Watching convicted pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale give evidence at the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse yesterday was not easy, yet his appearance emphasised, as I believe is the Commission’s intention, the reality that his crimes did not take place in a vacuum. They were perpetrated within a community, and others in Ridsdale’s community knew of them, though the offender is unclear as to how many knew what, and how much. It might be more accurate to note that it is unclear how many members of Ridsdale’s community are prepared to admit what they knew or suspected. However, it seems that his crimes were known by at least one of his superiors, who did absolutely nothing to help either Ridsdale or his victims and who bears a terrible responsibility for the suffering of hundreds of children over decades because of his lack of intervention.
Revealing his own connection with Ridsdale on Radio National Breakfast, journalist Paul Bongiornio noted that pedophiles are extremely good at hiding their activities, and hardly likely to boast about them. He made a comparison with a partner who carries on daily life with his or her spouse whilst conducting an affair: the spouse can be completely unaware of the betrayal, even while living in an intimate relationship. It’s not surprising, then, that those who like Bongiornio shared a house and a community with Ridsdale had no idea of the man’s predilections, and the extent to which he was acting them out.
It was, I have to admit, a comparison that hadn’t occurred to me but on reflection I see that the two activities have much in common: secrecy, the thrill of the illicit, the ability to behave in a profoundly duplicitous manner, the talent to present one face to those closest, whilst concealing from them powerful and secret sexual desires and acts. Obviously there are also differences, but to take Bongiornio’s point, people are infinitely capable of constructing and living double lives, and it has become a cliché to exclaim, when the next door neighbour is found to have dead bodies buried in the cellar, oh, he seemed like such a nice quiet man.
What is incontestable is that senior members of the Catholic church worldwide knew of the activities of their pedophile priests and did nothing to help and protect the victims, or to assist their profoundly disturbed clergy. They enabled priests. They created the conditions in which it was possible for the priests to continue to abuse and destroy lives.
As I watched Ridsdale I thought, this didn’t have to happen. All the hundreds of children he abused did not have to suffer, for the rest of their lives, his appalling attacks and their ongoing aftermath. Multiply that by how many thousands globally who also did not have to suffer if only, if only those who knew about the pedophile priests had not enabled them, and created the climate in which they could continue wreaking their awful havoc on the young.
It isn’t possible to overestimate the guilt and responsibility of the enablers. I have no sympathy for Ridsdale, but I did think as I watched this man, now in his eighties, attempt to give an accounting of himself to the Royal Commission, that he did deserve assistance from his superiors as far back as the nineteen sixties when his crimes first were brought to their attention. They owed him guidance, advice, treatment, and even prosecution for his crimes against children. Instead, they let him loose, shunting him from parish to parish, an out-of-control pedophile with a mind so deranged and distorted he thought his desire for “closeness” was appropriately expressed and gratified by terrifying and damaging the young in his care.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott remarked yesterday, in connection with those who leave Australia to fight in foreign wars and will lose citizenship as a consequence of their choices, that “A crime is a crime is a crime.” I continue to be astounded on a daily basis that the Prime Minister remains so uncharacteristically silent on the crimes committed by pedophile priests and the superiors who enabled them. Abbott is a staunch Catholic, and a great friend of Cardinal George Pell, who was also Abbott’s confessor. Surely the Prime Minister, who has such enviable clarity on the nature of crime, ought to be passing some comment on the crimes committed by pedophile priest and their enablers on such a massive scale over so many decades? Were Abbott not so outspoken on practically every other crime that comes to public attention, his silence on this one would seem unremarkable, however, we have come to expect his moral opinion on just about everything of note, bar the criminal priests and their enablers within his own church.