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Shocking facts of paedophile priests ring in Victoria

Jazzy Jan

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This is shocking, revolting and shameful.  An in depth investigate journalism from the Age Newspaper. 


Revealed: How paedophile priests in Victoria worked together to share victims

A Catholic priest left a 14-year-old boy in a seminary common room with several other boys before another priest came and "selected" him for abuse, says an explosive new statement of claim.


Some of the Catholic church’s worst paedophile priests shared victims, passed on details of vulnerable children considered easy targets and worked together to conceal their crimes as part of informal networks of sexual abuse hidden in Australian seminaries, schools and parishes.

An investigation by The Age has identified for the first time that many priests involved in historical sexual abuse of children did not simply act as individuals but formed clusters, or paedophile rings, throughout Victoria, from the western district to the Gippsland region and in suburban Melbourne.


At the centre of a number of these networks was Melbourne’s seminary - Corpus Christi - which has produced about 1000 priests over almost 100 years, including jailed Cardinal George Pell and convicted child rapist Gerald Ridsdale. According to a conservative snapshot from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, at least 75 convicted and alleged sex offenders emerged from Corpus Christi. The true figure is not known.

One Melbourne man alleges he was repeatedly abused between the ages of 12 and 14 by a network of three paedophiles coalescing around Corpus Christi Clayton in the mid-1970s: St Peter’s parish priest Ronald Pickering, assistant priest Russell Vears and then newly ordained Paul David Ryan.

In a statement of claim which lawyers plan to file in court this week, the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, alleges Vears took him to the seminary in October 1976 and left him to wait in a communal living room with four or five other boys. A second priest, Ryan, then allegedly picked the boy from the group, took him back to a bedroom and sexually assaulted him.

“I recall that seminarians would come out through the corridor into the sitting room and select a boy to go back with them,” said the former St Peter’s altar boy. “He selected me by pointing at me and ushering me to follow him.”

Ryan, now in jail for separate child sex offences, could not be contacted despite repeated attempts. Vears, who is now known as Russell Walker, said on Monday he had no memory of this incident. "I can’t comment because I don’t know anything, and anything I say would be meaningless because I wouldn’t know where to start," he said.

Law firm Arnold Thomas & Becker also plans to file a civil lawsuit from a former altar boy from St Bede's in Balwyn who was taken to Corpus Christi’s Glen Waverley campus around 1972 by Father Terrence Pidoto on the pretence of showing him “where priests are made”.

He recalls Pidoto parading him, at the age of 14, in front of three seminarians sitting on a bed in their underwear. As two others walked past, Pidoto said words to the effect: “Look boys, he’s the one I was telling you about. Isn’t he cute?”

Later that evening, Pidoto raped the boy in the seminary dining hall - a fact accepted by a jury in 2007.

Police files reveal another victim was also exploited at Glen Waverley seminary in the early '70s by Father Wilfred “Bill” Baker, who made the boy remove his shirt and pants in front of Baker and other trainee priests, “to show how big his muscles were.” After the boy’s father died, Baker, Pidoto and other seminary priests would visit his home regularly.

“There were two or three others that would come around too,” the victim told police. “One priest used to come over and sit by the pool and tell me and my brothers to get naked and jump up and down.”

The Age investigation, based on a deep-dive of church documents provided to the Royal Commission as well as current and former court cases and dozens of interviews, confirms religious predators were not just shuffled around from parish to parish but some priests also colluded with each other. Clusters of paedophile priests began rising steadily from the 1960s, reaching a peak in the 70s, before slowing by the late 1980s.

Paedophile networks have long been suspected, but the Royal Commission focused its attention on individual case studies and the church’s response to them, meaning cooperation between priests and the links to the Corpus Christi seminary were not closely examined.

Criminologist Michael Salter said that, although many historical child sex cases are not prosecuted, survivors often had “credible, detailed allegations about Catholic priests who knew one another and were highly complicit and active in trafficking children between each other.”

“They tend to describe smaller, local clustering of clergy, or clergy that identified each other as co-offenders in the seminary,” said Dr Salter, an associate professor at the University of NSW.

“A recurring theme is the issue of priests preying on younger priests-in-training, and the normalisation of that unethical but quite secretive relationship. This sets the grounds for subsequent sexual abuse, particularly against teenagers.”

The issue is contentious for the church, which has for years played down the prevalence of such groups in its ranks. When Pell was asked during the Royal Commission why there had been “so many child sex abusers aggregating in Ballarat East in the 1970s” he dismissed it as a “disastrous coincidence”.

The Age is identifying a group of priests as a “cluster” in cases where there was either participation, collaboration, knowledge or influence between alleged offenders. Some cases contain allegations of pack rape or sharing victims. Others involve clergy passing on information about vulnerable victims, moving children in and out of the seminary, or undermining the seal of confession.

Documents reveal that, in St Kilda East in about 1968, one of Ron Pickering’s victims told another sex offending priest, Father Bill Baker, in the confessional that Pickering was abusing him. Baker passed the information back to Pickering who admonished the boy and continued to abuse him into adulthood.

In evidence that networking between abusers could also cross borders, Pickering took the victim to Adelaide to dine with another group of paedophiles and their chosen “boys”.

In Melbourne’s northwest, boys were raped over many years in Rupertswood College in Sunbury. A former Salesian student is now suing the order after being abused by former teachers Julian Fox and Frank Klep. The victim’s lawsuit names the pair as his two main abusers, but also claims that the principal at the time, Father Terrence Jennings, knew about the offending and “engaged in a conspiracy” to cover it up.

Klep was later appointed as a “spiritual adviser” to another known offender, Father Victor Rubeo, one of many pedophile priests shuffled in and out of Doveton’s Holy Family Parish over successive decades.

In western Victoria, at least six priests and brothers, including Ridsdale and Ryan as well as Christian brothers Robert Best and Edward Dowlan, sexually assaulted children in Ballarat and also abused minors in Warrnambool. Three also molested children in Geelong. In Ballarat there is evidence of clerics witnessing abuse by their colleagues. In one case, Gerald “Leo” Fitzgerald allegedly witnessed Best molesting a boy and chuckled, a court heard.

A several part Age investigation will also examine how and why Melbourne’s prestigious Corpus Christi seminary became a breeding ground for much of the church’s child abuse crisis.

Ryan, who graduated from Corpus Christi in 1976, suggested to the Royal Commission in 2015 that he had struggled with his sexuality for years - and may never have offended had he not become a priest.

"My psychosexual development was arrested from about 15 or 16," he said. "I didn't mature enough to even have an insight into the difference between sexuality and intimacy."

Established in 1923, Corpus Christi has produced generations of priests, including former Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge and George Pell, who was the rector of the seminary in the mid-1980s. It has also trained a litany of offenders, from Thomas O’Keefe to Kevin O’Donnell, Robert Claffey and Ridsdale.

A snapshot of 34 Corpus Christi graduates who were accused or convicted of committing acts of child abuse, and for whom reliable records exist, found that 17 priests had offended within three years of being ordained. Four began offending even before they were ordained, prompting serious questions about the way young men were selected and trained for priesthood at Corpus Christi.

The Archdiocese conceded there had been many failings, but added: “The inadequate standards of the past are not the reality today.”

“Today, Corpus Christi College forms future priests in a professional environment that includes human, spiritual, academic, pastoral and missionary formation,” he said.

“Unlike in past eras, seminary formation includes both female and male leadership and professionally qualified staff for a number of years. A comprehensive program of professional standards and safeguarding training is provided by the Professional Standards Unit of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.”


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