The Catholic Church has accepted legal responsibility for the sexual abuse of a nine-year-old boy by notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale in a significant case which could open the floodgates for victims seeking compensation.

After denying any knowledge of Ridsdale’s offending before the boy was raped in a confessional box at Mortlake in 1982, lawyers for the church on Friday accepted an amended statement of claim from the victim in the Supreme Court – in effect admitting legal liability for his crimes.

Published in The Age

A 10-day civil trial scheduled to begin on January 29 next year will now focus primarily on the amount of damages the church will pay the victim. A mediation hearing will be held on October 15.

The victim, identified in court under the pseudonym JCB, is suing Ballarat Bishop Paul Bird for negligence on behalf of deceased former bishops James O’Collins and Ronald Mulkearns.

In defence documents submitted to the court, Bishop Bird accepted that Bishop Mulkearns breached his duty of care to the victim because he knew about a complaint of Ridsdale sexually abusing a child at Inglewood in northern Victoria in 1975, seven years before JCB was raped.

“We are pleased that the Catholic Church has admitted liability for the sexual abuse of our client by Gerald Ridsdale,” JCB’s lawyers Judy Courtin Legal said on Friday.

“We believe this is the first time in Victoria that the Catholic Church has admitted that it failed to protect a victim of child sexual abuse and that it is therefore legally liable.

“Our client now looks forward to an assessment of the damages he is owed by the church.”

The JCB trial is likely to set a precedent for other victims to follow suit if they can prove senior clergy knew about the offending of other paedophiles, including Christian Brother Edward Dowlan and disgraced Catholic priest Paul David Ryan.

It comes after the so-called “Ellis defence”, which prevented abuse survivors from suing unincorporated organisations including churches and other institutions, was abolished by the state government last year.

Ridsdale admitted to sexually assaulting 65 children – both boys and girls – throughout Victoria in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, but it is believed the true number of his victims could be in the hundreds.

He has been sentenced five times since 1993 and is in prison at the Hopkins Correctional Centre in Ararat.

JCB is one of several victims mounting legal cases against the Ballarat Archdiocese over Ridsdale’s offending.

The total payouts to his victims alone are expected to run into millions of dollars.

Lawyers for JCB on Friday accused the church of stalling court proceedings and withholding critical documents about Ridsdale’s offending in the Ballarat diocese’s archives, a claim disputed by the church.

“We have been pressing for these document since October 2018,” barrister Gary Taylor, representing JCB told the court.

Mr Taylor said JCB had serious mental health issues and had been adversely affected by the delay in court proceedings.

Following the hearing on Friday, JCB said it had taken more than nine months and a ruling by a Supreme Court judge to get the church to admit what it had admitted to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse back in July 2016.

During the royal commission, the church’s representatives from its Truth, Justice and Healing Committee acknowledged that Bishop Mulkearns was “inexcusably wrong” in appointing Ridsdale to other parishes after Inglewood.

“I’m glad they’ve finally seen sense,” the victim said. “But it shouldn’t have to be this hard, especially given that the Bishop of Ballarat has publicly said how much compassion the church has for victims.”

Earlier this year, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Catholic Church has been inundated with Supreme Court writs from Victorian survivors of clerical sexual abuse who previously received modest ex gratia payments and are now attempting to sue the church for further compensation.

At least four Melbourne law firms have been briefed by dozens of victims seeking to challenge the validity of church settlements on the basis that payments were manifestly inadequate for the long-term suffering inflicted by paedophile priests.

They also argue that some previous deeds of release, which prevented survivors from taking legal action again, should be scrapped when the church had not acted in good faith by concealing its knowledge of serial abusers.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue 1300 224 636.

By Melissa Cunningham and Andrew Thomson
Published in The Age
6 September 2019