How the church helped this criminal priest, Father Ron Pickering

By a Broken Rites researcher

The Melbourne Catholic archdiocese protected Father Ronald Pickering for many years while he committed crimes against children in his parishes. Eventually he fled from Australia, evading justice. The Melbourne archdiocese then began sending retirement payments to Pickering at his new address in England. The Pickering cover-up was eventually exposed in the media by Broken Rites.

When Broken Rites established its Australia-wide telephone hotline in 1993, one of the first calls received was from a victim of Father Pickering. Broken Rites told this caller (and also subsequent callers) about strategies for obtaining justice. Pickering heard, through church sources, that one of his victims was on the warpath. This is why Pickering fled to England in May 1993.

The Melbourne archdiocese knew Pickering's forwarding address in England (care of one of Pickering's sisters, living in Margate, Kent), and they began providing him with his retirement benefits. However, the archdiocese did not give Pickering's new address to the police.

In subsequent years, more complaints about Pickering reached Broken Rites and the Melbourne archdiocese.

These victims were from various parishes and did not know each other.

The Melbourne archdiocese did not advise any of these victims to contact the police. Instead, from late-1996 onwards, the archdiocese offered victims a small financial settlement on condition that the victims kept the matter confidential. The archdiocese's attitude was that the complainants had a "legal right" to contact the police but this would be a waste of time as Pickering has fled and "the police don’t know his address".

Background

Ronald Dennis Pickering was born in Britain about 1927. Originally an Anglican, he became ordained as a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1957. He ministered at the following Melbourne suburban parishes: St Theresa's in Essendon (1958-65);St Mary's in East St Kilda (1966-68); Sacred Heart in Warburton (1969-72); St Peter's in Clayton (1973-78); St James's in Gardenvale/Brighton (1978-93).

In statements made to Broken Rites and the police, victims said Pickereing encouraged boys to engage in furtive, "illicit" behaviour — smoking, drinking, pornography and sex. Some Pickering victims went on to other forms of misbehaviour and rebelliousness, culminating in drug-taking and suicide attempts. This shattered whole families.

Victims say that Father Ron Pickering hovered around altar boys, choir boys and parish-school boys. He lured victims to his bedroom with promises of watching television or videos or receiving pocket money for altar-serving or doing odd jobs. He continually talked about sex.

He would often encourage boys to consume alcohol in an attempt to get them drunk before abusing them. He would often have a boy staying with him overnight, even sharing his bed. He also took boys away with him on weekend trips, where he abused them. In a typical scenario, Pickering would wrestle with a boy on the bed, tickle the boy’s stomach and then engage in sexual activity.

Pickering prospered financially while in the priesthood. He acquired a number of residential investment properties in various parts of Australia, which brought him rental income as well as capital growth. He was a heavy smoker and drinker and was a big spender on cars and clothes and on gifts for boys. It is believed that some of Pickering’s fortune resulted from him prompting elderly parishioners to remember him in their will.

Pickering presented himself as a conservative. He supported advocates of the Latin Mass. He sprouted much in public about "spirituality".

Despite his own sexual activities, Pickering would preach against promiscuity in the community. He supported the Catholic conservative “Right to Life” organisation. He was also believed to be sympathetic towards the Catholic ultra-conservative Opus Dei movement.

Pickering claimed to have a Master of Arts degree from Oxford University, although Broken Rites has been unable to find proof of this claim. In Australia, he took an interest in Catholic teachers’ colleges. He mixed socially with some of Australia’s most prominent clerics. These clerics knew about Pickering’s sex-abuse but Pickering, in turn, knew secrets about certain colleagues. So everyone remained silent.

In 1993, one Pickering victim began making inquiries about Pickering at the archdiocesan office and in Pickering’s parishes. Therefore, Pickering fled to England.

One Pickering victim, "Mike", later told Broken Rites:

"Certain prominent Catholic clerics were relieved to see Pickering escape from Australia — because of what he knew about them. And Pickering's escape meant that there would not be a messy criminal court case with the church being embarrassed by yet another Catholic priest going to jail for his crimes.

"Negligently, the church did not bother to inform Pickering's former parishioners why he had fled. It did not bother to find out how many families had been affected. This cover-up prolonged the suffering of Pickering's victims and their families."

Mike’s story

"Mike" (born in late 1954) told Broken Rites that he was an 11-year-old altar boy at Melbourne's East St Kilda parish, when Pickering befriended him in 1966. Mike respected Pickering as a father figure, as the boy’s own father had died three years earlier.

Pickering began paying pocket money to Mike to wash the priest's car or assist at weddings, baptisms, funerals and Masses. Pickering would pay the money in his bedroom where sexual abuse would occur.

At age 13 or 14, Mike revealed the abuse in confession to a priest at a neighbouring parish — Father Wilfred Baker at St Colman’s, Balaclava. Contrary to myths about the “secrecy of the confessional”, Fr Baker later mentioned to Pickering what Mike said in confession. Baker’s remarks to Pickering were made in a sleazy “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” manner. Later Pickering reprimanded Mike for revealing the sexual abuse (even in confession!).

[Father Bill Baker was jailed in June, 1999, after pleading guilty to child-sex offences spanning almost 20 years from 1960. So Mike is lucky that he was not sexually abused also by Billy Baker.]

One of Pickering’s colleagues in the East St Kilda parish in 1968 was Father Desmond Gannon, who in 1995 was jailed for a year for indecently assaulting boys at his various parishes in the 1960s and ‘70s. Luckily, Mike escaped being abused by Des Gannon.

Mike says Pickering’s abuse damaged his former value system and his trust in authority. He has managed to repair his damaged life — by his own efforts. He is now married, with children.

Tom’s story

Tom (born 1963) told Broken Rites that he was befriended by Pickering at the Gardenvale parish in 1978-9 while he was a student at Melbourne’s Xavier College, aged 14-15.

Tom was one of a group of boys who would visit Pickering at the parish house, climbing a balcony to reach Pickering's bedroom. Pickering gave them wine to drink. On one occasion, Tom became so drunk that he vomited in Pickering's office.

After the first sexual assault, Pickering ordered Tom to keep it secret.

Tom says that originally he was a top student at school. But, post-Pickering, his schoolwork suffered and he afterwards worked in menial jobs.

After Pickering, Tom had 20 years of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, bouts of anger and difficulty in maintaining personal relationships. Finally, in his early 30s, a psychologist helped him see the impact of Pickering’s abuse. Then he phoned Broken Rites and contacted the police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Unit.

Matthew’s story

Broken Rites was also contacted by a Melbourne woman, Rosemary. She said her son Mathew became an altar boy and choir boy under Pickering at the Gardenvale parish from 1979, aged nine, and remained associated with Pickering into his mid-teens. When Matthew was 14, his mother learned that boys climbed a ladder to Pickering's bedroom. Matthew told Rosemary that the ladder was so that the boys would not disturb the housekeeper.

Rosemary says Matthew’s was originally a lovely boy but, during his association with Pickering, he became rebellious. Matthew died from a heroin overdose in 1992, aged 22, and Rosemary finally realised the impact of the Pickering influence.

Rosemary said another Pickering choir boy had died of a drug overdose a year before Matthew and a third had attempted suicide and was receiving psychiatric care. Others led troubled lives. Rosemary believes they may also have been victims of Pickering.

Rosemary has learned that other Gardenvale families complained to the church authorities about Pickering while he was there but they were ignored.

In a letter to Rosemary, in November 2001, archdiocesan sex-abuse commissioner Peter O'Callaghan, QC, admitted that Pickering "had a proclivity for child abuse" and that Rosemary’s "suspicions that Matthew was a victim of Pickering are well justified".

Further developments

In 2002, Broken Rites was having discussions with investigative journalists at Melbourne’s Sunday Age about church sexual abuse. Consequently, on 24 March 2002, the paper exposed Pickering and the church’s protection of him.

The Sunday Age story forced the church to make admissions. The new archbishop, Denis Hart, issued a statement (dated 25 March 2002), acknowledging that Father Ronald Pickering had left the Gardenvale parish in late May 1993 "without warning or notice" and had gone to England. The statement also said that the church sex-abuse commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan, Q.C., had upheld complaints from victims about being sexually abused by Pickering.

A Gardenvale parishioner later told the Sunday Age that, five years after Pickering fled, the church published an appeal for donations to help retired priests, including (the church said) Father Pickering.

Another parishioner told the Sunday Age that Pickering gave a sermon in the early 1990s urging people with complaints about the church or members of the clergy to tell a priest, not the police.

Melbourne priest Father Michael Shadbolt wrote to the Sunday Age, admitting that the case against Pickering was “powerful”, although Pickering had not been brought before a court of law. (Yes, Father Shadbolt - lots of priests have managed to evade being brought before a court of law.)

After the Sunday Age exposure, Broken Rites received further calls from males telling us of their dealings with Father Ron Pickering in their school days.

Pickering in Britain

After he fled to Britain, Pickering changed his surname. It is believed that he adopted his mother's birth surname (possibly Drake). A source in Britain has told Broken Rites: "In Britain, Pickering moved house several times (one of his addresses was in Lincoln). In Britain, he attended Mass and maintained an altar in his house, demonstrating that he was a holy person."

A Pickering victim in Australia, however, has told Broken Rites: "The altar in Pickering's house was always to show his visitors that he claimed to be a holy man. I am sure it was all just for show. I am not even sure if he believed what he said in church on Sundays.  In my presence in Australia, he was blasphemous toward the Virgin Mary et cetera.

"Pickering possessed wealth. Much of this came from little old ladies who left him property in their wills. He would spin a line to them, telling them how he had no family or money for his retirement and he needed a house to live in (that is, your house)."

Pickering died in Britain in 2009 and was buried there.

In Australia, Father Ronald Pickering was a friend and mentor of Father Paul David Ryan, who was jailed in Australia in September 2006 for indecently assaulting boys. Broken Rites understands, that after Ron Pickering fled to Britain, Ryan visited him there. For the full story of Father Paul David Ryan (including a mention of Father Ronald Pickering), see the Broken Rites article entitled "Church kept an abusive priest - and one victim committed suicide".

A victim speaks to the government

In 2013, Pickering's name came up at Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations. A victim (named Raymond) told the inquiry how Pickering had preyed on young boys at St James Church in Gardenvale/Brighton in the late 1970s and 80s.

Ray told the inquiry that as a choir and altar boy aged between 9 and 13, he was regularly abused by Pickering from 1979.

"He groomed me by giving me cigarettes, money and alcohol," Ray said.

"Over this four-year period I am aware that two other boys were also sexually abused by Father Ronald Pickering.

"I was regularly fondled and petted by Pickering, as were other boys.

"This occurred within the change rooms of the church and within the presbytery.

"I began smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol with Pickering from the age of nine and on many occasions passed out from consuming the alcohol, which left me vulnerable to such abuse."

Ray also told the inquiry that another boy, who was abused by Pickering, died after Pickering gave him money for drugs.

"Around 1987 to 1988 I lost contact with one of the boys who was abused at [St James], but I was aware that he was still getting money from Pickering and was now using it to purchase heroin," he said.

"I would later learn that this boy died from a heroin overdose in 1992."

  • This background article, by a Broken Rites researcher, was updated on 1 December 2015.