Trigger warning: This post deals with child sexual abuse.
As 81 year old Gerald Ridsdale shuffles towards the witness box, he looks like an unremarkable old man. He gums his words. He is forgetful. His head is bald and peppered with age spots.
He could be your great uncle, your grandfather, a neighbour. You wouldn’t look at him twice if you saw him buying a newspaper at the shops.
As he gives evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, Ridsdale speaks gently, openly and apparently with sorrow and regret about his crimes.
But make no mistake: This is what a monster looks like.
This kindly, droopy, age-spotted face is the face of pure evil.
It is the face of a man who systematically sexually preyed on children as young as four, for over 30 years. Ridsdale has confessed to abusing 50 children, but admits that number is more likely in the hundreds.
Like so many monsters, Ridsdale the paedophile may have been a creature who was created, not born. He has said that he himself was sexually abused as a child. First, by a cousin. Then, by an uncle. Later, by a Christian brother.
His vile urges flourished at the seminary, where he says he knew his sexual attraction to children was wrong (he also indulged in frequent masturbating, which he confessed to a priest and was warned about). It was here that he honed his technique for stalking victims: seeking out poor families without a father and insinuating himself into their lives. He was a trainee priest when he first sexually assaulted a child, at a camp for disadvantaged children.
The Inquiry was told that this was his “pattern”: “[He would] develop close relationships with the children, which then merged into the sexual in the context of a variety of opportunities within the presbytery, on various outings and camps, et cetera.”Church properties were the home of at least some of his offending. On one occasion he thinks that another priest was in the room while he assaulted a child in his bed. He can’t recall who that priest might have been, but there were apparently only a handful of other priests living with him at the relevant time.
Ridsdale says that he always craved comfort, and has a “vague recollection” of sleeping close to and cuddling his first victim back in the 1960s. “It seemed to be just a need for intimacy, hugging and closeness,” he told investigators from the church’s insurance company. “I think I have always felt the need for closeness,” he told the Commission.
But he never hankered for that closeness with adults – it was sexual intimacy with young boys he craved. The only time he sought that comfort and closeness with an adult was a three-year relationship he had while in prison with another prisoner.