“Why isn’t all of Australia talking about what happened here in Ballarat?”
That’s the question Clare Linane remembers asking her husband, Peter Blenkiron, 12 years ago as they were sitting in the kitchen talking about his abuse. Linane’s husband, brother and cousin had all been abused when they were children between 1973 and 1974 by Christian Brother and now convicted paedophile Edward “Ted” Dowlan. They knew they were among thousands of people living in and around Ballarat – Victoria’s largest inland city – who had been affected by child sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy.
On Thursday, Australia’s five-year inquiry into child sexual abuse in Australian institutions published its findings about Ballarat in full, more than two years after its inquiry was complete. Previously, a heavily redacted version of the report had been published, missing details about Cardinal George Pell and what he knew about abuse in the town located about 100km north-west of Melbourne. At the time Pell was working in the diocese, Ballarat was home to some of the Catholic church’s, and Australia’s, most notorious paedophile priests. Survivor groups say at least 50 suicides in the town over the past few decades are the result of clergy abuse.
With Pell’s court case now complete and his convictions overturned, there is no longer a risk of jurors being prejudiced by the findings – so they were released. Ballarat survivors have begun a petition to have Pell defrocked following the findings.
Pell was a parish priest in Ballarat from 1972 and was also a member of the College of Consultors of the Ballarat diocese, a group of senior priests who advised the then bishop Ronald Mulkearns.
“There was a level of relief when the royal commission confirmed what we have known all along, that Pell and others knew that the abuse of children was rampant, and not only failed to stop it, but perpetuated it by moving abusers around,” Linane told Guardian Australia.
The royal commission found it was “satisfied that in the early 1970s Cardinal Pell was told by one or two students, and one or two priests, about Dowlan’s infractions of a sexual nature with minors”. Pell told the chaplain at St Patrick’s College about the rumours, but did not tell the bishop, Mulkearns, or the headmaster of the school, Brother Paul Nangle, about what he had heard.
“He should have consulted Brother Nangle and ensured that the matter was properly treated,” the commission found. Dowlan went on to abuse children at least four other schools over another 14 years. Dowlan was not jailed for his crimes until 1996. He was jailed again in 2015, admitting to abusing a further 20 boys.
“But more than relief, I feel deep sadness,” Linane said. “Pell knew in 1973. My husband Peter was abused in 1974. I want to stand in front of George Pell and scream at him, ‘Why didn’t you help those little boys?’.”
The commission’s Ballarat-focused hearings held in 2015 heard evidence that while he was an assistant priest at Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983, Pell allegedly was involved in moving a pedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes. Pell always said – and still maintains in a statement issued on Thursday afternoon – that he did not know Ridsdale was abusing children at the time or the reason he was being moved between parishes.
Pell also worked at the parish during a period when several Catholic priests were later found to have assaulted young boys, the commission heard, raising questions about how, given his senior position, he could not have known.
He did know, the commission’s unredacted report found. It was “implausible” other senior figures kept Pell in the dark about the offending of Ridsdale and others, the report said. Pell told the royal commission in 2016 that when he did eventually learn of Ridsdale’s abuse of children, it was “a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”. Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court in his first appearance in 1993. Ridsdale remains in jail, and is believed to have offended against children hundreds of times.
In his statement Pell said he was surprised by the royal commission’s findings that he knew about Ridsdale’s abusing as far back as the 70s. He said the findings were “not based in evidence”.
Linane said: “Pell might be surprised about the RC’s findings, but none of us are surprised by Pell’s response.”
“The royal commissioners were exemplary, and we know that their findings were based on an objective examination of the truth … He is a sad man, and he is not of much interest to us.”
Linane said these days, she is more focused on supporting her family and survivor groups in an around Ballarat still reeling from the impact of abuse throughout the Catholic schools and parishes in the region.
“We’re a motley bunch – you usually find lots of emotional issues in survivors,” she said. “But we are all barracking for each other. We all know the truth.”
For 17 years, Shireen Gunn has managed the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, and she has been involved with the support service for almost 25 years. There was nothing surprising or new in the royal commission’s findings for her.
“But it validates what victims and survivors have been coming forward about and there is a sense, too, that it will assist clients looking to sue the church civilly,” Gunn said. “It says very clearly the Catholic church knew, and did nothing to stop it.” Ultimately, she says, Ballarat became an epicentre of child sexual abuse. Several teachers teaching at schools in the diocese in the 70s have been convicted of or accused of abusing children.
Will Ballarat ever be able to shake the fact that for many Australians, its name is synonymous with child sexual abuse and the church?
“I hope it never does,” Gunn said.
“Because that would mean it’s been forgotten. And for survivors it’s an ongoing part of recovery to have what happened acknowledged. We are still getting people coming forward about abuse within the Catholic church frequently. I would hope their experiences will never be forgotten.”
You can phone Ballarat CASA on 5320 3933, or free-call the crisis care line 24 hours on 1800 806 292
Or phone Lifeline on 13 11 14