As the royal commission into child abuse prepares to report back to government this week, we highlight the courageous individuals who took on powerful institutions to help expose a national shame.
By Paul Kennedy
Updated 12 Dec 2017, 9:47pm
Chrissie Foster: A family’s fight
Suburban Melbourne parents Chrissie and Anthony Foster learned in the 1990s that two of their daughters, Emma and Katie, were raped by their local priest, Father Kevin O’Donnell.
Emma began harming herself after the trauma forced upon her. Teenage Katie got drunk to avoid her haunting memories and was hit by a car, leaving her permanently disabled.
So began Chrissie and Anthony’s harrowing, tireless fight for justice.
After the priest was sentenced to jail, the church — through its Melbourne Response scheme — offered Emma a $50,000 payment that would require her to sign away future legal rights. The Fosters thought this grossly unfair, sued the church and eventually settled for a sum many times larger than the initial offer.
In 2008, Emma died of an overdose.
The Fosters became public figures and challenged the church’s attitudes and legal strategies.
In 2010, Chrissie published her family story in a book, Hell on the Way to Heaven.
A year later, the Victorian Government launched a parliamentary inquiry into the way religious and other institutions handled cases of child sexual abuse. The Fosters gave damning evidence against the church hierarchy.
A national campaign then led the Gillard government to announce the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The Foster story was at the forefront of the royal commission’s public hearing into the Melbourne Response. Chrissie gave evidence, supported by Anthony on the stand.
In 2017, Anthony died after collapsing in a car park. He was given a state funeral. Speakers included the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, and royal commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan.
Despite her grief, Chrissie is dedicated to continue fighting injustice so survivors and their families may receive proper compensation through redress and common law. She is also a devoted and passionate advocate for better child protection.
Denis Ryan: A country policeman ignored
It was 1956 and Denis Ryan was a young policeman on patrol in St Kilda. One night, he and his partner came across a drunken priest caught pants-down in a car with prostitutes.
The clergyman was taken into custody but was later released by another policeman.
Denis was told, “You don’t charge priests”. He also learned there were members of Victoria Police who actively protected the church from scandal.
Years later, Denis was transferred to the regional Victorian city of Mildura, where he came across the same priest he had arrested in St Kilda.
The priest was Monsignor John Day, a violent and sadistic man. A teacher and a nun told the policeman that Monsignor Day was committing crimes against children.
Denis investigated and compiled a list of victims; he sought to have the priest charged, but was prevented by senior police, including his immediate superior, Sergeant Jim Barritt — who was a close friend of Monsignor Day.
Denis wrote to the Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, but received no help. Bishop Mulkearns told him that Sergeant Barritt had already cleared Monsignor Day of any allegations.
The church and police officials’ protection of Monsignor Day did two things: it was forced Denis out of the job he loved, and gave a green light to other paedophile priests in the vast Ballarat Diocese.
Denis, who still lives in Mildura, gave evidence to the royal commission and was supported by former Victoria Police chief commissioner Mick Miller.
The force officially apologised to him in 2016, but he has still not been properly compensated for his ruined career.
In his final speech last month before handing down recommendations, Justice McClellan explained how police in Victoria and NSW actively protected church officials, when their highest priority should have been protecting children.
Paul Tatchell: A boy who fought back
After Monsignor Day was allowed to go free, criminal clergy in the Ballarat Diocese became emboldened.
St Alipius Primary School was ruled by four paedophiles, all working there at the same time. They included the notorious Gerald Ridsdale, and a violent sex offender called Brother Ted Dowlan, who ran one of the boarding houses at St Patrick’s College. He later changed his name to Ted Bales.
Br Dowlan, whose bedroom was attached to the Year 7 students’ dormitory, beat and raped children at will.
One night, he raped a boy called Paul Tatchell, who fought back. After being attacked in Br Dowlan’s room, Paul began punching the clergyman.
Leaving the Brother crying on the floor, Paul ran from the room and tried to call his parents for help, but the school’s headmaster and other staff locked him in a closet until morning.
Paul was then expelled. The church leadership did not report Br Dowlan to police. He remained a free man until Paul and other victims came forward to make police statements in the early 1990s.
He watched from the back of a courtroom as the law finally punished his attacker.
Paul gave evidence at the royal commission. So did the school headmaster, Brother Paul Nangle, who claimed he never knew Br Dowlan was a sex offender.
But the evidence was overwhelming. Paul went into the army, and then into business. He now owns a newspaper, and was recently elected Mayor of Moorabool Shire, east of Ballarat, for the third time.
He does not consider himself a “victim” and says he does not suffer the same type of post-traumatic stress as other former boarders — perhaps because he punched back, and could not be controlled like others.
As part of his interview for the ABC documentary Undeniable, Paul went back to the room where he was raped for the first time.
He will never return to that building.
Joanne McCarthy: Uncovering devastating secrets
In 2006, Newcastle Herald reporter Joanne McCarthy received a phone call that set her on a path to becoming one of Australia’s finest investigative journalists.
The voice at the other end of the line asked her why a priest who had been convicted of child sexual assault was not being written about in the newspaper.
Joanne looked into it, and found the tip-off to be accurate, but on questioning church authorities, she immediately detected they were lying.
For children, the Newcastle-Maitland region had been a dangerous place for decades. The cover-up of crimes was effective and unrelenting.
But Joanne’s work began unravelling the truth. She would go on to write more than a thousand stories on clergy sex abuse and institutional cover-ups within both the Catholic and Anglican churches.
In 2012, John Pirona, a fireman and victim of clergy sex abuse, disappeared after leaving a note that read “too much pain”. Joanne and the Herald covered the story and later reported on John’s death by suicide.
On the night of John’s funeral, Joanne decided enough was enough and wrote an editorial calling for a royal commission.
Her work, along with that of courageous Lateline journalist Suzanne Smith, led to senior NSW detective Peter Fox deciding to speak out on the issue.
Soon after, then-prime minister Julia Gillard ordered the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In the final moments of her prime ministership, she wrote a letter of endorsement for Joanne’s work in changing Australia forever.
Joanne was awarded Australian journalism’s highest honour, the Gold Walkley.
The reporter who took that phone call 11 years ago is still investigating and writing. She believes there is much work to do in delivering justice to survivors and better protection to children in all states and territories.
Rob Walsh: ‘No more suicides’
The royal commission would not have been possible without the revelations in Ballarat.
In the years preceding the inquiry, Rob Walsh was one of the survivors who helped publicise the consequences of abuse, by working with police to expose a tragically nigh number of suicides in the city.
While dealing with his own acute trauma, he supported others — and still is.
Rob says the Catholic Church and other institutions should pay struggling victims’ ongoing medical costs so they can survive beyond the royal commission.
He says cash payouts are not enough.
“I firmly believe that they should be given rights to disability pensions,” he says. “They would be far better off. People think these guys are after millions and millions of dollars. They’re not.”
Ballarat survivors have endured many days of stressful royal commission public hearings. Some even travelled to Rome for a special sitting.
Listening to stories of abuse and cover-up from dozens of witnesses, including the negligent Bishop Mulkearns and the jailed Ridsdale, caused more suffering through anxiety.
It’s been hard, if we’re talking about the burden. I think the burden is heavier now because we now know more about the abuse, and the cover-up,” Rob says.
According to Rob, the Catholic Church should be forced to help victims of sexually abusive clergy in practical ways.
Exposing a national shame
The key moments that led to one of Australia’s most shocking inquiries.
“I’d like to see this gold card introduced. I’d like to see these victims cared for. And I think they’ve earned the right to be cared for. They’ve earned the respect to be cared for.
“It is a daily battle — I’m not the only victim who would say that. The rent’s still got to be paid. We’ve all got those bills, the gas and electricity bills.”
Survivors’ lawyer Judy Courtin says the trauma is so difficult to deal with on its own, but “to have to deal with the day to day pressures of life makes it a hundred times worse”.
“It’s those day to day responsibilities of bills, health cover, and so on. Not waiting in queues or waiting for months to see a doctor,” she says.
Rob believes the church should use its resources — hospitals and property — to provide health care and accommodation for those in desperate need.
“I think it’d be the Australian thing to do. No more suicides.”
Ken Smith and Ann Barker: The political will
From different sides of politics, Victorian politicians Ken Smith and Ann Barker both sought justice for survivors.
Ken was a member of the Kennett government when he chaired a parliamentary committee that examined child sex offenders.
His work led him to the most forensic examination of clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church ever carried out by Australian politicians.
Harsh findings were made against the church hierarchy, and the evidence moved him so much he wrote in his report, “My life has been deeply marked by the experiences of the past 12 months”.
The horror stories relayed by victims and investigators cry out for an emotional response to the problem.
Ken was shocked and dismayed when only a few of his committee’s 130 recommendations were acted upon.
He says some of his colleagues attacked him verbally for speaking ill of senior church official Monsignor Gerald Cudmore.
Action was not taken against the church. Instead, the Victorian government allowed the church hierarchy to establish its own scheme for paying out survivors.
Former premier Jeff Kennett denies the church influenced his decision, saying he thought it was the best thing to do at the time.
Subsequent governments have refused to override or intervene in the Melbourne Response, despite negative findings from several inquires.
Ken has carried the disappointment of that 1995 experience with him for his entire career.
Labor member for Oakleigh Ann Barker was the first to call for a royal commission in 2012, after travelling to Ireland to learn about its state inquiries.
The Foster family’s story motivated her to see what could be done for victims.
She returned to Australia convinced the nation needed to wrest control of providing justice and child protection from the institutions responsible for the abuse.
Ann praised the work of Justice McClellan and the other commissioners for the way Australia’s inquiry was conducted.
Peter Fox: A policeman’s defining TV interview
An interview with NSW detective Peter Fox by journalist Tony Jones on the ABC’s Lateline program was both powerful and transformative.
In November 2012, Peter put his job on the line to publicly express concerns about child sex crimes and cover-ups within the Catholic Church.
He also made allegations against NSW Police.
A subsequent NSW Special Commission of Inquiry found senior church officials withheld evidence from police.
The inquiry did not find evidence of a conspiracy by police to stall investigations and said Peter had lost objectivity in investigating the church.
But Peter’s courageous appearance motivated the Australian public to start talking about the need for a royal commission, which prime minister Gillard soon ordered.
Peter had been investigating paedophile priests for many years.
He built strong relationships with victims and provided them great comfort.
After acting as whistleblower, his position in NSW Police was untenable; he sacrificed his beloved career to reveal critical details of abuse and institutional interference in the Newcastle-Maitland region.
Before and after the interview, Lateline played a leading role in forcing Australia’s largest national inquiry into child sexual abuse.
For many years, reporter Suzanne Smith led the Lateline investigations.
“We focused very much on the leadership of the church. By elevating their significance on Lateline, we gave the stories a national focus. It also led to many victims, in other states, coming forward,” Suzanne says.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume. 10:3020:56VIDEO: Peter Fox speaks to Lateline about the cover up of sexual abuse(Lateline)
Former executive producer John Bruce says the interview with Peter was the tipping point.
“While there were subsequent attempts to undermine the value of Inspector Fox’s interview, many in the Newcastle and broader Australian community regarded him as a hero for triggering the royal commission,” he says.
In turn, Peter praised the media for its role in bringing about the inquiry.
Over decades, journalists and editors from almost all Australian television networks, news radio programs, major and regional newspapers, as well as online media, have chipped away at institutional denials and evasion.
Without the work of the press, the dark secrets of some churches, governments, charities, schools and other organisations would have remained forever untold.
John Ellis: A survivor finally heard
John Ellis was a key witness in one of the most dramatic royal commission public hearings.
The lawyer says the nation’s largest inquiry into child abuse has made Australia a better place.
“The way that they’ve gone about it has answered every challenge,” he says.
“The selection of commissioners themselves has been inspired. How they’ve dealt with the people … in private sessions, and what they’ve given to those people, is priceless.
“They treat the survivors who are coming to them as dignitaries.”
The royal commission based its protocols for welcoming survivors on a diplomatic services model.
Abused by a Catholic priest as a boy, John famously sued the church for common law damages in 2002.
The Catholic Church’s lawyers were instructed to “vigorously” defend the Church, and defeated his claim in a High Court decision five years later.Sorry, this video has expiredVIDEO: John Ellis on what the child abuse royal commission means to him(ABC News)
The royal commission heard evidence from John, church officials and lawyers. It gave all an insight into the tactics of the church’s legal team.
At the end of the hearing, Cardinal George Pell conceded the church dealt with John unfairly from “a Christian point of view”. The cardinal later issued the survivor an apology.
Looking back at his daunting role in the inquiry, John says, “I had the sense, really, as soon as the royal commission was announced that this was going to be a momentous time in our country”.
“What I didn’t realise was how important it would be for me personally as an individual to finally be listened to the first time.
And to be able to stand up to an institution like the church, I can’t put into words what that’s meant for me.
John and his wife Nicola, also a lawyer, represent many survivors seeking redress for the crimes committed against them.
In 2014, he was awarded the Australian Lawyers Alliance annual Civil Justice Award for “unwavering diligence, passion, vision and resilience”.
He says the Catholic Church still has no uniform approach to survivors seeking justice.
“There are parts of the Catholic Church who have been integral in working towards collaborative processes that we’ve developed,” John says.
“And there have been parts of the Catholic Church who have impeded that and sought to destroy it and break it down. I think I’ll reserve judgement on where that stands on balance.
“I think in a lot of ways it remains to be seen, and particularly after the spotlight of the royal commission is off, the church as a whole … which way it will go with that.”
He doubts the Commonwealth Government’s national redress scheme will achieve all its aims.
“I think it’s a good thing and a necessary thing. And it’s an essential part of the whole response that there be a safety net for the thousands and thousands of people who otherwise would have no avenue to redress, and would have no institution to approach for what had happened to them.
“But as a substitute for proper and effective responses from the institutions, I don’t think that that’s the answer.”
Watch Undeniable on iview.
First posted 12 Dec 2017, 4:39am