Saturday February 27 2015
Words: Debi Marshall
Pictures: Paul Harris and Thom Rigney
Australia’s worst paedophile priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale, once lived with a young clergyman who is now Cardinal George Pell. As the Cardinal prepares to give evidence to the child abuse royal commission, two women break decades of silence to tell Debi Marshall about their ordeal in Ridsdale’s care – and their disappointment with Pell.
In 1973, a young Father George Pell, flushed with success from his recent studies in Rome and Oxford, returned to his home town of Ballarat and took up residence in the St Alipius presbytery; a place, it would be publicly revealed more than 20 years later, that was a paedophile’s paradise and a child’s nightmare.
His housemate that year was the tall, rowdy and popular parish priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale. What the parents and parishioners who worshipped God and obeyed the sanctity of the church and its messengers did not know was that from early in his priesthood, Ridsdale was subject to a psychiatric report. He was already a serial child abuser who sodomised children at will, picking them off when and where his desires dictated: in front of a church altar, at the presbytery, or on camping or fishing trips.
When he hurt them, he ignored their cries for him to stop. If they persisted in making a racket, he beat them. Badly.
In May 2015, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began an investigation into how Catholic Church authorities dealt with paedophile clergy in Ballarat and the impact of abuse. It heard that the diocese was a hotbed of scandal, cover-ups and paedophilia, and that vulnerable children – particularly orphans – had been prey to abusive clergy.
The hulking figure of Fr Ridsdale had given sermons from the pulpit while secretly running an unsophisticated, but terrifyingly effective paedophile ring. All three of Ridsdale’s Christian Brother cohorts - particularly Brother Robert Best - had also enjoyed uninterrupted access to vulnerable children, whom they handed around to each other to abuse.
For Gabbi Short, now 60, growing up at Ballarat’s Nazareth House Girls’ Home, run by the Sisters of Nazareth, was the equivalent of living in hell; a daily battle for survival. The fifth of nine children, Gabbi was placed into care when she was just eight weeks old, at the suggestion of her parents’ local priest.
“Dad was a war veteran who suffered shell-shock and neuroses,” she says. “Mum cared about us, but the way Dad was, she had no choice but to put me and my sister in a home. She had no pension to live on.
“Because I went into care so young and stayed there until I was 12, I was known as a ‘lifer’. Mum made every effort to continue to see me, but the nuns made it clear she wasn’t welcome at Nazareth House and she eventually gave up.”
Gabbi recalls with a shudder the years 1963 and 1964.
“They were just the worst years,” she says. “That was when Father Gerald Ridsdale, who was the chaplain at our school, and Sister Imelda, were there together. It was a nightmare.”
Sr Imelda, a young, attractive nun, was a sadist to children.
“She was in Ridsdale’s thrall,” Gabbi says, ticking off on her fingers some of the brutalities she and other orphans endured.
“She was charming and sycophantic to Ridsdale, but together they brutalised us orphans continually. The sexual and physical assaults that I and the other girls endured between us are too many to list, and they are all graphic and appalling.
“For no apparent reason, Sr Imelda would slam my head up against the wall, which resulted in a hairline fracture of my skull, drag me up the passage by my hair, make me stand in the freezing cold hallway for three hours at a time or get down on my knees and polish the concrete.
“She would belt me for wetting the bed and if we wet ourselves from fear, we had to lick up our own urine.”
“We were his playthings. He’d kick us, belt us, or slam our heads up against walls."
Ridsdale, whom Gabbi describes as an “arrogant and cruel beast of a man,” also delighted in the abuse.
“He just ran amok,” Gabbi says. “We were his playthings. He’d kick us, belt us, or slam our heads up against walls. He used to belt me around the head with his hand. Maybe they hated themselves and their life – who knows? But we were definitely their scapegoats. There was no escaping the brutality.”
Gabbi developed her own defence mechanism to ward off the sure advances of the paedophiles who worked in or visited Nazareth House.
“After all the abuse I’d endured, I developed such a thing about my body that from the age of 12, no-one would dare touch me,” she says. “Paedophiles are experts at knowing which children to pick on and they didn’t come near me. But not all my friends were as lucky.’
Gabbi Short talks about the day she first saw Gerald Ridsdale.
Gabbi recalls that Ridsdale would visit Nazareth House and take girls away as he chose. No-one stopped him.
”One of his favourite girls was Sarah [not her real name], who was in charge of us junior girls,” Gabbi says. “He raped her repeatedly from the age of 10 but when she reported it to a nun, it was ignored.
“Sarah tried to commit suicide by jumping out a second floor window. A nun came in, made all the girls in her dormitory line up at the window so she couldn’t try to jump out again, and belted her within an inch of her life.
“Sarah was so desperate, she just wanted to die. Years later, she accompanied a friend who needed to see a priest for pre-marital counselling. When she entered the room, she found to her horror that the priest was Ridsdale. He recognised her instantly and pulled a photograph of her in her first Communion dress from his top drawer. He had kept it all those years.”
There are other stories, too, of girls who won’t be identified: the 12-year-old virgin who mysteriously became pregnant at the orphanage and was secretly sent to have her baby at St Joseph’s Babies Home in Broadmeadows. When she heard a baby cry after her excruciating labour and asked if it was her child, she was told to be quiet. She was returned to the orphanage, sans baby, and told to say she had been on holiday.
She doesn’t know who the father of her baby was, but suspects she was drugged and raped, probably by a priest; possibly Ridsdale. It would be 50 years before she would reunite with the son taken from her.
Cossetted from the outside world, with the Catholic mantra of guilt and hell, fire and brimstone to keep them on the straight and narrow, the orphans knew that it was a mortal sin to be molested and that if that happened, they would go straight to hell.
“You need to understand just how isolated and cut off we were behind the walls of that imposing, grandiose orphanage,” Gabbi says.
“We were so vulnerable. On one side of the grounds was a nursing home for the elderly; we were on the other side. We had the same teacher for every subject, so we couldn’t get away from the sadism.
“There were about 15 girls in my class. They were all abused.”
At the mercy of the Nazareth nuns who, in turn, did the priests’ bidding, they weren’t taught about sex.
“I didn’t even know the word, let alone what it meant,” Gabbi says.
Gabbi made that special Catholic sacrament, the First Communion, in 1963, aged 7, and saw her mother, very briefly the day before.
“I ran to her and asked her not to go away any more,” she says. “But I never saw her again.” Her mother died in 2003.
Gabbi has a photograph of herself from that day, dressed, as are her fellow students, in a virginal, white, knee-length dress and veil. Standing between them, a vulture amongst his flock, dressed in black robes, his hands piously locked together and wearing an affable smile, is Fr Ridsdale. He had something to smile about: just a week before, he had raped yet another young girl, Julie Braddock. As with the other children he frequently assaulted, he had got away with it.
Julie, now 60, has carried the scars of Ridsdale and Imelda’s abuse throughout her life.
“He was the parish priest, so we saw him every day,” she recalls. “Both of them were preparing us for our First Communion; we were learning passages from the Bible. They agreed I needed one-on-one tuition, so I was sent to meet Father in the chapel.”
It started innocently enough: a word of encouragement from Ridsdale, a kiss on the cheek, progressing to him putting his hand up her dress and then his fingers into her vagina.
“I cried, because it hurt,” she grimaces. “I was still crying when I went to see Sr Imelda.”
It was the worst decision she could have made. Imelda beat her, savagely, and locked her under the stairs for three days. Released from the dark, foul-smelling cupboard where she was given only a bucket for her excrement, she was again sent to Ridsdale.
“He said that evil was inside me and he needed to get it out.”
The rape that followed was so brutal that when she cried out in pain, Sr Imelda entered the room and dragged Julie to the bathroom, demanding she take a bath before she was sent to get her toilet bag. Forcing her to lie on the cold lino, Imelda inserted Julie’s soapy toothbrush in her vagina and rectum until she bled. Satisfied that she was clean, Imelda then pronounced that Julie was a filthy girl who must remain silent about what had happened.
Julie was seven and a half years old. Ridsdale would rape her again on at least two occasions.
A week before her First Communion, Julie fainted during rehearsals. Enraged, Ridsdale ordered that she stay behind when the other students left.
“He slammed me so hard in the face that I fell over the church pew and was very badly bruised,” she says, absently drawing a figure-eight with her fingers on her kitchen table.
“Then he dragged me out of the church and threw me down the steps.”
“Nobody gets away with that!” he screamed. Lying whimpering on the ground, she quivered to see Sr Imelda advance toward her, to pick her up. She knew what she was in for.
Like other orphans, Julie, the sixth child in her family, desperately needed loving care – not abuse. Abandoned by their mother when Julie was one month shy of her second birthday, she and her two siblings – one marginally older than herself, one three months of age - were taken into police custody.
Sent to St Joseph’s Babies Home, run by the Sisters of Nazareth, Julie was placed into the Nazareth House Girls Home at the age of five. It was an unwelcome induction.
“I was shown to my dormitory and told not to wet the bed. The next morning, very early, I was woken and hit on the legs by the nun because I had wet the bed. She rubbed my face into the wet sheet so hard my nose bled. I was then dragged to the bathroom, told to strip in front of the other girls, and beaten along with others who had wet the bed. Later, our names were called out and we had to stand our naked feet in buckets of boiling water.”
The physical abuse was so horrendous, that on occasions Julie would fall unconscious. Sr Imelda was always the most vicious.
“She broke my fingers,” Julie says. “She made me and the other girls eat our own vomit.”
Gabbi and Julie became friends.
“I once tried, with Gabbi, to crawl through a hole in the fence, but a nun kept dragging me back. The wire was embedded in my leg and I needed 11 stitches. I was locked in a cupboard under the stairs for days and nights as punishment. When I was released, I was so ill I had to stay in the sick room for eight days.”
Julie was never told that her real sister, Gail, was at the orphanage, and imagined that Gabbi was her sister.
Julie left the orphanage in 1963 to live with foster parents. But her foster father, too - a pillar of the Polish church and, she believes, part of Ridsdale’s paedophile ring - also abused her; abuse that was so terrible she still can’t speak of it.
In 1968, she became violently ill. Flummoxed as to the cause of her condition, the doctor would later ascertain it was the result of Ridsdale’s abuse and the injuries she sustained at her First Communion rehearsal. Julie’s spleen, one kidney and her appendix were removed.
To escape the hell of life at home, in 1972, aged 16, Julie left home and later married a boy she liked, but didn’t love. The marriage didn’t last, but depression, which has dogged her all her life, did. Four serious suicide attempts ended with hospitalisation, but she eventually found love, married, had seven children and gained a teachers degree. Her beloved husband died in 2005, as did her foster mother, who had left her husband immediately when Julie finally told her of the abuse.
Gabbi left the orphanage in 1968. Moving through a succession of other Catholic homes, including the Winlaton Youth Training Centre - “virtually a prison” - she slept rough on the streets. The terror and trauma she suffered as a child haunted her in her 20s, when her body turned in on itself.
“I was in shock and went down to 30kg,” Gabbi says. “I was dying inside.”
Determined to get stronger, she found work, married and had three children. The marriage didn’t last, but what has lasted is her commitment to ensuring others did not go through what she experienced.
“In my 40s, I started to talk about what had happened at the orphanage,” Gabbi says. “I started to heal and I haven’t stopped talking about it since.”
Now a spokesperson for Forgotten Australians and a relentlessly outspoken critic of the malevolent evil that was allowed to flourish in Ballarat - and elsewhere Ridsdale and his companions lived and worked - Gabbi says she will not rest until these paedophiles and malicious nuns are fully exposed.
“I could move on with my life and put this behind me,” she says, “but I’ve chosen to speak out for vulnerable children who can’t speak for themselves. We need to look out for kids today because no-one looked after the kids of yesterday. We were just open slather.”
The law eventually caught up with Ridsdale and his paedophile cohorts, but too late to save more than 30 boys, who chose to end their own lives rather than relive the ongoing nightmare of the sadistic sexual, physical and emotional abuses inflicted on them by these so-called men of the cloth.
For Ridsdale, the dominos started falling when, in 1992, one of his male victims contacted a hotline regarding paedophile priests. When the police came calling, he could no longer hide behind his cassock, clerical collar and cross. He went quietly.
Pell welcomed the announcement of the Royal Commission, but his welcome soured in public opinion when he added that priests who hear confessions from people who commit child sex abuse must remain bound by the Seal of Confession (the duty of Catholic priests not to disclose what is heard), which he described as ‘inviolable’.
Later, addressing intense questioning at the Royal Commission about what he knew, Pell (by then a Cardinal in Rome and one of the Vatican’s most powerful figures) said he had noticed nothing.
“[Ridsdale] concealed his crimes from me and other priests in Ballarat, from parishioners and from his own family,” he asserted grimly.
Victims, police and the media, were outraged. Not only had Pell shared a house with Ridsdale in 1973, he had chosen to walk side byside with him into court in 1993, when Ridsdale pleaded guilty to 30 counts of indecent assault against nine boys, aged 12 to 16, between 1974 and 1980, for which he received his first, 12 month sentence.
Both had cut an odd figure: Pell, then an ambitious auxiliary Bishop in colourless priestly robes, and Ridsdale, sporting a garish white suit and hiding behind oversized sunglasses. Pell’s decision to walk with this vilified priest would prove to be a PR disaster.
In 1994, Pell had allegedly responded to child abuse victim Timothy Green that he not be ‘ridiculous’ when Green told him that Ridsdale’s friend, Brother Edward Dowlan, was abusing children at St Patrick’s College. Pell has insisted he has no recollection of such a conversation. He was present at a 1982 meeting of the College of Consultors, which discussed unseating Ridsdale from the Mortlake Parish to a Catholic centre in Sydney.
By 1993, Ridsdale’s days of being protected were numbered and a flood of victims would continue to come forward. Between 1993 and 2013 he was convicted of 54 child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against children aged as young as four.
“The vast majority of those were boys,” Gabbi says. “But we know there are girls for which he hasn’t been charged and that the figure is higher – much higher – than 54. Hopefully his past will catch up with him before he is eligible for parole again in 2019. Or before he goes to meet his Maker, in whose image he had represented himself.”
A slim, intense woman with a ready smile, who speaks in an urgent torrent of words, Gabbi cannot hide her disgust that Pell consistently claims he did not see or hear anything.
“How could he not have heard the relentless rumours or the parishioners’ complaints?” she asks, incredulous.
“How could he not have seen the stricken faces of the children when they left Ridsdale’s company? Even Ridsdale’s nephew, David, who was sexually abused by him for five years from the age of 11, claimed to have told Pell about the abuse. He says that Pell’s response was to offer him a financial bribe to keep quiet. Pell, of course, dismissed David’s claim by responding that ‘An offer of help is not the same as a bribe.’ It all just beggars belief.”
At the Royal Commission, Pell said that at no time had he attempted to bribe David or his family, nor did he offer any financial inducements for him to be silent.
And throughout the storms, Pell stood resolute. Paedophilia “was always regarded as being totally reprehensible,” he intoned.
In 2007, Gabbi and Julie, who had not seen each other for 44 years, met again at a Nazareth House reunion. They have remained friends. Gabbi exhorted Julie to tell her story, but shame and humiliation linger like shadows. She is now very ill.
“This is probably my last chance to tell my story,” she says. “I was stripped of everything I was and everything I am, just as the other 500,000 Australian orphans were. I didn’t know I had siblings until I was 25.
“It matters that I, and other orphans, called out for help and were ignored. Imelda is dead, Ridsdale in prison, but it still matters. It matters. We need justice.”
Julie, too, questions why Pell supported Ridsdale and not the victims. Like other child abuse victims, she is disgusted and outraged that Pell has cited ill health as his reason for not returning to Australia to face the Royal Commission – offering instead to appear by video link.
“If he’s well enough to run the Vatican’s finances,” she spits, “he’s well enough to come home and be counted.”
Julie, who gave evidence before the Royal Commission, is adamant that history must not repeat.
“We are only weeks away from the next sitting of the Royal Commission in Ballarat,” she says. “I want the church to stop hiding what happened. It needs to stop trying to write its own script to take away who we, as victims, are.”
She has a special message for Ridsdale and others she believes have turned a blind eye: “Stop protecting each other. You need to go to the next life with honesty and give us victims some peace.”
“The tragic reality is that if Ridsdale had been stopped in the 1960s, when there were so many warnings about his disgusting behaviour, he wouldn’t have gone on to rape so many boys - a slew of whom later took their own lives – or girls,” she says.
“History could be so very different if those men of the church hadn’t lied and covered up for him and others. This story is just the tip of the iceberg. Nazareth House and the Catholic Church need prosecuting, as do any nuns still alive who abused us. Ridsdale needs prosecuting for what he did to us.
“The question is now: who was protecting Ridsdale? Let’s throw the book at those people.”
Sexual Assault Counselling Australia provides counselling for people who want to address their trauma as a result of hearing about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Call 1800 211 028.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800RESPECT also offers counselling on 1800 737 732 and at 1800respect.org.au.