Abuse inquiry hears priests moved ‘to protect church’

A Victorian Catholic bishop who moved pedophile priests among parishes to avoid scandalising the church denies trying to cover up widespread child sex abuse.


But retired bishop Ronald Mulkearns says he’s sorry and regrets not doing his job very well in handling pedophilia in the Ballarat diocese.

Bishop Mulkearns knew about pedophile priests whom he sent for treatment and moved among parishes, the child abuse royal commission has heard.

The 1971-97 Ballarat bishop admitted he wanted to protect the reputation of the church but told the inquiry he was trying to stop further offending.

Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness SC said Bishop Mulkearns covered up the conduct of pedophile priests.

“Your time as the bishop of Ballarat was characterised by offending pedophiles coming to your attention and you effectively covering up their actions so the public wouldn’t become aware of and think less highly of the church, is that right?”

Bishop Mulkearns replied: “Well, that’s certainly not been my intention.

“I can only say that I’m terribly sorry for the fact that I didn’t act differently in the interests of everybody.”

Ms Furness suggested he chose to protect the church’s reputation over the protection of children, but Bishop Mulkearns said that was not completely true.

“I certainly wanted to protect the reputation of the church,” he said via video link from his Ballarat nursing home.

“I wanted to make sure these incidents didn’t happen in the future and tried my best to work in such a way that it wouldn’t happen in the future, but of course, they weren’t telling you the truth about what was happening, so it made it difficult to deal with them.”

After a 1991 complaint about improper conduct by priest Paul David Ryan with a schoolboy, Bishop Mulkearns noted it was agreed he would remain in Penshurst parish “so that his change would not be seen as completely out of the ordinary”.

Bishop Mulkearns agreed when Ms Furness said the point of that was to ensure there was no scandal about Ryan leaving early.

Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan said Bishop Mulkearns protected the church by moving priests away from where their offending might continue.

“You also removed them to avoid notoriety coming to them in one parish. You moved them to another parish,” Justice McClellan said.

Bishop Mulkearns said: “Not without some activity, some treatment beforehand.”

Justice McClellan suggested the bishop’s advisers “knew what was going on”, but Bishop Mulkearns said he could not recall who knew what at that stage.

Cardinal George Pell, who was among the bishop’s advisers while he was a Ballarat priest, will give videolink evidence to the commission from Rome next week.

Bishop Mulkearns said he told the archbishop of Sydney about the problems of pedophile priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale when he sent him to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney in 1982.

Bishop Mulkearns admitted he retired as bishop early because he was not handling the pedophilia problem well.

“I’m terribly sorry that I didn’t do things differently in that time, but I didn’t really know what to do or how to do it.”

The 85-year-old has advanced cancer and only months to live.

His questioning on Thursday was limited to 90 minutes on medical grounds and he will continue giving evidence at another time.

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