Any wiser? Sarah Ferguson's macabre journey into the mind of a paedophile
By Barney Zwartz
Sydney Morning Herald
March 10, 2020
|Father Vincent Ryan in the dock during his 2019 trial.|
Father Vincent Ryan was a vile and depraved man, a sex abuser with no compunction, who was guilty of sexual assault of altar boys and even trying to make prepubescent boys have sex with each other. So it is difficult to make sense of the slight, elderly, occasionally bewildered and apparently remorseful priest – yes, despite everything he is still a priest – in Sarah Ferguson’s new ABC documentary Revelation.
In the first of a three-part series, Ferguson tries to get into the mind of a paedophile who abused 33 boys aged six to 17 – with the connivance, one could almost say, of the leadership of the Catholic Newcastle-Maitland diocese, who knew what was going on and simply moved him from parish to parish.
In 1997, Ryan was jailed for 14 years for his crimes, which he committed over 20 years from 1975. Last year, he was tried on two new charges and, according to the documentary, for the first time in an Australian court ABC cameras were allowed to film the trial. Although the first episode does not contain the verdict, Ryan was sentenced to another three years’ jail.
Besides showing this trial footage, Ferguson talks to both the prosecution and defence lawyers, to survivors (all thoughtful and articulate), a psychiatrist and the investigating police officer, Troy Grant, who later became NSW Police and Justice Minister.
How did Ryan justify to himself what he did? “As far as I was concerned I was in a relationship. I was getting the love and the human touch and belonging,” he tells Ferguson. He never thought of the consequences for the children. He says the children wanted to be with him but, as Ferguson notes, these “blatant deluded falsehoods” are not unique to him. “Ryan is not alone in the claim that the children were complicit, even to blame, for the sins of the fathers,” she says.
Psychiatrist Peter Evans, who assessed Ryan as a paedophile in the 1970s, gives an excellent summary of the damage abuse causes. “Quite apart from the trauma of the abuse and the breach of trust there is the silencing, the blame, the shame, the punishment, the guilt,” Evans says. “And all of those things condemn the child to a solitary confinement of the mind. And the result of that is to cut them off from all the social interaction with family, friends, school, to the extent that they cannot develop what is absolutely essential: self-esteem, self-control, self-confidence, self-identity.”
It is difficult for a narrator to avoid being portentous. Apart from her opening sentence – “There are men living among us like Lucifer’s fallen angels” – Ferguson manages well. But the relentless music has the same effect.
Much of the documentary, and especially the trial footage, is fascinating in a macabre sort of way, but I have reservations. First is the graphic level of detail about the offending, the descriptions of what Ryan did. A more circumspect account would still have a powerful impact.
Second, I don’t object to an attempt to discover how Ryan thought – for example, the Catholic Church needs to understand this to weed out potential paedophiles before they become priests – but we don’t end up much the wiser.
Third, and most important, I’m not sure of the value of the whole exercise. As a journalist, I usually think the more we know the better. But I’m not sure this time how it does help us, and what it is going to change.
It is more evidence, though, that clergy sexual abuse wasn’t an unfortunate lapse on the periphery, as the Catholic leadership has always argued, and it wasn’t just an individual moral failure to be resolved by prayer and repentance. It was a systematic way of life for many priests, and – increasingly, we are learning – a life they led with the connivance of leadership.
I’ll certainly be watching parts two and three.