An Australian cop forced out for probing priest sexual abuse gets his pension — nearly 50 years later
By Meagan Flynn
May 07, 2018
|Denis Ryan, now 86, still living in Victoria. |
Denis Ryan spent more than half his life waiting for someone to listen.
Nearly 50 years ago, when he was a detective on the police force in Victoria, Australia, he tried to tell his superiors that a prominent priest, Monsignor John Day, was sexually assaulting and molesting altar boys and Catholic school girls. Ryan had interviewed 12 alleged victims by 1972, taking statements from all of them.
But Ryan’s superiors — devout Catholics, some of whom were close to Day — didn’t want to hear it, according to a 2017 report.
The superintendent of police told Ryan to drop the investigation, the report said. A top inspector recommended no charges be filed. Day, who was never charged, denied the allegations and was transferred from his post in the town of Mildura and became a priest at another parish far away in Victoria, where he died in 1978.
Ryan resigned, effectively forced out of his job because he wouldn’t stop investigating, the report said. He lost his pension and his benefits, as well as his pay, and became a fruit packer.
Ryan’s findings would remain stowed away in the police archives for the next 45 years.
In 2017, the final report of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse opened them back up. It found a much broader “national tragedy.” “Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused,” it said, in “almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities. … It is not a case of a few ‘rotten apples.’ Society’s major institutions have seriously failed.”
Ryan is now 86, living off his state-sponsored old age pension, the equivalent of Social Security.
And on Sunday, the Victorian state government announced that it would try to make him whole, compensating him for his losses in 1972.
Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, called Ryan a “hero.” He also apologized for the actions of the police decades ago and said the government would take care of him financially for his remaining years with a “substantial payment.”
The Victorian police have since apologized to Ryan for ousting him, as well, and the Royal Commission found Ryan’s claims credible that he had been forced out of his job because of his investigation into Day.
“We do not doubt,” the commission said, “that Victoria Police transferred Detective Ryan … for investigating allegations that Monsignor Day had sexually abused children in Mildura.”
The commission heard evidence that “everyone in the chain of command” of the police “appears to have fallen into line” against Ryan’s investigation.
“When he was forced out of the police force, it cost him the job he loved. It cost him his pension. It almost cost him his sanity. It’s taken right up until now — it’s taken all this time to finally bring some recognition to what happened,” Vernon Knight told The Washington Post. Knight, a former director of a child welfare organization, is the person who filed a petition with the Victorian government on Ryan’s behalf, asking that he be compensated. “Nothing will repay the last 47 years,” Knight said. “But at least now he’s totally validated, so he can complete his retirement with integrity.”
Ryan started his investigation in 1971 after a meeting with a nun and a teaching principal at a Catholic college. A 17-year-old girl had complained to her mother that, eight years earlier, Day had fondled her while she sat next to him in the front seat of his car on five separate occasions, according to the Royal Commission’s 2017 report.
“I’ve known about Monsignor Day’s behavior for some time now,” the nun reportedly told Ryan, according to the report. “It runs contrary to my vows of silence to say this to you, and I will never repeat what I have said from this moment forward.”
Once he started his investigation, each victim he interviewed “gave another name” of another alleged victim, “so it was like stepping stones,” Ryan told the Royal Commission in his 2015 testimony.
One boy he interviewed said Day sexually abused him when he spent the night with the priest in a motel room just before Christmas 1970. Another said Day “had a shower with him” when Day spent the night at his home. A third said Day abused him when the two had to share a double bed together, again when Day spent the night.
But when Ryan attempted to bring five statements from the victims to the superintendent of police, he was told to stand down. An inspector and a sergeant known to be close to Day interviewed the priest about the allegations contained in Ryan’s investigation, an interview Ryan described in a book he later wrote as “just three Catholics having a chat.”
They recommended no further action. “It is monstrous to put a man on his trial after such a lapse of time,” the investigators said. “How can he account for his conduct so far back? No man’s life would be safe if such a prosecution were permitted. It would be very unjust to put him on trial.”
Ryan pressed on anyway — ultimately leading the superintendent to warn him that if he did not stop investigating, “he would be subject to disciplinary action,” the Royal Commission wrote. Within months, Ryan was transferred to a different post.
He resigned shortly afterward.
“I can only hope that any member of the Police Force who in the future performs a similar type of enquiry that I performed in relation to the Monsignor does not suffer the same fate that I have suffered,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
The Catholic Diocese of Ballarat did not respond Monday to a request for comment seeking the church’s official position with respect to the sexual misconduct allegations against Day.
The diocese’s bishop in 1973, Ronald Mulkearns, appointed Day to a new position at a parish across the state, in Timboon, less than a year after he resigned in Mildura.
“The appointment was to a parish as geographically far from Mildura as possible,” the commission wrote. “It put a priest who was the subject of serious allegations against children back into a parish where it was unlikely that there would be any suspicion of him and he would again have ongoing access to children. We are satisfied that the conduct of Bishop Mulkearns and the consultors prioritised protecting the reputation of the Catholic Church over the safety of the children at Timboon.”
Ryan would go on to live a “modest life,” his friend and petitioner, Vernon Knight, said. He worked packing and exporting citrus fruits following his resignation from the police force — while he worked on a book about his squelched investigation into Day and took the Victorian police to court to obtain documents.
After Ryan’s book was published, the former Victorian chief commissioner, who had been a senior officer in the 1970s, corroborated Ryan’s assertions before the Royal Commission. The Victorian police “Catholic Mafia,” as Ryan had put it, covered up for bad priests, particularly Day.
The current chief commissioner, Graham Ashton, apologized to Ryan and to Day’s alleged victims in 2015. “It’s been all about saying sorry, trying to move forward and trying to make sure we don’t do these things in the future,” he said, according to Australia’s ABC.
Reached by phone Thursday, Ryan said that he may be vindicated — but it’s the victims he still can’t stop thinking about.
“I still have nightmares about it,” he said. “Though I have suffered during this, it is nothing compared to what the victims suffer.”
The allegiance of the police, he told Australian Broadcasting, “was towards a cathedral and not to the people of Victoria that they’d sworn an oath to protect.”