“Rob Walsh was outside Melbourne Magistrates’ Court recently awaiting a pretrial hearing for Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking official, when, he said, he unexpectedly walked into the cardinal himself.
The encounter wasn’t their first. They both were raised in the same old mining town, which could be why the cardinal extended his hand, inviting Mr. Walsh to shake it. Mr. Walsh declined — a gesture that signified the lasting impact of a decades-long sexual abuse scandal that has rocked this town, Ballarat, and sent shock waves around the world.
“The ripple is still on the lake and it’s still occurring,” Mr. Walsh said from his home in Ballarat, referring to the lingering effects from that scandal, in which priests preyed on children, including Mr. Walsh, during the 1960s and 1970s.
“It’s gone through families and generations.”
This town, officially a city of about 100,000 people, was once the center of Australia’s gold rush, but is now better known as the epicenter of that pedophile ring, in which Catholic clergy preyed on those who depended on them the most — children from Ballarat’s poor, blue-collar neighborhoods.
The scale of the abuse in Ballarat was staggering. Gerald Ridsdale, the former chaplain of St. Alipius Primary School in Ballarat, was imprisoned for sexually abusing 65 children from the early 1960s to late 1980s. He was only one of several priests convicted of abusing children.
About 45 victims were estimated to have committed suicide, prompting an outpouring of grief from once devout Catholic parents who said the church robbed them of their sons.
Today, survivors speak of broken marriages, children being raised without fathers, lives spent in a haze of drugs and alcohol or in and out of institutional care.
What happened here is often likened to a big black cloud hanging over the city that has never fully lifted.
“It’s a never-ending story,” said Mr. Walsh, whose two brothers and cousin were also abused at St. Alipius Primary School. In the years that followed, all three committed suicide.
“It just keeps going and going and going,” added Mr. Walsh, who has not alleged that Mr. Pell abused him.
Survivors in Ballarat remained silent for decades. The city has, until recently, prided itself on being a conservative community in which the Catholic Church was held in high regard. Some victims felt trapped — worried their families wouldn’t believe them. Others feared the church’s dominance here.
On the road into the city from Melbourne, the state capital, the red brick Gothic-like presbytery of St. Alipius immediately stands out. Further into town, ornate churches have an imposing presence on many main streets.
The Ballarat Diocese, one of the largest Catholic dioceses in Australia, is a major power center. With its property and other assets, the Catholic Church’s holdings in and around Ballarat are estimated to be worth more than 175 million Australian dollars, or about $135 million, according to news reports.
Many of the city’s Catholic families were descendants of poor Irish immigrants, most of whom were Catholic and came to Ballarat in the 1800s to work in its gold mines. Far from the mansions in other parts of town, they tended to gather in the working-class area of East Ballarat, seeking community in churches like St. Alipius after the mining industry slowed in the early 1900s.
East Ballarat “was really left over from the gold rush days,” said Maureen Hatcher, who has lived in Ballarat most of her life. “There would have been a lot of people that would have come here that were incredibly poor and never made any money but thought they would.”
Pubs have also played a major role in Ballarat life since the gold rush, say historians. And though they have dwindled in number, some residents said they have contributed to the malaise of alcoholism and depression that still lingers.
The abuse was particularly damaging because, without the basic social services prevalent today, residents of East Ballarat relied on the church for support, to serve as a bedrock for their community.
Ultimately, the priests betrayed those they were supposed to protect, say the victims.
“This community has been ravaged by the Catholic Church,” said Stephen Woods, who was abused as a child starting in the 1970s.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the dam finally broke, said Mr. Woods, whose abuse took place at St. Alipius, and later at the nearby St. Patrick’s College, a Catholic day and boarding school.
He publicly revealed his abuse in 1994 and was among those who led the way for others to share their truths.
But he added that it was the Loud Fence movement, which began about three years ago, that finally gave this community a voice to speak about its dark past.
The movement began as thousands of residents and people from across Australia began hanging colorful ribbons on the fence outside St. Alipius and St. Patrick’s to show support for the victims.
Ms. Hatcher, the movement’s founder, said though ribbons had at times been stripped from the fences by parishioners, they tied people together and now served as a symbol of speaking out against abuse.
“There are more ribbons on the fence now than there was before,” said Frank Sheehan, a former state lawmaker from Ballarat.
Finding its voice has helped Ballarat become something even more. Just as the rush to find gold transformed Ballarat from a small sheep station into a major mining settlement, the new willingness to speak out about the abuse scandal has turned Ballarat from a closed, conservative former mining town and industrial city into a more tolerant and inclusive community.
Belinda Coates, the city’s former deputy mayor, said she had seen a shift, with many major organizations here now choosing female leaders.
Ballarat is the first city in Australia to join the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Network, a statement of intent to become a more culturally diverse and welcoming community, as also seen in Ballarat’s acceptance of a growing number of new immigrants from countries including Sudan and Afghanistan.
“There’s a bit of a quiet revolution going on in Ballarat,” Ms. Coates said.
“When you start to challenge the status quo, it ripples out into the community,” she added. “More people are finding their voices.”
But this transformation is in large part because of a great tragedy. Residents and former victims hope an impending court decision on May 1 on whether Cardinal Pell should stand trial for “historical sexual offenses” will help Ballarat find some closure.
“We’re all waiting on a decision,” said Mr. Walsh, who refused to shake the cardinal’s hand on the street. “The Catholic Church has just really got to change. It’s as simple as that.””