to come.

  • Gabrielle

    What an insightful article. My only critisism is that the author missed Ridsdale’s time in the Victorian Parish of Mortlake. It was here that he was allowed to have a 14 year old boy from a “troubled” family live with him.
    The evil neglect of Bishop Mulkearns is never more evident than in this example.
    Thanks for writing so well about such evil.

  • eliza

    I’m sure the author would appreciate that in this article, there is no context for mentioning the race of the 14yo girl living with Searson:

    “At one point Searson had a 14 year old Indian girl living with him in the Presbytery, but the Catholic Education Office merely counselled him.”

    Her race adds nothing to the story here, and should be removed so it reads “a 14 year old girl living with him…” Her race may or may not have been relevant in the research from which this story is drawn, but its inclusion in this essay is an oversight.

    Also, there is an irritating number of wordswithoutspaces throughout the post which could be fixed by a simple spell check.

  • Terry Hannagan

    I am what the Church calls “A Lapsed Catholic.” And I’m NEVER going back.As for Eliza’s comment re the Indian girl, I think the term Indian was adde to underline yet another indignity heaped on the head of a young woman whose people have suffered far too much already, and as such, should have been left in the description of yet more priestly crime.

  • sue parker

    In a gippsland parish we had 6 out of 7 priests pedophiles and reported to police who stated they would not take on the catholic church. The parents went to bishop mannix about fr coffey and he transferred him 6 mths later. Fr Coffey would invite other priests regularly for bunga bunga parties, the children were called out of class in an endless parade. Local pedophiles parked outside the presbytery to identify the children Coffey had used for their later reference,abuse. The next parish in the Wimmera
    50% were abusing 10-14 boys on school grounds. The reports were ignored and the child pilloried for lying,even whilst walking crooked holding painful genitals.As God on earth, being trained to absolute obedience to authority as catholics are, with civil authorities accessories what chance? The very least all fees paid should be refunded to Royal Commission witnesses.

  • Gabrielle

    Australian Catholic University, Ballarat Campus have a lecture theatre called the Mulkearns Lecture Theatre. Considering the number of children who have had their education ( as well as their lives) ruined as a result of Bishop Mulkearns’ negligence , this seems particularly cruel and insensitive. I have spoken to ACU and they are waiting for the outcome of the Victorian Inquiry but I’d love to see more people lobby ACU into changing the name to someone who actually cared for children and for education.

  • Michael Woods

    As the older brother of 3 brothers who were sexually assaulted I feel great personal sadness that the rest of the family members didn’t have a clue what going on, such was the power of our Catholic culture that allowed evil to be denied.The paradox of us humans is that we have the power of imagination to create marvellous inventions, but also evil fantasies that we utterly believe- as Manne’s exceptional analysis of denial proves. It’s so heartbreaking, to read the comments that reveal the long history of evil Catholic fantasy believed by the Church and the faithful. But it’s also inspiring to finally see this culture being overturned by its own members- what courage it must take for them to change their minds.My parents suffered so much but also courageously fought the Church and their own distress at abandoning the faith of their childhood. But due to amazing love and support for the victims by their loved ones such as my parents, the perpetrators and protectors are finally facing a Royal Commission. My parents have since passed away and I know they would be ecstatic that the batons have been passed to equally courageous advocates of justice. My mother passionately argued against the court judgement Evan cites and the anachronistic legal laws that state that the Church is not a legal entity.
    It’s our family’s earnest desire to see the RC lead to the repeal of these impediments to social justice. To one and all, maintain the rage and in the name of the victim martyrs, let their legacy be part of the wider cause for a just society where we recognize evil fantasies of all persuasions which can never again perpetuate cruelty.

  • Veronica Mary Wraith

    Please sign me up for Right Now newsletter

    • Erin

      Hi Veronica,

      Thanks for your interest. We’ve added you to the newsletter mailing list.

  • Lynne Newington

    Dealing with human rights issues, your platform and what appears professionals supporting it, opens up an opportunity to address a variety of issues.
    In relation to this topic, if the CRIN includes the Australian Church and it’s response in the handling of abuse and other related issues as part of the report the Holy See is to present in February, it will bring us well and truly into the equasion.
    I can’t understand why it hasn’t been dicussed more within the media.

  • R. J. Stove

    Having only just discovered this site (by accident), I want to thank you, Mrs Manne, for having read my submission to the Victorian parliament’s recent inquiry. If I may, I shall write to you a snail-mail letter – c/o your publisher – expressing my appreciation.

    It is my hope and prayer that the Prime Minister will show at least a modicum of decent contrition for having placed his trust in – and for having repeatedly championed in print – the evil Conway. According to Cassandra Pybus’s book on James McAuley, that distinguished poet was one of Conway’s many dupes. Well, high intellectual power and indeed sanctity are entirely compatible with being gulled, as is demonstrated by the case of pedophile priest Donald McGuire, who managed to pull the wool over even Mother Teresa’s eyes.

    Glad to see Evan Whitton in the comments box, still going strong. The next time I speak with my friend Fr Paul Stenhouse I shall express pleasure that Mr Whitton continues to comment on our legal system.

  • Those who have spoken up and told their stories are very courageous. It sometimes takes years for victims to speak up as the fear that is instilled keeps them silent.
    Yet, even into adulthood, the child suffers unspeakable torment and a myriad of health issues. This often drives them to suicide as they cannot deal with the indescribable pain they feel. They see this as the only escape. Some turn to drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain.
    It takes a lifetime to work through the myriad of issues surrounding sexual abuse.
    Thank you for being a voice in this vast wilderness where the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. They have destroyed the innocence of children and they need to be held accountable.
    Please sign me up for your newsletter.

  • I felt this article was very well written. It left me with a lot of thoughts. I try to think how those children felt. The offenders in the article were established that they were offenders. And I won’t unneccesaryily doubt those who make a direct accusation. But I try to question suspicion because it can be so baseless and harmful. For example the Karmein Chan case 27000 men were named as a suspect. (including myself) I do notice how some parent are too scared to even let their child go into the next isle of the supermarket alone.

  • rose

    Their is a woman(ex catholic nun) guilty of serious child abuse/sexual assault and spreading lies about victims for the purpose to push them to suicide.Many are being sexually assaulted and abused in the psychiatric system under her order,their lives are a daily hell and violence.
    she has police onside that are child abusers or believe her.
    She is now a lawyer and psychiatrist and many more lives will be ruined/abused and terminated.
    How can i stop this,she deliberately damaged my brain by long tern illegal incarceration,illicit drugging causing brain damage and inhale treatment.
    What can be done about something like this?
    I have been threatened that i will be found suicided under suspititous circumstances very soon and i do believe this,if i don’t do it myself i can’t take anymore and cops are dam basses that believe anything she says?

  • An update (pun intended) is seriously needed here. My blog ( provides it in the post I have just published : “Catholic Clerical Pedophilia … Down Under”. Readers will discover that I was myself a Catholic priest from Sydney, a student of the Marist Brothers at Kogarah. The current Royal Commission screams for new comment and outrage.