Former bishop faces possible abuse class action

SUGGESTIONS that former Ballarat Catholic bishop Ronald Mulkearns could be sued over the ongoing sexual abuse saga gained strength yesterday from a specialist lawyer.

Dr Vivian Waller said former Catholic priest Gerald Ridsdale’s conviction this week on more sex child offences was the trigger for victims to take the issue further.

She is preparing a landmark case against the Catholic Church in what will be the first test of Cardinal George Pell’s recent commitment to make the church less hostile to litigation from sex abuse victims.

At least 20 victims, including some from the south-west, have instructed her to launch a class action against the Diocese of Ballarat and argue that the church’s negligence or cover-ups allowed Ridsdale to remain as a priest after it was known he was a sexual predator.

It is understood the church could be forced to pay out millions in compensation if the cases succeed.

Dr Waller said Cardinal Pell’s recent appearance before the royal commission into sexual abuse suggested the church would no longer rely on legal technicalities to avoid proper compensation.

‘’I hope that the archdiocese of Ballarat will abide by the indication of George Pell that the church won’t employ certain defences to defeat sexual abuse claimants,’’ she said.

She said church leaders did not have “continuing personality” when it came to being held responsible for crimes committed in the past, but she urged them to “send a clear message” and settle the case.

“We hope the Diocese of Ballarat and relevant insurance authorities settle the claims in a compassionate, appropriate and speedy way and that litigation is not necessary,” Dr Waller said.

She said the retired bishop Ronald Mulkearns could also be sued for his actions in shifting Ridsdale around parishes, including Mortlake and Edenhope, after receiving complaints from victims and their families.

Dr Waller said the class action claim involved people who had reported their abuse at the hands of Ridsdale to police as well as clients who had not publicly revealed their stories.

On Tuesday, Ridsdale, who admitted to abusing at least 53 children between 1961 and 1982, was sentenced to eight more years’ jail, after he pleaded guilty to 39 new charges involving sex offences against 11 boys and three girls, having already been jailed in previous court cases.

Judge Michael Rozenes said victim impact statements tendered to the court collectively revealed “a feeling of being exploited; feeling trapped, powerless, worthless and humiliated; anger at, and distrust of, the Catholic Church; loss of faith and innocence; loss of the enjoyment of childhood; a sense of bewilderment and disbelief; and the fracturing of family relationships’’.

Former bishop Peter Connors, who succeeded Mr Mulkearns, told a parliamentary inquiry last year there was such a culture of trust that the priest could do no wrong.

“He was always kind to them, gave them all kinds of opportunities for excursions and gave them all kinds of gifts, but he was always grooming them for the next assault. So they were horribly confused and did not know who to tell,” Mr Connors said.

Ridsdale, 79, who has been in prison since 1994, had been due for release on June 29, 2019. He will now not be released, unless granted parole, until 2022 and is expected to die in prison.

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