Nazareth Catholic Parish

Grovedale, Torquay and Anglesea

Five years in the Royal Commission: key lessons

Wednesday 28 March 2018
David Halliday, Media and Communications Office (Melbourne Archdiocese)

Last week Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald AM delivered the keynote address to the MacKillop Family Services national conference Child Safe Organisations: Prevention and Practice Beyond the Royal Commission at the MCG in Melbourne. In his presentation, Key Learnings from Five Years at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Important Messages for Child and Family Welfare and Education Sectors, the commissioner was uncompromising in his assessment of the key lessons Australian institutions need to learn.

Throughout the Royal Commission, Mr Fitzgerald bore witness to the voices of 8000 victims of child sexual abuse and their narratives. In that time, over 4000 institutions were reported.

One of the main points he made was the importance of examining the past in order to proceed to a safer future. ‘Australia cannot trust organisations until they have proved they have learned the lessons of the past,’ said Mr Fitzgerald. ‘Many organisations are now busy making changes to create child safe environments. But it really fails the test if you don’t examine what went wrong in the first place.’

‘The Australian community should not trust institutions until you can demonstrate you have heard the stories of the past, you’ve heard the voices of victims of survivors, and you have learnt those lessons,’ he said.

Abuse is not a recent phenomenon, explained Mr Fitzgerald, and the Catholic Church is no different to any other church in Australia with a long history where there’s been abuse. ‘In the early colonial days of Australia about 33 priests were removed from Australia and returned overseas—some for child sexual abuse,’ he said.

‘In 1870, Mary MacKillop and her sisters were excommunicated and disbanded for reporting Franciscan priest Fr Ambrose Patrick Keating who was sexually abusing children. After a further investigation, MacKillop and her sisters were reinstated.’

‘We look to the past to see failure but also to see people who have stood up and done the right thing. There have always been people who have had the courage to stand up when they saw abuse. It’s not without risk when you do—there will be sometimes adverse consequences.’

Unsafe environments for children were present in institutions of all types across Australia, he explained. The fact that risk exists is not up for discussion, ‘but it’s a question of whether you can reduce that risk.’ Throughout his address, Mr Fitzgerald outlined a number of points essential for each institution to act upon to create safe environments for children.

Where everyone within your institution that engages actively and regularly in the conversation of child safety. Unless you can have a conversation about abuse with everyone involved in the organisation, then the job of creating a child safe environment won’t be completed.

The first step to reducing situational factors leading to abuse. A child should never be in a private space with an adult where they are not visible to others. Ensure private rooms where a child might be alone with an adult—for a music lesson at school, for example—have transparent glass doors. Ensure children are not admitted into spaces like the confessional alone; instead, confession should be conducted in a visible and open space.

Not all offenders are the same. Mr Fitzgerald explained how in the Royal Commission, he conducted several hundred private sessions jails with sex offenders to learn what motivates them. He discerned there were three different types of perpetrators: the persistent offender, likely to offend against multiple children on multiple occasions over time; the situational offender who can be in normal relationships but who abuses children due to proximity; and the long-term offender who sees the abuse as part of a loving attachment.

Children most at risk are those who have experienced some abuse earlier in life. The second most vulnerable group is aspiring and ambitious students who form special relationships with coaches or teachers to advance in one particular skill. Family members and guardians are also groomed in these cases, and often acquiesce to the abuse on the basis that to disclose it would damage future career prospects.

This is the number one principle in child safe standards and by far the most important factor. Abuse isn’t an issue of its time, as much as it’s an issue of a particular institution’s culture. Many cases of extraordinary physical and emotional abuse existed in boys and girls homes with cultures that embraced stern corporal punishment. In others, where there was a culture of love and support and compassion, there was no abuse. ‘If you can’t get culture right, it doesn’t matter what else you do,’ said Mr Fitzgerald. ‘What we’ve seen over the decades is that bad cultures breed bad conduct.’

Bad cultural conduct manifests in many ways, some that might have formerly been acceptable organisational practise. For example, bad cultural conduct is discrediting anyone who challenges or tries to improve the culture; bad cultural conduct is burying bad news and restricting the access involved parties have to information, and bad cultural conduct is caring foremost about protecting the reputation of the organisation.

Child safety requires constant assessment of risk. Child safety isn’t a once-off measure to establish policies. Rather, it’s something that must be incorporated into an organisational framework for the foreseeable future.

‘It doesn’t matter what you think,’ said Mr Fitzgerald. Mandatory reporting, the new reportable conduct regime and new proposed criminal penalties are designed to remove the element of what you think. Mandatory reporting takes away your personal opinion—if X happens, you do Y. If a set of circumstances arise, there is a clear course of action. Too many times, the Royal Commission found the opinion of a particular staff member often overrides their duty or obligations to investigate and act appropriately.


Providing a service for children isn’t the same as acting in a child’s best interests. The whole organisation needs to consider the best interests for children ‘from boardroom to basement’, Mr Fitzgerald said. ‘With any significant decisions, ask have we just acted in the best interest of a child? It’s the simplest question to ask.’

Actively and respectfully listen to young people. The voices of children are important. If you were a child, what would be the visible signs that demonstrate your institution is a safe environment?

Organisations need to be far more open. A transparent institution shares information. It explains its decisions. It works along clearly defined operating principles. It solicits opinions from stakeholders and welcomes honest feedback. The more closed the institution, the higher the chance of wrongdoing towards children. This particularly affects religious groups.

The organisation should feel a deep sense of responsibility. The end game is not policies, procedures and requirements, but institutions that are safe. That means having a deep understanding about the issue and embracing an ongoing commitment to child safety.

Francis Sullivan: Reform and Renewal after Royal Commission.

Fatima Measham, consulting editor of Eureka Street and host of the Eureka Street podcast ChatterSquare, spoke with Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, the body that is coordinating the Catholic Church's response, to reflect on the journey since the Commission was first announced in November 2012 and to consider what are the next steps for the church. 
La Croix International reports on that very honest and revealing interview and it is definitely worth reading and putting the following quotes into context.
"The Catholic Church leaders have railed against the fact that they are continually put in the frame as part of the problem. But the truth is that the church leadership for decades sought to deny this history, and they sought to somehow contextualise it as a thing of the past. They never fully acknowledged that the culture, structure, processes of the Church were part of the problem. Therefore the trust and credibility in Church leaders has continued to decline, and accelerated in that decline over this whole period, such that people are questioning whether the church leaders have assimilated what's gone on. I think there's still the question, Do they get it? You can only ever tell if individuals get things by what they do rather than what they say. And I think the jury's still out on that."
 "The biggest shock I had was the extent of the abuse in the Catholic Church. I really was completely shocked when I first saw the data that was going to be revealed at the Royal Commission. We had in excess of 1800 priests and religious with allegations of abuse against them since the 1950s; we had close to 5000 people with allegations of abuse. That really blew me away."

Criminal Dysfunctionality of the Catholic Church

Richard Leonard SJ, an Australian priest stated in The Tablet (3.1.2018) that "I thought that the final report of the Royal Commission, which was released on 15 December, would have a devastating impact on the numbers of people wanting to bring their children to church to celebrate Christmas Mass at the Vigil and on Christmas Day morning."
Read the full article here  - it is a considered and well written reflection on our Church in Australia, in the light of the Royal Commission.

Report into Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat released

6 December 2017

A redacted version of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s report into Case Study 28 – Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat – was released today.

The report follows a public hearing held in three parts in 2015 and 2016 in Ballarat and Sydney. The public hearing examined the response of the Congregation of Christian Brothers in the St Patrick’s Province of Ballarat and the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat (the Diocese) to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse by Christian Brothers, clergy and religious in institutions within the Diocese.

Commissioners heard evidence about the response of the Diocese to allegations of child sexual abuse made against four of its priests and about the response of the Christian Brothers to allegations made against five of its Brothers.

Commissioners also heard evidence about the short- and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse on survivors, their families, their faith and the wider Ballarat community. Commissioners report that based on the evidence they heard “there can be no doubt that the sexual abuse of a child has very significant consequences, not only for the survivors but also for those around them”.


The Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference require that the work of the Royal Commission not prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings. For this reason, Commissioners recommended that at this time a redacted version of the report be tabled and published. It is expected that an unredacted version of the report will be tabled and published at a later date.

Christian Brothers’ grossly inadequate response

During the period the focus of the inquiry the Christian Brothers operated or provided staff for six primary and secondary schools in Ballarat and Warrnambool in Victoria. The Christian Brothers who taught at these schools lived together in the St Patrick’s community on the grounds of St Patrick’s College. Although located within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese, St Patrick’s community was not subject to the authority of the Bishop of Ballarat.

Commissioners heard evidence from 10 men that they were sexually abused while students at St Alipius, a primary school in Ballarat East, and from seven men that they were sexually abused at St Patrick’s College, a secondary school in Ballarat. These schools were the principal focus of the inquiry.

A number of former students of St Alipius and St Patrick’s College told Commissioners that the sexual misconduct of Christian Brothers towards students was common knowledge around the schools. Commissioners report that this evidence was “powerful and compelling”. It was “not challenged in any way”. Accordingly, Commissioners conclude that “there were widespread rumours about the Christian Brothers’ sexual misconduct around boys and those rumours were known by many, if not most, of the students” at St Alipius and St Patrick’s College.

Most of the allegations Commissioners heard about in relation to the Christian Brothers related to sexual abuse by Edward Dowlan, who taught at St Alipius for a year in 1971 and at St Patrick’s College from 1973 to 1975. In 1973, a member of the St Patrick’s College student representative council reported to the provincial, Brother Nangle, that Dowlan had been putting his hands down students’ pants. Commissioners accept the evidence of the student that he was required to apologise to the assembly for “spreading lies”. “These events are likely to be seared into the memory of a boy”, Brother Nangle’s response to the complaint was “humiliating” and “wrong”.

Brother Nangle received further complaints about Dowlan in 1973 and 1974. These all related to Dowlan touching students in a sexually inappropriate way. Commissioners were satisfied “that there was no effective response to any of those reports or complaints in order to manage the risk to children posed by Dowlan. Brother Nangle consistently and unreasonably declined to obtain the details of such reports and complaints”. Dowlan left St Patrick’s College in 1975 and continued to hold a number of teaching appointments at a number of schools. Allegations about his conduct continued to emerge.

Dowlan was appointed principal at St Vincent’s Special School, a position in which he had “access to the most vulnerable boys”, at a time when at least four member of the provincial council suspected or knew of allegations of his sexual behaviour towards children. Commissioners found this “was a complete failure by the Christian Brothers to protect the most vulnerable children in their care”.

Commissioners concluded that the “response of those in positions of authority within the Christian Brothers in St Patrick’s Province to victims, their families or others in the community to these rumours as well as complaints of sexual abuse was grossly inadequate”.

Commissioners heard that on some occasions the response to allegations or reports of Christian Brothers conducting themselves in a sexually inappropriate manner with children was dismissive. Often the Christian Brother in question was allowed to remain in the position he held with continuing access to children. However, on many occasions the Brother was moved to a new location after an allegation was made about his conduct. “In some cases, the reason given for the move was to conceal the true reason for it and to protect the reputation of the Christian Brothers and avoid scandal and embarrassment”.

Commissioners found that the Christian Brothers, similar to other Catholic orders, have a structure in which ultimate power and responsibility rests with one person: the provincial. “A system without checks and balances has the obvious potential for mismanagement or abuse of that power and neglect of that responsibility,” the report says.

Catastrophic institutional failure of the Diocese

The public hearing of this case study revealed that the response of the Diocese to complaints and concerns about four of its priests was “disturbingly similar”. Commissioners heard that there was a tendency by clergy in the Diocese to treat complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse dismissively and in favour of the priest who was the subject of the allegation.

Commissioners reported:

“This case study exposed a catastrophic failure in the leadership of the Diocese and ultimately in the structure and culture of the Church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by its priests. That failure led to the suffering and often irreparable harm to children, their families and the wider community. That harm could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interests.”

The result of the inexcusable failures identified in this case study was that more children were sexually abused by Catholic clergy in the Diocese.

Commissioners found “the response to reports was characterised by the encouragement of secrecy, assurances that the matter would be dealt with and failure to follow up, ask questions or investigate reports”.

When allegations or complaints about a priest’s behaviour became known, the offending priest was often removed from the parish where the allegations had arisen and moved to a new location – including interstate, to other dioceses and overseas – where the allegations were unknown. Untrue or misleading reasons for the priest’s departure were given to the old parish, and no warning was given to the new parish. Restrictions or conditions were not imposed on the priest in his new parish nor was there effective supervision of his conduct. Often, more allegations against the priest emerged in the new parish.

The majority of survivors who gave evidence during the public hearing about sexual abuse by clergy in the Diocese gave evidence that they were sexually abused by Gerald Ridsdale. Ridsdale’s conduct was the source of gossip among priests and in the community. He held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest. His appointments were typically short, with an average of about 1.8 years per appointment, after which he was transferred to a new role or location. Commissioners were satisfied that “by late 1975 Ridsdale had admitted to Bishop Mulkearns that he had offended against children and that Bishop Mulkearns knew that Ridsdale’s conduct was known to the police in Bendigo and it is likely he knew of the general talk in the community about Ridsdale”.

Commissioners heard that in 1981 Ridsdale was appointed to Mortlake in southern Victoria. Commissioners report that “During his time at Mortlake parish, Ridsdale sexually abused a large number of children, including Mr David Ridsdale, BPS, BPT, BPW, BPU, BPX, BPR and Mr Paul Levey”.

Bishop Mulkearns and other senior priests in the Diocese received numerous reports of Ridsdale sexually offending against children. These included reports that Ridsdale had a boy, 14 year old Mr Levey, living with him at the presbytery.

Mr Levey told the Royal Commission he was sexually abused “all the time, just about every day” while he lived with Ridsdale “it was common knowledge in Mortlake” that he lived at the presbytery and “on one occasion Bishop Mulkearns visited the presbytery while he was there”. Commissioners accepted Mr Levey’s evidence. Commissions found that Bishop Mulkearns was aware that Mr Levey’s mother was “concerned about the situation and sought his assistance, but he ignored her”. Commissioners concluded:

“This was an extraordinary and inexcusable failure by Bishop Mulkearns, and his failure to act subjected Mr Levey to ongoing sexual abuse by Ridsdale. Bishop Mulkearns’ conduct was appalling.”

In late 1982 Ridsdale was transferred to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. Commissioners found that Bishop Mulkearns wanted to remove Ridsdale from the Diocese and preferably from access to children “to avoid further complaints and public scrutiny”. It had the effect of protecting Ridsdale. Commissioners also found that Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. “Ridsdale continued to sexually abuse children while he was at the centre”. Commissioners conclude “Bishop Mulkearns again was derelict in his duty in failing to take any effective action to have Ridsdale referred to police and to restrict Ridsdale’s contact with children”.

On no occasion during the public hearing did Commissioners hear evidence that Bishop Mulkearns or any other member of the clergy reported allegations or complaints of child sexual abuse to the police or other authority.

Commissioners found that the “most likely explanation for the conduct of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior clergy in the Diocese was that they were trying to minimise the risk of scandal and protect the reputation of the Catholic Church”.

The welfare of children was not the primary concern of senior members of the Diocese when responding to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse against their priests. Commissioners conclude, “There is no doubt it should have been”.

Data in relation to the Diocese and Christian Brothers

The Royal Commission conducted a comprehensive data survey of all Catholic Church authorities in Australia, including the Christian Brothers and the Diocese of Ballarat. The data survey sought information about all claims and substantiated complaints that were received by Catholic Church authorities during the period 1 January 1980 to 28 February 2015.

The survey indicated that 140 people made a claim of child sexual abuse against priests and religious operating within the Diocese. Ninety per cent of all claims were made against seven priests, who were each subject to three or more claims of child sexual abuse. The highest number of claims of child sexual abuse relating to an individual priest was 78, being those against Gerald Ridsdale.

Fifty-six people have made a claim or substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse against one or more Christian Brothers in relation to a Ballarat Christian Brothers school. Sixteen of these people made allegations against more than one accused.

Read the report.

Report into Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne Released

5 December 2017

A redacted version of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s report of Case Study 35 –Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne – was released today.

This report follows a public hearing held in Melbourne in November and December 2015 and in Sydney in February and March 2016 during which the Royal Commission heard about the response of Catholic Church authorities within or associated with the Archdiocese of Melbourne to allegations and complaints of child sexual abuse made against seven priests of the Archdiocese.


The Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference require that the work of the Royal Commission not prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings. For this reason, Commissioners recommended that at this time a redacted version of the report be tabled and published. It is expected that an unredacted version of the report will be tabled and published at a later date.

Archbishop Little’s response

The Royal Commission heard that Archbishop Thomas Francis Little, who headed the Archdiocese from 1974 to 1996, dismissed or ignored serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests. He did not investigate the many allegations that were brought to his attention and did not report them to the police. He also moved offending priests to other parishes where they continued to offend.

The case of Father Peter Searson was “remarkable in terms of the volume of complaints against him and the number of Church personnel to whom they were made”. Archbishop Little was told of a long list of allegations against Father Searson in the Sunbury parish between 1974 and 1984. These allegations included the rape of a young woman and threatening a girl with a knife. One parishioner told the Archbishop they did not want to leave children alone with him. It was also alleged that Father Searson conducted sex education classes with students in his bedroom.

In 1984 Archbishop Little appointed Father Searson parish priest at Doveton. Holy Family School was attached to the parish. In his new position Father Searson also became the employer of staff at the school. The Royal Commission heard about the problems this created.

Complaints against Father Searson continued to be made while he was at Doveton, including: that he pointed a gun at children; that he had made a “sexual advance” to a child in the confessional; and that some parishioners would not allow their children to be alone with him.

Commissioners were satisfied that by the end of 1986 Archbishop knew of matters that “were undoubtedly sufficient to demonstrate that Father Searson ought to be removed from a parish appointment and posed a grave risk to the safety of children”. Commissioners concluded that Archbishop Little “abjectly failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the children within the parish” by not removing Father Searson. Father Searson remained the parish priest at Doveton until March 1997 when he was placed on administrative leave by the new Archbishop, Archbishop Pell.

Commissioners observed that, while only the Archbishop had authority to remove Father Searson, given the number of individual Church personnel with knowledge of complaints against Father Searson it was “extraordinary that there was such a long period of inaction”. Other Church personnel also failed to recognise the need for action. The “catastrophic human consequences” of this inaction were revealed in the story of BVC who was sexually abused by Father Searson in 1992. Commissioners report, “The fact that Father Searson remained in a position of authority as a parish priest – a position he exploited to abuse BVC – is directly attributable to Archbishop Little’s ongoing failure to take action against Father Searson”.

In the case of Father Baker, Commissioners agreed with Archbishop Hart’s observation that it was a case of the Archdiocese “failing to act on credible information about criminal abuse by a priest” which resulted in more children being abused, a delay in developing widespread awareness of the incidence and the risk of sexual abuse by some members of the clergy, and in preventing its occurrence.

Despite having received complaints of child sexual abuse made against Father Nazareno Fasciale, Father Desmond Gannon, Father Ronald Pickering and Father David Daniel, Archbishop Little allowed them to resign or retire on the grounds of ill health or “stress”.

Commissioners heard that Archbishop Little allowed Father Pickering, Father Daniel and Father Gannon to be treated as though they were eligible for financial support from the Priests’ Retirement Foundation as if they were retired priests. Commissioners found, in the case of Father Pickering, that this was “subterfuge”. Commissioners found that Archbishop Little endeavoured to conceal that these priests were receiving financial support.

Culture of secrecy

Commissioners were satisfied that in relation to complaints of child sexual abuse there was a prevailing culture of secrecy:

“We are satisfied that the evidence in the case study showed a prevailing culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese, led by Archbishop Little, in relation to complaints. Complaints were dealt with in a way that sought to protect the Archdiocese from scandal and liability and prioritised the interests of the Church over those of the victims.”

Commissioners found that there was a “practice of using oblique or euphemistic language in correspondence and records concerning complaints of child sexual abuse” with terms like “Special Issues” being used to refer primarily to complaints of child sexual abuse.

Commissioners also found that minutes of the meetings of the Curia (a body of senior clergy who advise and assist the Archbishop) were generally euphemistic, incomplete and inaccurate. None of the minutes referred directly to child sexual abuse or other similar terms.

Considering the evidence as a whole, Commissioners were satisfied that “there were such complaints which were or were likely to have been discussed” on various occasions. It was clear to Commissioners from the minutes “that the purpose of not recording information was to protect the assets of the Archdiocese in the event of a claim being made against it”.

Dysfunctional systems, procedures and practices

Commissioners were satisfied that the dysfunctional systems, procedures and practices and their idiosyncratic operation in the Archdiocese inevitably led to poor outcomes in responding to allegations of child sexual abuse. Dysfunctional systems included the structure of Catholic education in Victoria whereby the parish priest is the employer of staff at parish schools. There were also deficiencies in recordkeeping and a failure to apply policies where they existed.

Commissioners found that during the tenure of Archbishop Little, decision-making within the Archdiocese in response to complaints of child sexual abuse against priests was highly centralised. There were no effective checks and balances on the Archbishop’s exercise of powers in relation to priests who were the subject of complaints. Commissioners concluded, “As the evidence in the case study makes plain, a system for responding to complaints of child sexual abuse in which the exclusive authority for making decisions was vested in one person, is deeply flawed”.

Read the report

Report on Criminal Justice Released

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released 85 recommendations aimed at reforming the Australian criminal justice system in order to provide a fairer response to victims of institutional child sexual abuse. evidence and joint tri

The report Criminal Justice, which was released on August 14, 2017, recommends a sweep of legislative and policy changes. It includes reform to police and prosecution responses, evidence of complainants, sentences and appeals, and grooming offences. It also recommends new offences, including ‘failure to report’ and ‘failure to protect’. 
Read the full Executive Summary here or access  shorter Fact Sheets below.
Fact Sheet: Failure to report offence 

The Scandal of Child Abuse & Our Response

Our Church is being challenged by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, in its work of investigation, and in the long term we wll be blessed with their knowledge and recommendations. But what happens in th meantime?  Do we sit on our butts and wait for others to do the work...or do we seek to initiate solutions right now???
Catholics for Renewal recently asked us to put our names to their Open Letter to the Bishops of Australia, and many have already done so. Some may well be hesitating, feeling tht perhaps they need more information, so to help us all understand the extent of the problems that have arisen in our church over the last decades, please read the evidence of Fr Tom Doyle OP, as he gave it to the Royal Commission on April 7, 2017.
Alternatively, you could watch a video interview with Fr Tom Doyle OP titled 'Losing Faith: Abuse, Cover-up and the Catholic Church.'
Another option would be to borrow the movie "Spotlight" from the Parish Office and have a movie session with the family or some friends. It is an excellent movie and well worth watching.