This bishop helped the careers of Cardinal George Pell and Father Gerald Ridsdale

By a Broken Rites researcher

Australia’s famous Cardinal George Pell has acknowledged that his early career was helped by a generous mentor — the late Bishop James Patrick O'Collins. Research by Broken Rites has shown that Bishop O’Collins also helped certain other priests — for example, the child-abuse criminal Father Gerald Ridsdale. Pell and Ridsdale eventually became two of the most widely publicised Catholics in Australia. Appropriately, a photograph of Ridsdale and Pell appears in the right-hand column on every page of the Broken Rites website.

When young George Pell and Gerald Ridsdale were growing up in the city of Ballarat, Bishop James O'Collins was in charge of the Catholic Church's Ballarat diocese which extends throughout the western half of the state of Victoria. Pell and Ridsdale were recruited (separately) into the priesthood during Bishop O'Collins's reign.

The rise of George Pell

George Pell was born in the city of Ballarat in the state of Victoria in 1941 (seven years younger than Gerald Ridsdale). In that same year, James O’Collins became the new bishop of the Ballarat Catholic diocese.

Although he never became an archbishop, O'Collins was certainly one of Australia’s most influential Catholic leaders.

O'Collins was a strong supporter of the conservative Catholic layman B.A. Santamaria, who operated a political organisation in Australia called "The Movement". O'Collins was a member of a committee of three bishops who were appointed by the national organisation of bishops to liaise with "Bob" Santamaria on behalf of the church hierarchy.

George Pell did his secondary education at St Patrick's Christian Brothers College in Ballarat, finishing in the late 1950s. He was then sponsored by Bishop O'Collins's diocese to enter the Corpus Christi seminary in Melbourne to train as a priest to serve in the Ballarat diocese.

In 1963 Bishop O'Collins supported a proposal for Pell to do the latter part of his seminary training in Rome. In the late 1960s, O'Collins supported Pell's wish to do academic studies at Oxford University, where Pell gained a doctoral degree in history. Dr Pell then returned to the Ballarat diocese to begin working in parishes as a junior priest.

O'Collins continued to be the bishop of Ballarat until 1971, when he was succeeded by Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. O'Collins then continued living in Ballarat in retirement. In 1980, he was was successfully nominated for a knighthood — as a Knight Commander of the British Empire (K.B.E.).

In 1982, when O'Collins was nearing 90, Dr Pell moved into O'Collins's house in Ballarat, sharing it with the retired bishop. O'Collins died in 1983, by which time Dr Pell was on the brink of his rise as a Catholic Church leader — a career which took him away from Ballarat in the 1980s to become the head of the Melbourne seminary and an auxiliary (assistant) Melbourne bishop. Next, Pell became the archbishop of Melbourne (in 1996) and then the archbishop of Sydney (in 2001) and was given the rank of cardinal.

On 26 February 2007, Cardinal George Pell gave a talk in which he acknowledged that Bishop O'Collins had been a mentor of his. In the talk, which was about "Bob" Sanatamaria and "The Movement", Pell said:

  • "As a Ballarat seminarian and priest for 27 years my first bishop was Sir James Patrick O'Collins, who chaired the Australian Bishops Committee which supervised the Movement. One of the Movement's principal Catholic opponents was Max Charlesworth the philosopher [at the University of Melbourne] and Bishop O’Collins sent me to Oxford in 1967 so I would be able to answer Charlesworth and his friends."

(Broken Rites obtained the above quotation on the website of Cardinal Pell's Sydney Archdiocese but the page later disappeared from that website.)

The remainder of this article will outline Broken Rites research about Bishop O’Collins and how he helped certain other priests.

The rise of Bishop O'Collins

James O'Collins was born in Australia of Irish parents in 1892. After schooling in Melbourne, he worked at manual jobs before entering a seminary as an adult entrant to train for the priesthood.

In 1922, aged 30, he was ordained as a priest and worked in Melbourne parishes (including Yarraville and East Brunswick). In 1930 he was appointed as the Bishop of Geraldton in Western Australia. The town of Geraldton, 424 kilometres north of Perth, is on the coast but the diocese extends eastwards into remote parts of inland Australia.

The Geraldton diocese included the Christian Brothers Agricultural School at Tardun — a "home" for British child migrants — where the Catholic Church has been forced to admit that some boys were sexually abused by Christian Brothers. The Geraldton region also included a significant number of Aboriginal people. The Catholic Church operated some "missions", where Aboriginal children were in a vulnerable position.

There is scope for further research about what O'Collins knew about these problems while he was running the Geraldton diocese.

O'Collins in Victoria

In 1941 O'Collins was appointed as the bishop of Ballarat, a more prestigious diocese in the state of Victoria. His consecration ceremony was conducted in Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral by the powerful Irish-born archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.

The Ballarat diocese covers a larger territory than Victoria's three other diocese. As well as the city of Ballarat, it includes other significant centres such as Mildura and Swan Hill in the north, Horsham in the west and Warrnambool and Colac in the south.

Sex-abuse cover-up

While O’Collins was the bishop of Ballarat (1941-71), a number of priests and religious Brothers were committing sexual crimes against children in this diocese. O'Collins covered up these crimes and an example of this was given in a church document which was discovered by Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission in 2015, According to this document, a Ballarat family complained to Bishop O'Collins in 1961 that the recently-ordained Father Gerald Ridsdale had committed a sexual offence against a boy in this family. According to the church document, O'Collins concealed this crime from the police and allowed Ridsdale to continue in the priesthood, thus facilitating Ridsdale's subsequent crimes against children. When Ridsdale was questioned in the witness box at the 2015 Royal Commission, he acknowledged O'Collins's 1961 cover-up.

Another major child-abuse criminal in the Ballarat diocese was Monsignor John Day, who was promoted by O’Colllins to the second most senior position in the diocese. Therefore, Bishop James O'Collins must be acknowledged as helping the career of Monsignor John Day, as well as helping Father (later Cardinal) George Pell.

Yet another example of a sexually-abusive priest in western Victoria during Bishop O’Collins’s administration was Father Sydney Morey. One of Sid Morey's parishes was Horsham, which had at least four sexually-abusive priests — John Day about 1950, Len Monk about 1959, Sid Morey about 1967 and Gerald Ridsdale in 1986-8.

Further reading

See these Broken Rites articles about the culture of sexual-abuse that flourished in the Ballarat diocese under Bishop O'Collins or his successor, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns (these articles are merely examples):