To serial pedophile Gerald Francis Ridsdale, violating children was “the Lord’s work”.
That’s what he told one of his 53 victims as he assaulted the nine-year-old altar boy.
Ridsdale began befriending, isolating and preying on vulnerable children almost as soon as he was ordained as a priest in 1961.
It was not until 1993 that his atrocities caught up with him, with his first jail stint.
He has remained in jail since 1994 and the 79-year-old is almost certain to die in prison after Victorian County Court Chief Judge Michael Rozenes sentenced him for another eight years on the latest charges on Tuesday.
But while Ridsdale spends his days as an inmate and prison gardener, his legacy of violated children growing into damaged adults continues to ripple through Victoria’s community.
Their suffering was laid bare in Ridsdale’s court appearance in March, as the former priest sat in the dock with his head bowed.
“I trusted you, Gerald Ridsdale. You represented God and all that is good,” one woman said.
“You exploited, manipulated and humiliated me while you hid behind the veil of the church.
“My only hope for you, Gerald Ridsdale, is that you do have some understanding of the misery and damage you have done to me and you’re never released to hurt another child.”
This woman’s life was forever altered when Ridsdale pulled the then-10-year-old her close to him as they sat together in a parked car and said: “You’ll have to kiss (me) better.”
“It’s our special secret,” he told her afterwards.
A bag of boiled lollies or an ice-cream was her pay-off each time she was abused.
“As a child, how could I live in this world that didn’t make sense?” she asked.
Alcoholism, divorce and broken homes feature in the lives of many of the 14 most recent Ridsdale victims to detail their suffering in court.
Another woman forced to sleep a night in Ridsdale’s room, where he kissed her, now struggles to kiss her husband.
“I’m not remembering it, I’m reliving it,” she told the court.
An altar boy abused under the guise of “the Lord’s work” said he became a fully blown alcoholic by age 17.
Another victim was groomed by Ridsdale at age four. He told her she was “God’s little angel” on his regular visits to a relative.
He later raped her in a confessional box, telling her she needed to be punished for her sins.
“I have no recollection in my childhood of ever feeling safe,” she said in her victim statement read to the court.
“I quickly learned the world could be an evil place.”
That Ridsdale was allowed to continue this pattern of abuse for 26 years speaks in part to the fear and shame he instilled in his victims.
But it also points to the attitude of the Catholic Church, which repeatedly moved him to different parishes when confronted with claims of abuse.
The church now regards Ridsdale as one of the worst child sex offenders in Australia’s history, and accepts 67 claims of abuse against him.
But when a parent approached the then-Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns about Ridsdale’s conduct in 1975, the response was to shift him elsewhere.
Ridsdale was sent for counselling and moved from Inglewood to the Parish of Edenhope, in Victoria’s west.
Further complaints were made against him while working at the Mortlake parish in 1981 and he moved to Sydney.
By 1986, he was back in Horsham, in western Victoria. When further issues were raised, his priestly duties were removed.
The church then sent Ridsdale to the US state of New Mexico for what it described as “rehabilitation”.
But perhaps the act that most outraged victims was when Bishop George Pell, the man who would go on to become cardinal and Australia’s most senior Catholic, accompanied Ridsdale to his first court appearance in 1993.
He later admitted it was a mistake to show “priestly solidarity”, as he did not know the extent of Ridsdale’s crimes.
In jailing Ridsdale for 18 years in 1994, Victorian County Court Judge John Dee attacked the church’s role in enabling Ridsdale’s depravity.
“The victims were not given, in my view, any priority by your superiors in the Catholic Church,” Judge Dee told Ridsdale.
“The image and reputation of the church was given first priority over any past victim or potential victim.
“You were given some perfunctory in-house counselling before being shifted off to continue your criminal conduct in other areas.”
Dr Pell has since told the royal commission into child sexual abuse that Australia’s Catholic Church was in the 1990s far ahead of attitudes to abuse held in the Vatican, where complainants were regarded as enemies of the church.
While Dr Pell finds comfort in the historical attitude of the Australian arm of the church, it’s not so for Ridsdale’s victims.
Many of them told the March court hearing of their disenchantment at what they once considered a precious institution.
“He was protected, not us,” one male victim told the court.
“I’m unable to have any faith in them as an organisation,” another victim said.
Another judge, County Court Judge Bill White, also hit out at the Catholic Church for its inaction when sentencing Ridsdale in 2006.
The result was disastrous, catastrophic and tragic, he said.
“A number of suicide attempts and possible actual suicides,” Justice White said.
“Loss of trust in the church and its clergy, loss of faith, mental breakdowns, a number of victims diagnosed with depression, alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder and hospitalisation in mental institutions.
“Your victims, their families, your family, practising Catholics and the church have all suffered.”
(* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14)