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'Australia Has Changed': Church Abuse Survivors Share Their Stories

Warning: This story discusses child sex abuse.

Stephen Woods is still "furious" about what happened to him.

The Victorian man, a survivor of abuse at the hands of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale and other clergy members, remembers in horrific detail what happened to him as a boy in Ballarat.

After being molested by Catholic brothers as a pre-teen, Woods told 10 daily he went to seek the guidance of a priest.

"They put me on to Father Ridsdale. It was like getting out of the frying pan and into the fire. Within half an hour, he was raping me," he said.

READ MORE: Cardinal George Pell Found Guilty Of Child Sexual Abuse

READ MORE: Can The Church Survive Pell's 'Catastrophic' Sex Abuse Conviction?

The repeated incidents had a "catastrophic" effect on Woods' life, leading to him dropping out of school, and lasting effects well into adulthood. It wasn't until he was 32 years of age, after Ridsdale's other despicable crimes were revealed, that he realised what had happened to him was abuse.

He also found out two of his brothers had been molested in the church.

George Pell with Gerald Ridsdale

"My mother said Ridsdale had been convicted, and she asked me about it," Woods told 10 daily.

"I’ll never forget it. She asked 'did he molest you?' As soon as she said the word, it was like in an Indiana Jones movie, where the doors open and the treasure was behind. That's what it was like in my mind, that's when I understood all this stuff that happened to me was assault."

His encounters with Ridsdale, Australia's worst paedophile priest, who remains in jail on dozens of sex offences committed while in the clergy, are why Woods was "happy" on Tuesday -- as the conviction of Catholic Cardinal George Pell was revealed.

Pell infamously accompanied Ridsdale, his former housemate while both were priests in Ballarat, to court in 1993 -- a decision the cardinal later said was a "mistake".

Gerald Francis Ridsdale giving evidence during the child sex abuse royal commission's Ballarat inquiry. (AAP Image/ Royal Commission)

In 2016, during the Royal Commission into child abuse, Pell said Ridsdale's offending "was a sad story and wasn't of much interest to me" -- comments he later tried to excuse by admitting they were "badly expressed" words he had said when he was "very confused".

READ MORE: The Cardinal's Legacy: Crime And Cover-Up

READ MORE: Australian Media No Longer Gagged, Details Of Pell Abuse Revealed

Woods, and other church abuse survivors told 10 daily in recent days of what they thought about news of Pell's conviction -- described as "the worst kept secret in Australia,"--  revealed this week after the lifting of a suppression order.

"Tuesday was a full-on day for me," Woods said.

"I heard about it last year. I was amazed, I was shocked, was happy, and I was really surprised. I knew the implications of this, that this person had worked his way up through the church, and at every point had put himself forward as the representative and the authority figure for the church in Australia."

"Even in Ballarat as kids, my parents knew his parents and we saw him around, he always had this air of having somewhere else to be because he was important."

Pell outside court in Melbourne in May 2018. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Woods spoke of the "arrogance" of Pell to support Ridsdale.

"I knew one day he [Pell] would get his comeuppance. I knew he would fall. In one way I wasn't surprised, but in another way I was shocked," he said.

Other survivors told of similar shock.

"I was stunned. I had to take a Valium," a survivor of abuse known as Shan told 10 daily.

The Brisbane-based woman said she welcomed the verdict, saying she hoped he dies in jail -- but that the news of Pell's conviction, with blanket media coverage all week, may have further traumatising effects on abuse survivors.

"I've been looking at abuse survivors pages on social media, this has triggered so many people and they've broken down," she said.

"People are having a panic attack. I wasn't expecting it."

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Pell at the Vatican in 2015. Image: AAP

Mark Fabbro, a victim advocate and survivor of abuse as a Catholic college in Melbourne, said he hoped the conviction would shock the church into action -- but wasn't holding his breath.

"I’m looking at a lot of Catholics who must be devastated by this and doing a lot of soul searching, asking how a man of this nature climb to the top of this institution from which they search for and gain their moral and spiritual guidance," he told 10 daily.

Fabbro said he was left "dumbfounded" by the verdict -- "I didn't feel particularly any joy or satisfaction" -- and said it should spur wholesale change, but that he didn't feel any confidence that the institution would alter itself in any meaningful way.

Cardinal Pell arrives at court in 2018. Image : Getty Images

"There’s an argument for the church to be stripped of privileges and government funding," he said bluntly.

"I’m not excited, I’m not devastated. But this goes to the fundamental belief and moral structures of our society."

"The Vatican should be sold off or turned into a museum... But  I doubt anything  is going to change the church."

Others were more positive.

"Survivors are over the moon. What we’re hoping is this gives other survivors the strength they need to come forward," Steve Fisher, a child abuse survivor and spokesperson for advocacy group Beyond Abuse, told 10 daily.

Woods said the Pell verdict was an important symbol for abuse survivors, echoing the words of other victim advocates who said the judgement -- against one of the most powerful Catholics in the world -- may help give survivors the strength needed to reveal their experiences.

"It shows society in Australia has changed. The church's position has absolutely plummeted. Their authority has been undermined and destroyed," he said.

"They need to come to huge paradigm shifts of thinking, to enable themselves to continue as a church. It will take generations to recover from this. Young kids don't put up with bullshit. Older generations grew up with this authority in the church as absolute, but the younger generation haven't had this. Survivors of abuse will be heard and listened to."

"The Catholic church has destroyed the one thing they could not afford to lose, the credibility of their parishioners."

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