A bishop in charge during one of Australia’s darkest periods of child abuse by Catholic clergy died Monday, depriving an inquiry of further evidence from a man once closely linked to Vatican finance chief George Pell.
Ronald Mulkearns, the bishop of Ballarat in the state of Victoria between 1971 and 1997, died from cancer aged 85, the church said.
A Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard in February that he knew that notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale and others were sexually abusing children in his diocese.
Rather than inform authorities, he moved them between parishes, where they continued to offend.
Ridsdale, who once shared a home with Pell, was eventually convicted of more than 100 charges of sexual abuse against children.
Last month Pell, who grew up and worked in Ballarat, appeared before the inquiry via videolink from Rome and was adamant he knew nothing about Ridsdale’s offending despite being an adviser to Mulkearns from 1977.
He accused Mulkearns of “a gross deception” by failing to tell him what was going on.
Mulkearns, who apologised this year for the way he handled complaints of abuse, was expected to be recalled to give further evidence to the commission following Pell’s appearance.
In a statement, the Catholic Church said Mulkearns was a dedicated priest.
“At the same time, Bishop Mulkearns himself acknowledged that he had made some tragic mistakes during his time as bishop,” it said.
“His death means the Royal Commission and survivors will not be able to hear any further evidence that he might have given and this will be a disappointment to them.”
One Ballarat child sexual abuse victim, Andrew Collins, said the Catholic Church’s response to his death would indicate where they stand on abuse.
“If they have a massive funeral and basically honour him, we would be very disappointed because obviously I don’t think he was someone who should be honoured,” he told national radio.
“Unfortunately he won’t be remembered as a great man, he will be remembered as the man who essentially covered up and facilitated the abuses of children in the Ballarat diocese.”
Australia ordered the Royal Commission in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of paedophilia across the country. It has heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, community, sports and youth groups and schools.
On Monday it opened hearings into allegations of abuse at sporting clubs and institutions.