Australia: Court Hears Harrowing Accounts of Child Abuse in Diocese Linked to Vatican Cardinal George Pell

Ballarat church
Colorful ribbons were tied to the fence outside St. Patrick's Cathedral to remember victims of child abuse by priests, in the town of Ballarat, Australia, on July 23. The Victoria County Court recently heard harrowing accounts of child abuse that occurred in Ballarat and the surrounding area. Byron Kaye/Reuters

An Australian court heard harrowing details of historic child abuse perpetrated by former priest Gerald Ridsdale, one of Australia’s most notorious pedophiles.

Ridsdale, 83, pleaded guilty to 23 charges Tuesday, including two counts of rape and one of buggery, for abusing 12 children, aged 6 to 13, between 1962 and 1988 in the Victoria state city of Ballarat and the surrounding area.

Ballarat is considered one of Australia’s worst-affected areas for incidents of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. It is named in Vatican Cardinal George Pell’s charges of historic sexual abuse, as he served in the diocese first as an assistant parish priest in 1972 and later, between 1973 and 1984, as an episcopal vicar. Pell pleaded not guilty in a first hearing at a Melbourne magistrate’s court in July and will return to court in October.

One of Ridsdale’s victims was a girl whose father woke her up on two occasions to see the priest, who then sexually assaulted her, the court heard on Tuesday.

“[Her] father carried her to the confessional booth and took her clothes off her, then carried her to the altar and lay her down,” Crown Prosecutor Jeremy McWilliams said of the second occasion, in 1974, as quoted by the Australian Associated Press.

According to the prosecutor, Ridsdale indecently assaulted her, then told her, “Jesus died for our sins so we could be forgiven, and if I confess to this sin I might be forgiven,” before kissing her on the cheek.

The survivor is still suffering from the abuse, experiencing “crippling” flashbacks. “I feel like a piece of meat handed around for anyone to take a bite of,” she said in a statement read to the court by the prosecutor, as quoted in local media.

McWilliams also recounted the story of a 9-year-old altar boy who was told “God will forgive all of your sins” as Ridsdale raped him.

The former priest has been in jail since 1994 after being convicted for sexually abusing 53 children over three decades, although he admitted the true number of victims could be in the hundreds.

His lawyer, Victoria Legal Aid Chief Counsel Tim Marsh, urged Victoria County Court Judge Irene Lawson to give Ridsdale a chance for parole, which would shorten his 28-year-long sentence and award him early release on April 8, 2019, according to local media.

Tuesday’s hearing saw a total of nine survivors facing Ridsdale. It came just a day after the publication of a report by the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that controversially recommended priests should face criminal charges should they fail to report child abuse disclosed during confession.

The commission was set up in 2013 to investigate claims of child sex abuse in multiple Australian institutions, including the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army and various churches and religious groups. Its findings have sparked outrage among the Australian clergy, who say they will oppose a recently proposed measure that would have priests face criminal charges if they fail to report allegations of child sex abuse disclosed during confession. The clergy insist that this goes against the Catholic Church’s rules on the confidentiality of confessions.

Ridsdale himself gave evidence to the commission in 2015. He agreed the church should have notified the authorities about the abuse. “What I’ve done and the damage that I’ve done…I’d say definitely,” he said, according to Australian media reports at the time.