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News: Father Vincent Ryan confessed to sexual abuse - then continued to abuse children

Updated: May 12, 2022

Sarah Ferguson, ABC News, 23 March, 2020

Vincent Ryan is a Catholic priest and a paedophile, convicted of sexually abusing more than 30 children. In Australia's first television interview with a convicted clerical sex abuser, Ryan said there was no reason why he should not remain a priest.

"It's a duty. I've committed myself to it," he said. "It'd have to be a very serious reason, unless I'm stopped by authority, for me to make that decision and at this moment I don't see it."

In the ABC's Revelation series, filmed on the eve of Ryan's 2019 criminal trial, the paedophile priest is seen performing mass in his home, wearing holy vestments and blessing the communion wine and bread.

Following his fourth conviction in March 2019 on charges of sexually abusing two boys in the Newcastle region in the 1970s and 1980s, Ryan, 81, is currently serving a prison sentence in NSW of three years and three months.

However, he remained a priest and can still say the Catholic mass in private.

The current bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Bill Wright, told the ABC in August last year that he had written to the Vatican about Ryan's status.

"The full range of things that have come to light and considerations of the time, all of these things are as matters of fact in what I've sent to Rome," the Bishop said. "So they've been raised."

Bishop Wright confirmed on Sunday in a letter to parishioners that he had received no response from Pope Francis or the Vatican about Ryan.

Ryan questioned whether he would in any case accept a decision to remove him from the priesthood and no longer say mass.

"I will have a real quandary, because I will want to obey the church, but I will have a conscience problem. I don't know what I'll do," he said.

Gerald McDonald is another of Ryan's victims. He was assaulted while an altar boy with Ryan in Merewether in the 1970s and said he felt by allowing Ryan to remain a priest, the church was "condoning a paedophile".

Ryan enjoyed the protection of the church in multiple ways during the decades of his offending against children, including taking advantage of the secrecy of confession.

Ryan told the ABC that he confessed to a priest that he was sexually assaulting children,

"I don't know the exact words, but they would have been aware that I … that I had offended against children because … I can remember one priest saying, 'you'll go to jail if you don't stop this'," he said.

Ryan said he knew the priest would not break the seal of confession.

"How could he follow up the seal of confession? What can he do?" said Ryan, who claimed his penance was "three Hail Marys and a decade of the Rosary".

Ryan said he felt better having been given absolution for his sins by the priest. "Momentarily I felt free, yes," he said.

Bishop Wright said he believes the priest, from the Redemptorist Monastery in NSW, was correct to keep Ryan's confession secret.

"I'm afraid I'd have to say I believe he should have kept his confidence," Wright said.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended law reform to lift the protection of confessional privilege for reports of child sexual abuse.

All of Australia's states and territories have committed to following the recommendation.

Australia's Catholic Church leaders insist the sanctity of the seal of confession must be upheld even it means protecting priests who are breaking the law.

Bishop Wright said: "Yes, I think the law is intruding into a place of personal conscience where it should not be."

Ryan was ordained as a priest in Rome by Pope Paul VI in St Peter's Basilica in 1966.

He was sent to the Vatican to study at Propaganda College, along with a handpicked group of Australian seminarians that included George Pell.

Ryan explained the effect of ordination: "It meant you were set apart and you had this special mark on you. That was the theology of the church at that stage … If you were an ordained minister, of course you were more important than a married person."

Bishop Wright explained how that transformation created a damaging culture in some quarters of the church.

"Believing that membership of the in-group, the clergy specifically of course, confers a certain status and privilege … It becomes clericalism, I guess, when it's unanswerable and it allows people to stand on their status and get away with things that as human beings they shouldn't," Wright said.

Ryan blames his immediate superiors in the Catholic Church for not monitoring him closely once they learnt in the early 1970s that he had abused children. He claims the church's priority was self-defence.

"The church still was in a fortress, defending itself against all these horrible [people] wanting to drag it down," said Ryan, who went on to abuse many more children in multiple parishes over two decades until he was caught.

When interviewed for Revelation, former president of Ireland Mary McAleese, a devout Catholic and qualified canon lawyer, said there were Cardinals who in her presence had blamed children for the crimes committed against them.

"What they're saying is these children, you know from the age of seven with the use of reason and the age of discretion, are capable of grave sin," she said.

When asked if he could be forgiven for his decades of abuse of children, Vincent Ryan has no doubt: "By God," he said. "Most certainly."

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