The bishop who failed to take action against Australia’s worst pedophile priest has been ordered to give court evidence next week, paving the way for him to face the child sex abuse royal commission.
Former bishop Ronald Mulkearns has for years avoided scrutiny over his alleged failure to curb systemic sex offending among his clergy in the west Victorian diocese of Ballarat, where the Catholic Church’s worst crimes were committed.
After having a stroke in 1998, Father Mulkearns avoided the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse in institutions, citing ill health, and had appeared unlikely to attend the royal commission into institutional responses.
The Geelong Magistrates Court yesterday ordered Father Mulkearns to give evidence next week in the case of former priest Robert Claffey, who is charged with historical sex offences.
Father Mulkearns was the bishop overseeing Gerald Ridsdale when he allegedly abused possibly hundreds of children in the Ballarat diocese and shuffled him from parish to parish, as well as to Sydney, where he offended further.
The Geelong court heard yesterday the father of one of Mr Claffey’s alleged victims notified Father Mulkearns of the abuse.
David Grace QC, for Father Mulkearns, said his client had “no recollection whatsoever” of any conversation with the alleged victim’s father or anything about the incident.
He said he expected that, if Father Mulkearns was called to give evidence, he would only be able to say that he did not recall the conversation.
Father Mulkearns avoided giving evidence to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child abuse by religious and other organisations on the grounds a stroke had diminished his mental capacity.
Doctor Nathaniel Popp examined Father Mulkearns in 2013 prior to him receiving a summons from the inquiry and reported on issues of competence, mental recall and false memories. The Geelong Magistrates Court heard yesterday a differing report from clinical neuropsychologist Martin Jackson.
Dr Popp told the court the 2013 assessment showed false positives, with Father Mulkearns reporting having seen or heard information when he hadn’t. He said his more recent assessment as part of Mr Claffey’s case also produced false positives. He said Father Mulkearns reported no recollection of the conversation regarding the accusation against Mr Claffey and said there was a possibility of false positives if questioned under oath on the matter.
Mr Jackson said he gave Father Mulkearns a range of tasks that presented ample opportunities to produce false memories but it did not occur.
“Not only did he not produce false intrusions, his recognitions were perfect,” Mr Jackson said.
He said Father Mulkearns achieved scores of 30 out of 30 and 50 out of 50 on the recognition memory tests.
Mr Jackson said that while Father Mulkearns’ mental faculties had declined since his stroke in 1998, his estimated capacity before the stroke was estimated to have been in the top 10 per cent and now it would be in the “average range”. “He’s gone from being superior in a number of areas to average in a number of areas,” he said.
Dr Popp said Father Mulkearns was not “the same man he once was”.
He said while production of false memories was always possible for people trying to recall events 30 or 40 years later, it would be more likely in Father Mulkearns’ case.
Prosecutor Jeremy McWilliams said that if Father Mulkearns was asked to give evidence on oath, “justice will have been seen” to have been done on the face of it.
He said on prima facie, the information that Father Mulkearns had was “highly relevant”.
Magistrate John Lesser made an order for Father Mulkearns to give evidence in a compulsory examination next week before Mr Claffey’s committal. He said appropriate assistance for Father Mulkearns could be provided.
Victim advocate Wayne Chamley from Broken Rites said Father Mulkearns had thus far managed to avoid giving evidence under oath on the supposed basis of poor health.
“Several parties wondered whether that assessment was correct. There was no medical assessment of his true state,” Dr Chamley said. “He was seen out and about, he was still driving, he was still receiving visitors.
“The fact that he’s now being required to take the stand is a good development.”
Dr Chamley said it was now almost certain Father Mulkearns would be required to give evidence when the royal commission returns to Ballarat later this year.
Father Mulkearns was the bishop of Ballarat between 1971 and 1997. In 1975 he was told of Ridsdale’s offending at Inglewood, near Bendigo, and responded by sending him to Melbourne for counselling before placing him back in a parish. Ridsdale told the royal commission in May he continued to offend in Victoria’s far west, including in the parish of Mortlake where Father Mulkearns was again informed.
Father Mulkearns then sent Ridsdale to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney where he again abused children.