Just one episode of Sarah Ferguson’s documentary on paedophiles in the Catholic Church has been released to media.
But it’s so monstrously disturbing, I shudder to think what is coming next.
Episode 1 centres around Vincent Ryan, a Catholic priest who spent 14 years behind bars for abusing 33 boys aged 6 – 17 between 1973 and 1991.
“There are men living among us…ordinary men.. you have to steel yourself to meet them face to face,” Ferguson tells us.
“They really should look like monsters.”
Meeting the 80 year old Ryan one on one in his small flat, is a chilling experience, not just for Ferguson but for the viewer.
“Is there anything worse than the sexual abuse of a young child?” she asks.
“I don’t think so,” he admits. “It just goes to the root of a person’s life.”
“Did you understand then that you were condemning those children to a lifetime of pain?” she asks.
“No. This is the weird part …..people can’t understand. ‘How didn’t you know? Why didn’t you know? You must have. You’re educated. You’re a priest.’ But I didn’t.”
His next words are so objectionable I’ll spare you the explanation. But the documentary -for those who can stomach it- will go to the heart of how a paedophile justifies their actions in their mind.
“Can you be forgiven?” she asks.
“By God… most certainly,” he defends.
Much of the first episode hangs around a new courtcase Ryan is facing, involving two former altar boys, now grown men, who claim they were abused at a Newcastle parish in the ’70s and ’80s.
It’s the first time cameras have been allowed to film a sexual assault trial in the NSW District Court (there is no jury). Lengthy interviews with Ryan are edited with courtroom scenes. As we hear confronting testimony, including how he would ‘desensitize’ children as part of grooming, Ryan himself is at a loss to explain his actions.
“I have no answer. I don’t know. I can’t even begin to understand that…”
Bizarrely, it’s almost as if another person committed the crimes.
The documentary extends to interviews with former NSW Police & Justice Minister Troy Grant, who previously investigated Ryan when he was a police sergeant in Cessnock.
“He was like the pied piper. He’d offer fun, lollies, food, experiences to the beaches, watching pornographic materials and intermittently amongst all that he would assault them,” Grant explains.
Archival photographs, slides and super 8 movies give the grooming context.
But there are also interviews with survivors.
“There would be touches ….he would brush that off as just being accidental and just brush it off,” says Peter Dawn.
Dawn was groomed and abused by Ryan at Maitland when he was just 10.
“You carry a guilt that you didn’t do anything about it and that led to other people being offended.”
Another survivor, Jarrod, was abused in a sacristy in Merewether. Unbelievably he still lives in the beachside town. Another man, Scott, recalls a group abuse. It’s breathtaking stuff… but they did report it 20 years later.
Hollow tears from Ryan will do little to diminish community anger.
Yet Ferguson also looks to chart the Catholic Church’s role in the crimes.
Remarkably, there is even original footage of Ryan being ordained by the Pope Paul VI in 1966 (George Pell studied at the same Vatican college, Ryan attended his ordination).
The Church’s role is the bigger question raised here, from celibacy to moving such priests from parish to parish. These are questions that will loom large as the series progresses across its three episodes. Staggeringly, Ryan has not been defrocked, and there is a scene of him celebrating mass in the solitude of his own flat…
It’s difficult to conceive how Ferguson was able to keep her cool through this documentary (many viewers will not) and she resists the on-trend storytelling device of first-person perspective. But if docos live or die on their subject access then this is about as close as it gets.
Episode Two will feature an interview behind bars with Bernard McGrath, a former St. John of God brother, currently serving a 33 year sentence for 64 offences against 12 boys at Kendall Grange Boys Home. Episode Three is so under wraps she won’t reveal its contents.
With previous works on Labor’s The Killing Season, and domestic violence doco Hitting Home, Ferguson remains one of our most compelling storytellers and truth-seekers. Revelation is her toughest sell yet.
Revelation begins 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.
Bravehearts: 1800 272 831.
Child Abuse Protection Hotline: 1800 688 009
Child Abuse Report Line: 131 478.