Viewers left grappling for answers as ABC's Sarah Ferguson questions paedophile priest Vince Ryan

Paedophile priest Vincent Ryan conducting Mass in his apartment before he was sent back to jail in 2019.
Paedophile priest Vincent Ryan conducting Mass in his apartment before he was sent back to jail in 2019.

A little old man sits at a desk in the corner of a nondescript Sydney flat. There's a computer monitor on the desk. It's switched off. The window blinds are partly drawn.

The old man lights two teacup candles, takes out a priestly vestment and kisses it before draping it around his neck.

He recites the solemn Eucharist rituals of the Roman Catholic mass.

This is Vincent Ryan, paedophile priest.

"Wash me, Oh Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin."

This is Vincent Ryan, ordained by the Pope in Rome in 1966, serial abuser of altar boys for decades, performing mass for himself. Because he still can. Because he's still a priest. Even after 14 years in jail.

"May the blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life."

The ABC program Revelation filmed his macabre ritual.

The ABC program Revelation filmed his macabre ritual.

These macabre scenes closed the first instalment of former Four Corners journalist Sarah Ferguson's documentary series Revelation on ABC TV on Tuesday night.

In a program full of upsetting details, unsettling questions and unsatisfactory answers these were perhaps the most devastating images for the credibility of the Catholic Church - and heartbreaking moments for the faithful still clinging to these powerful symbols of their belief.

Without having seen the program, Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright had warned parishioners in a weekend statement of the documentary's "sensationalist approach" and said it "may be disturbing to you as Catholics".

God knows why anyone might find disturbing a paedophile priest who preyed on the children of the diocese. Or your church's unwillingness to defrock the sex abuser more than 20 years after he was first convicted.

The Catholic Church has not defrocked Ryan despite his initial conviction in 1996.

The Catholic Church has not defrocked Ryan despite his initial conviction in 1996.

The ABC's three-part series recounts the sins of the Fathers - the sex crimes and cover-ups that have been detailed over many years through the reporting of the likes of Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy, and through the royal commission sparked by the courageous victims whose cause she championed.

That Ferguson managed to secure a sit-down, face-to-face interview with Ryan - who was jailed in 1996 for appalling crimes against 33 altar boys aged six to 17 and released in 2010 - is something of a coup.

In his statement to parishes at the weekend, Bishop Wright acknowledged it was important for the worshippers of the diocese where Ryan committed his offences to "remember the terrible things that were done here and the failures that allowed them to go on".

"Unfortunately not all ways of revisiting the past are so constructive," Bishop Wright said of Ferguson's program.

"But for our part, we must always enter into the conversation with patience, understanding, fairness and compassion."

Vince Ryan in the ABC's documentary series Revelation.

Vince Ryan in the ABC's documentary series Revelation.

While the Church doesn't have very high moral ground from which to lecture anyone on the right way to do things, many viewers - and not just Catholics - will indeed be grappling today for understanding.

The ABC's confronting but compelling trawl through Ryan's depravity has certainly left me asking why the hell. And how the hell and what the hell.

Why the hell was this sick, sad old man - Ryan was 80 when the interview was recorded - given prime-time oxygen to intrude on the lives of his victims and potentially wound them all over again with what, on the face of it, were wholly inadequate, utterly unconvincing or at times plain offensive excuses, evasions and delusions?

How did Ryan think his responses to Ferguson's questioning would possibly be received and perceived by anyone familiar with his crimes? With forgiveness?

And what did the ABC and we - the audience - even hope or expect to hear or see from a paedophile priest?

The Pope ordains Ryan in Rome in 1966.

The Pope ordains Ryan in Rome in 1966.

For most viewers, Ryan's performance for the TV cameras would have merely confirmed their unshakeable view of him as a vile excuse for a human being. Could anyone allow themselves to see a flicker of redemption in his at-times oblivious, imperious, unconvincing, unsympathetic answers?

Was that a flash of regret in his dark, occasionally bewildered eyes? If so, was it regret at the devastating harm caused by his offending or regret at still having to explain himself after all these years? Was that a trace of shame on his face? Sorrow? Remorse? Or was it indignation? Contempt?

If you watched the MA-rated Revelation last night, you can expect these types of questions to linger with you for a few days. They've been sitting uncomfortably with me, unanswered, for almost a week now after accompanying Joanne McCarthy and two of the Herald editors who have supported her work over the years, Chad Watson and Heath Harrison, to a preview screening of the first instalment in Sydney last week.

In her opening voice-over Ferguson anoints Ryan as "one of Lucifer's fallen angels" - language that, like the program's overly dramatic music, was unnecessarily florid.

A young Vince Ryan as shown in the ABC program.

A young Vince Ryan as shown in the ABC program.

Reminding us of the conniving and cover-ups of the Catholic leaders who allowed Ryan to offend for 20 years is important, but I'm not sure the questioning of the paedophile - even by a seasoned interrogator such as Ferguson - got us any closer to comprehending his brand of evil.

Ferguson: Did you understand then that you were condemning those children to a lifetime of pain?

Ryan: "No. .... As far as I was concerned I was in a relationship. I was getting the love and the human touch and the understanding and the belonging."

If this is Ryan's personal "truth" as he claimed, I'm not sure how us knowing that actually helps anyone. Except maybe Vincent Ryan.

Journalist Sarah Ferguson interviews the paedophile.

Journalist Sarah Ferguson interviews the paedophile.

And yet at another point, as Ferguson's questions begin to niggle the priest, we see what appears to be a veil of arrogance appear. Ryan responds, closing his eyes in almost instinctive or deliberate slow blinks as the admissions pass his lips - as if exasperated; or as if to blind himself to the ugly reality of having to answer to anyone but the God in his own head.

Maybe the only thing we need to know about Ryan, what corrupted him and compelled him to destroy so many young lives is to be found in those holier-than-thou blinks, and in his response when Ferguson asks directly: Can you be forgiven?

Ryan: "By God, most certainly. By God."

There's absolute conviction in the answer. It speaks of faith, and of the power over reality that a Pope bestowed on him half a century ago. God only knows how he's so certain he can be forgiven. Surely only the God in Vincent Ryan's head could possibly forgive him.

  • James Joyce is executive editor of ACM and a former deputy editor of the Newcastle Herald.