BALLARAT, Australia — The sleepy town of Ballarat, some 100 kilometers west of Melbourne, is the hometown of Vatican Cardinal George Pell, who appeared in court in court in Melbourne on Wednesday morning for his first hearing on multiple, “historical sexual offence” charges.
During the gold rush of the 1850s, Ballarat was transformed from a small sheep station to a major town almost overnight.
“Ballarat Bitter, Rich in Malt and Hops,” a massive mural says on the wall of a historic pub, the Royal Oak Hotel, still standing, which Pell’s father owned at one point.
Not far is St Patrick’s College, where Pell studied and excelled at Australian Rules Football, a local rugby-like game. It is also here a memorial reminds the residents of the city’s dark past.
“This reflective garden stands both as a symbol of respect for the bravery of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and their families, and for the College’s deep remorse for the pain and suffering inflicted upon the Ballarat community,” a plaque in front of the school reads.
It was unveiled last month with St Patrick’s principal John Crowley making a public apology to all the abuse victims.
Paul William, 50, has seen the city gripped with the controversy of child sexual abuse scandals from the past for many years.
“Many times people don’t talk about it, but it’s always there. The town has been dogged with the scandal, and so publicly and for so many years, now you just can’t escape it,” he says.
He says he hopes the city will finally get to “breathe respite after Pell’s case goes to court.”
“But people are very divided in opinion about him,” he told dpa.
“For those who know the victims of child sexual abuse and their families they feel they are finally close to some justice.”
“Some others think it’s a witch hunt against a favourite Ballarat son, especially the Catholics. Others think that it is the right thing to do, and if he is innocent, the court will prove him so.”
Phil Nagle, 53, went to St Alipius and then to St Patrick’s in Ballarat, both are at the centre of the sexual abuse scandal.
“You had a lot of them in one place at one time. Looking back, it seems to me they were operating a paedophile ring,” he says.
“I think those guys had some 300 sexual abuse charges between them from those … years.”
Nagle is one of the most vocal among the survivors. Twelve of his classmates have committed suicide, most likely due to abuse.
For him, Ballarat was a scary place growing up, where he was sexually abused in school from Year 5 onwards.
“But none of us talked about the abuse because we did not know what was happening. For me, I thought it was for something wrong I had done, but did not know what it was,” he says.
The town came to grips with the situation only after some of the public cases went to court in the 1990s and “especially after it was reported how many people had committed suicide,” he says.
Stephen Wood, 56, is one of them. Diagnosed clinically depressed, he has tried to hurt himself many times in the past, including earlier this year, he says.
At least seven or eight people from his class at St Patrick’s “committed suicide or had premature unnatural deaths,” he says.
“The church leaders just don’t get it. This legacy has completely destroyed the city and traumatized a large population,” says Wood, who went to St Patrick’s after finishing at St Alipius a few years before Nagle.