There is a time for everything …a time to be silent and a time to speak…Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Today the Royal Commission came to an end. I feel as if I have lost a friend. It seems somehow improper to say anything. In its place endless prattle, numbers, interviews, politics. Seventeen volumes. I am left numb. There will be a time to read them. But not today.
The victims line the road to the Governor General’s mansion. They want to say thank you. These darling people who once were children. The Commissioners acknowledge them from their white cars. The survivors wave their cardboard signs. ‘Thank you’. ‘Thank you’. When I see Chrissie Foster standing alone I weep. She is a lion of a woman. A few nights ago I saw her pointing to a closed door at the Catholic school her girls attended. He had special locks made. He had the only key. So he wouldn’t be disturbed. This is where he sexually abused two of them, she says.
I have this image of her dead Anthony. He is holding up a photograph of his two daughters. He holds the photograph between the fingers of one hand. With the other he points to his daughters. Reporters and sundry others stare at the little girls in their school uniforms. His bravery, his calmness are beyond human comprehension. One of the girls has taken her life. The other lives but requires constant care. She spoke beautifully at her father’s funeral. Anthony speaks quietly: ‘they were sexually abused by a Catholic priest’, he tells those who will listen. We live in a time of madness.
Three months ago I went back to the seminary where I trained to be a Catholic priest. To take photographs for my book. I had not been back since the day I left. That was fifty-one years ago.
I was strong, determined to maintain my dignity. But when I entered the once refectory the year was 1965. Faces of young boys straight out of school stare at me. Eight to a table. Mandatory celibacy their lot. In a misogynist Church obsessed with sex and sin. God knows what happened to them. I know some of them became abusers. Our priestly lecturers sit at the top table. Monsignor Thomas McNevin Veech, the rector, pride of place in the centre. He has white hair. The Sisters wait on the priests. Women’s work. They serve them food covered with a flimsy white cloth from auto trays wheeled from the kitchen. One day we too will be waited on and eat like priests.
The Rector before Veech was Monsignor Charles Dunne. He left six months before I arrived. Most of his priestly life was spent in this seminary. Dunne sexually abused young girls. He took his dirty secret to the grave. These crimes must never be forgotten.
My guide wants to leave. I want to stay. I have not begun. There is a part of me that lives here. I want to curl myself up in a corner. To close my eyes and get it right. A bell sits near Veechy’s right hand. When he rings it we stand and walk in line to the Chapel. Inside my head I sing Downtown accompanied by Ms Petula Clark. We are all mad.
A few years later, in a town just down the highway from where I was born and raised, a young boy was raped by Fr Gerald Ridsdale. He reported the crime to Monsignor Leo Fiscalini, a senior prelate in the Ballarat diocese. Fiscalini admitted to the boy there was a problem with Ridsdale, but cautioned him not to tell anyone. A few days later when the boy returned home from school, his mother told him that the Monsignor had been around and he would get a hiding if he talked about these things again. He pleaded with his mother that he was telling the truth. ‘Well, the Monsignor thinks they’re lies’. When he was nineteen the young man had a break-down and spent time in what was then called a mental hospital. In 2006, Gerald Ridsdale admitted to raping him.
On this day this is what I remember. There will be better days but the fight has just begun. I see the white curtains which flew from my seminary window. I was forced to take them down. Too feminine for the male God. Too reminiscent of home and family. I see coloured ribbons. They are tied to the fence in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat. They symbolise hope. They fly proudly in the breeze. They represent a different God. May they continue to fly.
Kevin Peoples is the author of Trapped in a Closed World. Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse, Garratt Publishing, 2017.