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News: Sarah Ferguson faces monsters in our midst

Updated: May 13, 2022

The ABC's Sarah Ferguson does a remarkable job staying composed in her harrowing three-part series on the Catholic Church's most notorious child sex offenders

Graeme Blundell, The Australian, 20 March, 2020

Award-winning investigative reporter Sarah Ferguson presents Revelation, a compelling new three-part documentary series that looks at the crimes perpetuated by priests and brothers of the Catholic Church. It’s centred on distressing interviews with two of Australia’s worst serial pedophiles — an ordained priest and a religious brother. She was also able to obtain permission from various judicial authorities, along with the priests involved and their legal representatives, to take her cameras into court as they faced trials for their crimes. It was important to Ferguson to bring to the public domain the way these usually highly protected cases progress through the judicial system.

In this way, although it is often difficult to watch, Ferguson and her exemplary production team, including executive producer Nial Fulton, principal cinematographer Aaron Smith and researchers Sophie Randerson, Kate Wild and Alison McClymont, have been able to shed light not only on their heinous atrocities but how the Catholic Church repeatedly chose secrecy over transparency and accountability. It is a confronting, awful study of a church that not only fell to decay but seems beyond renewal, achingly absent of integrity and grace.

It’s hard to know why these priests agreed to be interviewed and allow such intimate exposure. Maybe it was simply vanity and egotism, though the first case Ferguson investigates, that of Vincent Ryan, released from jail in 2010 after being handed a 14-year sentence for the abuse of 34 boys between 1973 and 1991, suggests he would like to somehow make amends, even if in his own mind he still believes he wasn’t entirely to blame.

He’s not the only one in the series alone in his assertions that the children were complicit. Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and a prominent Catholic academic, makes the point that it seems a commonly held belief still that they were sent by the Devil to tempt, seduce or divert the vocations of these men called by God. (Ferguson travels to both Ireland and the Vatican to talk with church leaders.)

Father Bill Burston, former vicar of Newcastle, described as a lifelong friend of Ryan, blandly justifies his behaviour in terms of priests of his era having little understanding of sexuality and celibacy. Ryan simply tells Ferguson he lived in “a make-believe world” and never dreamt of being caught.

There can be no disputing Ferguson’s opening remarks in the first episode that accompany a montage of Ryan preparing himself for a new trial where he is accused of offences against two boys during the 1970s and 1990s at parishes in the Hunter region.

“There are men living among us like Lucifer’s fallen angels,” she says. “They’re ordinary to look at but their crimes are so appalling, their depravity so profound, that you have to steal yourself to meet them face to face. It’s the apparent ordinariness I find most disturbing — they really should look like monsters to match their deeds.”

It is their very ordinariness that is the revelation, the source of her title.

Ferguson says in a statement that while the story of decades of systematic child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church unfolded, the one voice that was never heard was that of the priests and brothers themselves. “It drove me to seek out the perpetrators. I met a challenge unlike any I have ever come across, in bristling encounters where I had to fight for the truth with men still conditioned to protect the church.”

In the series, which began last week but which can be streamed on iview, Ferguson is on a quest that obviously at times becomes increasingly ambiguous and exasperating as she seeks not only the factual solutions to the various awful mysteries she confronts, but how to morally comprehend the events and the people with whom she becomes enmeshed. And who, as a journalist, she tries to understand.

“Hovering over all this is the persistent question of how men of God justified all this to themselves,” she muses at one point. “Can you be forgiven?” she asks Ryan. “Most certainly by God,” he answers. It’s simply incomprehensible. Later, we learn he is still not defrocked, still a priest in the eyes of the church and, in one of the most frightening scenes I’ve watched, he conducts a mass in his living room for himself. It’s like a moment from a Thomas Harris novel.

The interviews she conducts, initially with Ryan and later with Bernard McGrath, a former St John of God brother, teacher and headmaster in residential schools in Australia and New Zealand, serving 39 years for crimes against children, are harrowing and disturbing as she provokes and exposes a web of conspiracy and perversion. She tries to display no explicit emotion as she questions Ryan but can only just conceal her ethical disgust behind that journalistic veneer of taut self-control.

Watching the first episode you sense she must confront the notion that evil is endemic in the social order, and not simply an abnormal disruption of an essentially benevolent social order. She also interviews the police who investigated the crimes, and the lawyers who worked on the cases from both sides, their faces full of sadness and a kind of disbelief. Ferguson also speaks to a number of survivors, including several abused by Ryan and McGrath.

Her self-control momentarily wavers when Ryan tells her this: “There are few moments in my life that meant anything, and this is going to sound strange, but one was saying mass and two was being with the people who loved me, that meant the kids.” And when a survivor, Peter Dorn, is asked about his silence for so long, why he didn’t come forward earlier, he says: “When you’ve got a Catholic priest sucking your d..k, what is right or wrong?”

One of her great skills is her ability — she has intuitive collaborators here too, of course — to make such human drama of the process of inquiry without undercutting the power of the mystery that lies at the end. We know what these men have done but Ferguson is interested in the complexities and ambiguities of character and what drove them psychologically.

And she also wants to investigate the systems of protection that enabled these monsters, the cover-ups so callously put in place to avoid scandal. In Ryan’s case, the church knew early on that he was a pedophile and merely moved him to a different parish in the beach suburb of Merewether, near Newcastle, which — bizarrely — he blames for his further activities.

“Everything attracted me,” he says, “the brightness, the colours the sunburnt kids, everything.”

Her script, co-written with Tony Jones, and at times hauntingly poetic, cleverly doubles the true stories of these crimes as they are reconstructed through interviews, obviously painstakingly researched archival footage and cinematically compiled photographic montages, with their explanation from the point of view of the perpetrator.

It is gruelling, harrowing TV and Ferguson’s most important deductions as an investigator are inferences about how human character and social background interact to create a certain chain of behaviour. As she told the ABC’s Natasha Johnson: “I’ve spent my professional life understanding power and trying to give succour to the weak when abused by power but nothing before this took me so deep into human selfishness and suffering.”

Revelation, Tuesday, ABC, 8.30pm and streaming on iview.

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