Survivors of sexual abuse by some members of the Catholic clergy in Ballarat say the region’s suicide rate is “through the roof”, in part because of the area’s toxic legacy of child molestation.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse will move to the regional Victorian city for hearings tomorrow.
Ballarat was one of the most horrific sites of abuse and it was revealed that in 1971 all the male teachers and the chaplain at the St Alipius primary school were molesting children.
One of Australia’s most notorious paedophiles, Father Gerald Ridsdale, will give live evidence to the commission via video link from prison, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for the rape and abuse of children, some of them as young as four.
Peter Blenkiron is one of the prominent campaigners for justice and redress for victims of abuse by the Catholic Church clergy.
He said suicide was an epidemic in the Ballarat region.
"The suicide rate in Ballarat is through the roof, not just from clergy abuse but because it's socially acceptable to take your own life if you get to a tough spot in life," he said.
"Most people I know know at least half a dozen people who have committed suicide, let alone the premature deaths where people have drunk themselves to death.
"It is not a ripple effect, it's an atomic bomb that's gone off in Ballarat.
"Ballarat has got this hidden trauma and landscape of death about it. I believe the suicide rate is higher than the road toll and we don't hear about it. We have to stop that."
The ABC's Lateline was granted access to a Ballarat support group for victims of sexual and physical abuse.
While not all were victims of abuse by Catholic clergy, most of the middle-aged men there were.
One member of the group, named Tim, said knowing he was not alone in his experiences saved his life.
"If this group wasn't here I'd be out on my lonesome again and probably would be contemplating suicide again - and it's not a good place to be," he said.
Tim returned to Ballarat six years ago and was shocked at the effect the abuse had on the community.
"I'm not a real sociable person but I've got five friends who are no longer with us and know another three people who have been abused," he said.
The group's manager Shireen Gunn believes the royal commission hearings will prompt more people to come out and speak about their abuse for the first time.
"Some of them have come to the group at a time when they're feeling really desperate and just by chance they've come across one of our pamphlets and they've taken a chance," she said.
"[They] come along feeling very anxious, but as soon as they walk in and see these other men who've been through a similar experience and after thinking they were the only ones, being able to make the links has saved a lot of lives."
Last month the Federal Government declined to commit to a national single redress scheme for victims of abuse, saying it would be too costly and involve significant time and resources.
The royal commission had estimated such a scheme would cost more than $4 billion and have at least 65,000 people claiming.
The Government's decision angered Ballarat abuse victim Andrew Collins.
"If there were a whole heap of senior Government workers that are taking their own lives, there would be instant action," he said.
"They wouldn't have to stand up and fight for recognition. They wouldn't have to stand up and fight - it would just happen. Here we are standing up and fighting and what are our lives worth?
"The longer the Government waits to put forward some sort of redress scheme, more lives will be lost. It sends the message out that our lives aren't worth anything."
Another member of the men's group, Dan, agreed.
"I don't understand where the Government's coming from because denial is just unbelievable," he said.
"I've come out three-and-a-half years ago with my abuse ... this battle has been ongoing for many, many years."
But survivors like Mr Blenkiron clung to the hope the Government would change its mind and things would turn a corner in Ballarat.
"There is a lot of dark and a lot of horrific stuff that is making people still kill themselves," he said.
"We're at the ashes, and the phoenix has to rise from the ashes. Otherwise it's all just a waste of time and a waste of breath."