The church concealed the crimes of Father Vincent Ryan. Now he faces more charges

By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 1 May 2017

This Broken Rites article is the most comprehensive account available about how Catholic Church leaders knowingly protected one of Australia's worst sex-criminal priests, Father Vincent Gerard Ryan. Ryan's superiors (in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in New South Wales) knew that he was sexually assaulting boys in his parishes. But the church concealed Ryan's crimes from the police and kept him in the ministry for twenty years, giving him access to new victims. He has already been jailed for some of his crimes. Now, in 2017, he is facing new charges involving additional alleged victims.

Detectives discovered the church's cover-up of Ryan when they investigated Ryan in 1995 for sex-crimes spanning 20 years. In court appearances in 1996 and 1997, Ryan pleaded guilty to multiple offences against young boys, including sexual intercourse by anal and oral penetration, plus multiples charges of indecent assault by genital touching. By 1997, he had been sentenced to a total of 16 years' jail, with a minimum of 11 years.

On 27 April 2016, after one more of Ryan's victims spoke to the police, Ryan pleaded guilty to more of his offences; and, because of this guilty plea (plus his previous jail time), he was given a suspended sentence on 14 October 2016 (instead of being placed behind bars again).

Following is the Broken Rites research about Ryan's career of crime — and the church's cover-up.

The cover-up

Ordained in the late 1960s, Father Vincent Gerard Ryan studied in Rome and worked in North London before returning to New South Wales. By 1971, he was an assistant priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, being based firstly at St John the Baptist parish in Maitland and later (in 1974-75) in a Newcastle suburban parish. Publicly, he became a well-known and respected pastor but privately he was committing crimes.

Court documents, tendered by the prosecution in the 1996-1997 hearings, stated that:

  • By 1975, the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan office learned that Vince Ryan was committing sexual crimes against boys. At this time, Monsignor Patrick Cotter was acting as the vicar-general, administering the diocese, following the death of Bishop John Toohey. As explained later in this article, Cotter covered up for Ryan. In 1976, Bishop Toohey was succeeded by Bishop Leo Clarke and the cover-up continued.
  • The diocese evacuated Vince Ryan to Melbourne where he lived for a year in 1976 at a Franciscan retreat house in Kew. Newcastle parishioners were told that the reason for the trip was that Ryan would be doing a "pastoral" course of study in Melbourne. Ryan, however, told police in a tendered record of interview that the Melbourne study course was "a cover for me being out of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese".
  • Ryan told police that, while in Melbourne, he had only one interview with a psychotherapist, with no on-going therapy.
  • Dr. Peter J. Evans, a former Franciscan priest who had become a Melbourne psychiatrist, said in a tendered record of interview that he was a Franciscan priest when he had been asked, in Melbourne, to see Ryan. Ryan admitted to being sexually attracted to boys. Evans said he told Ryan that any treatment was best achieved in Ryan's own environment.
  • After his year in Melbourne, Vince Ryan was brought back to Maitland-Newcastle where he was allowed to resume work as a priest. Although the diocese administration knew about Ryan's previous child-sex crimes, it again gave him access to altar boys, thereby putting these boys in danger.
  • In the late 1970s, according to the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, Ryan spent time at the parish of St Mary Star of the Sea in Newcastle, with access to altar boys.

Vince Ryan, who had a church diploma in canon law, worked in the early 1980s in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocesan Tribunal, which meant that he became privy to people's marriage problems when couples applied for an annulment of their marriage. During this time, he was a priest-in-residence at several Newcastle parishes.

In the 1980s, despite the church's knowledge of his child-sex crimes, Ryan was promoted to the position of a Parish Priest (that is, in charge of a parish) and, in the next ten years to 1995, he was awarded a total of three Parish Priest appointments, all in country parishes. It was revealed in court that Ryan continued to commit child sex crimes during this parish work.

The cover-up ends, 1995

Vincent Gerard Ryan's prominence as a senior clergyman in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese finally led to two victims catching up with him in 1995. The two men, who had not seen each other since school days, met up at a funeral. Afterwards, they discussed their school days and each revealed that he had been a victim of Ryan. Seeking to promote the protection of children in the future, one of the victims then contacted New South Wales detectives — and the investigation of Fr Vince Ryan began.

On 11 October 1995, when police were preparing to charge Ryan, the church authorities realised that the Ryan story was about to become public, thus damaging the church's public image. Therefore, the church finally withdrew Ryan from parish appointments, although officially he still had the status of a Catholic priest.

Newcastle news media reported on 16 October 1995 that an un-named priest had been arrested on child-abuse charges. Another victim then contacted police after he learned who the priest was. Another victim came forward in 1996.

Some of the charged offences occurred in a Newcastle suburban parish in 1972-75, while others occurred in a country parish between 1989 and 1994.

When arrested in 1995, Vincent Gerard Ryan had recently become the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Taree, north of Newcastle, but the charges related to earlier parishes.

The first charges, 1996

In May 1996 Father Vincent Gerard Ryan (then aged 58) pleaded guilty in the Newcastle District Court to charges including:

  • SIX counts of indecently assaulting four boys, aged from 10 to 12; and
  • FIVE counts of having intercourse with a boy by anal and oral penetration during a six-year period beginning when the boy was aged ten.
  • In addition, charges of indecency involving two more boys (making a total of seven victims) were to be taken into account at sentencing.

The story of Sylvester

According to court evidence by Senior Detective Troy Grant (of the Major Crimes Squad, the officer in charge of the investigation), Ryan sexually abused one boy (Broken Rites will refer to this boy as "Sylvester" - not his real name) more than two hundred times during six years from the age of ten. The abuse included anal and oral penetration as well as masturbation.

Ryan, a trusted friend of Sylvester's family, had repeatedly supplied the victim with pornographic movies and magazines to sexually stimulate him. Detective Grant said police searched Ryan's home on 30 October 1995 and found exhibits to corroborate Sylvester's complaint. Ryan had admitted destroying certain pornographic material that he had shown to Sylvester.

Detective Grant said Sylvester has since tried several times to end his life by suicide, as a result of the sexual abuse.

Detective Grant said in a tendered document that Ryan had encouraged boys, after altar-boy practice, to masturbate him and themselves. Father Ryan had then encouraged them to pull down their pants and try to have anal intercourse with each other.

Sentenced in 1996

In May 1996, Ryan appeared in Newcastle District Court for sentencing. Some of Ryan's fellow clergy and parishioners submitted "character" references to the court on behalf of Ryan, seeking a lenient sentence.

Judge George Rummery sentenced Ryan to a maximum of four years' jail on the intercourse charge and to lesser concurrent terms on each of the other charges. He fixed a two-year non-parole period.

Ryan's two-year minimum sentence drew anger and disgust from his victims and their families.

One victim told the media: "The amount of time it has taken out of my life, the sleepless nights, everything, it's not good enough. Plucking up the courage to come forward, that has taken years for us to do, and I thought the courts would understand but they don't".

Reporting of the Father Ryan case was virtually confined to the Newcastle media (for example, the Newcastle Herald, April 24, May 24 and May 31, 1996), plus the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Most Australians, in the other states, did not hear about it.

The New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions appealed against the leniency of Ryan's sentence but in August 1996 the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal.

"Still a priest"

Bishop Michael Malone, who took over the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in 1995, admitted to the Newcastle Herald (26 August 1996) that "there is a strong possibility that there could be other people in the diocese who were victims."

Bishop Malone told the paper that Father Ryan would not be stripped of his title despite his conviction, unlike other professions such as lawyers and medical practitioners.

Bishop Malone told the paper: "At this point in time Vince Ryan is still a priest until such time as he wants to leave the priesthood and return to the lay state — that would be his decison."

Convicted again, 1997

Following the publicity in mid-1996 about Ryan's lenient sentence, three more of his victims contacted the police. These victims were aged from 7 to 11 at the time of the offences. Ryan, who was in jail, was charged with six offences relating to these three victims.

Police continued their investigations and located still more victims. Some of these victims agreed to make police statements. In March 1997, Ryan was charged with 38 incidents of sexual assaults, which brought the total number of new offences to 44.

In June 1997, he was charged with nine more offences, bringing the total to 53, committed from 1972 to 1994. The 53 charges involved 26 victims, aged between six and 14 years. All were pupils at Ryan's parish school (of which, Ryan, as the Parish Priest, was the official manager). Some of the victims were altar boys.

Ryan pleaded guilty to all 53 charges.

In September 1997, Ryan was brought to court from his jail, to be sentenced by Judge John Nield. The judge told the court that there could be "no greater breach of trust" than the breach committed by Ryan.

The judge said: "He [Ryan] preyed on the young, the vulnerable, the impressionable, the child needing a friend or a father figure and the child seeking approval from an adult. And for what? For his own sexual gratification, without a thought or concern for the sexual development of his victims."

The judge said that, because so many instances of abuse had been committed by Ryan, the precise number could not be determined.

Taking into account the previous sentence (by Judge Rummery in 1996), Judge Nield increased Ryan jail term to 16 years, to start from the date of Judge Rummery's sentencing. Judge Nield fixed a minimum of 11 years before parole. (The 1997 conviction was reported in the Newcastle Herald on 27 September 1997 and in the Canberra Times a day later.)

Cover-up by a church official

During their investigation of Father Ryan in 1995, detectives also investigated Monsignor Patrick Cotter, who was the vicar-general of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in New South Wales in 1975.

In 1995, the detectives discovered that, in 1975, Monsignor Cotter knew that Father Vincent Ryan was sexually assaulting boys in parishes. According to a letter written by Cotter in the 1970s, Cotter admitted covering up the crimes. Cotter wrote: "I decided to do nothing [about Ryan's crimes]."

Police believed that Cotter therefore became complicit in Vince Ryan's crimes.

In 1995-6, police considered charging Monsignor Cotter with the crime of "misprision of a felony" — that is, wilfully concealing a serious crime committed by another person. However, as Cotter was aged over 80 when police found this letter in 1996, the prosecution did not proceed.

More alleged victims

Some of Ryan's countless victims have not been included in the prosecutions. On 1 July 2003, one victim ("Tom", not his real name) phoned Broken Rites, describing how he had been indecently assaulted three times by Ryan in a Newcastle suburban parish in 1973, aged 10. Tom was a pupil in Ryan's parish school and was one of Ryan's altar boys.

Two of the attacks occurred in the church's sacristy (behind locked doors) after Mass, while the third occurred in the home of Ryan's relatives in Maitland.

In 1996, someone told the detectives about Tom being a Ryan victim. The detectives invited Tom to make a statement but Tom declined for family reasons. Therefore, he was not included in the police prosecution.

Tom told Broken Rites: "Ryan's sexual abuse had a bad impact on my life. I blamed myself for the offences, instead of blaming Ryan and the church."

It is possible for Ryan's victims to take civil action against the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, demanding financial compensation for their damaged lives. It is best to do this through a solicitor who has had previous experience in tackling the Catholic Church on behalf of victims.

Suicide

Broken Rites has learned about one of Ryan's former altar boys, "Oscar" (not his real name), who eventually died by suicide.

Oscar's father contacted Broken Rites in 2011 and said: "In 1977, when he was about eleven, my son was an altar boy in a parish in Newcastle, where he encountered Father Vincent Ryan.

"My son was a good-looking all-rounder. Until he was eleven, he had been doing well at school and in many sports. But after being an altar boy, he changed in mood and attitude. He even badly wanted to get out of Newcastle. Neither his mother nor I knew the reason for this, although we now learn that apparently he did confide in other altar boys.

"We transferred him to a school in Sydney for the remainder of his secondary education but he did not do well there. After a disrupted adolescence, he left home and lived in a rented flat. He then started a succession of self-harm episodes, ranging from self-mutilation to setting on fire his flat in what was thought to be a suicide attempt.

"In 1996, after Fr Vincent Ryan had been publicly exposed in court, my son jumped off a cliff at Newcastle Beach. He sustained multiple injuries including irreparable brain damage. His life support systems were ceased the next day in the John Hunter Hospital Intensive Care Unit."

Some months after his suicide, the NSW Police informed Oscar's parents that Oscar was mentioned in Fr Vincent Ryan's diary of 1977 on certain days and with certain comments.

Oscar's father told Broken Rites: "After the police told us about the diary entries, we sought justice from the church for having allowed Fr Vincent Ryan — a known sex-offender — to have access to our son. My wife took the matter up with the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. The diocese's response was to the effect that, because our son had not personally complained before he died, there was nothing that could be done now because he is dead. This was despite the fact that our son was mentioned in Fr Ryan's diary, together with other boys whose sexual assault had been verified."

After jail, Ryan was "still a priest"

On 6 August 2010, Vincent Gerard Ryan (then aged 72) was released from Long Bay Correctional Centre on parole after serving 14 years in jail. But technically, according to church spokesmen, Ryan was still a priest. And the church would provide him with accommodation.

Ryan’s bishop (Most Reverend Michael Malone of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese) told the Newcastle Herald (24 July 2010) that the Catholic Church does not intend to laicise or defrock Ryan. Bishop Malone said the decision not to defrock Ryan was based on the church’s role in supervising and remaining responsible for him.

Malone said that Ryan "certainly will not" be in the Maitland-Newcastle region or in the diocese. He said that the Maitland-Newcastle diocese had removed Ryan’s right to practise as a priest in this diocese. He said that the Maitland-Newcastle diocese will find appropriate accommodation for Ryan in Sydney.

NSW State Parole Authority director Paul Byrnes said in July 2010 that the parole authority determined it was in the public interest to release Ryan for a supervised parole period of three years and nine months. Byrnes indicated that the State Parole Authority has a memorandum of understanding with the Maitland-Newcastle diocese regarding the supervision of Ryan.

Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone told the media in early August 2010 that Ryan has a right to a future with dignity and safety.

Bishop Malone urged parishioners to pray for Ryan upon his release, as well as for his victims.

A church sex-abuse victim commented to Broken Rites in August 2010: "Allowing the Catholic Church authorities to supervise an early-release paedophile priest is like allowing the Burglars' Association to supervise an early-release burglar."

Compensation to victims

In an article about church-abuse in the Hunter region (around Maitland-Newcastle), journalist Joanne McCarthy wrote in the Newcastle Herald on 15 September 2012:

"The [Hunter] region's child sexual abuse crisis has cost the Catholic church dearly in financial terms - at least $20 million in compensation, support and legal expenses, and quite probably much more.

"The crimes of just one priest, Vince Ryan, cost the church $6.4 million, with about half covered by insurance.

"The figure includes $3 million to one victim, the highest known payout by the Catholic church to an Australian victim.

"The cost to the church for the crimes of another notorious Hunter paedophile priest is close to $10 million.

"In a letter as early as 2000 the then Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Michael Malone was reporting the diocese 'has been put to enormous cost' funding civil and criminal actions flowing from Vince Ryan, which were 'a significant drain' on resources.

"And the Ryan case was one of the first.

"But the greater cost of the sexual abuse crisis is on the church's standing in the community..."

Ryan pleads guilty in 2016

On 27 April 2016, Vincent Gerard Ryan (aged 78) appeared in Sydney's Downing Centre District Court, charged with multiple sexual offences which were committed against a boy at East Gresford, near Dugong, when the victim was aged between 13 and 15. The charges included three counts of attempted intercourse with a child, three counts of indecent assault of a child, and three counts of gross indecency against a child.

Ryan pleaded guilty to three charges, including an act of gross indecency and attempting sexual intercourse with the boy. Following his guilty plea, the remaining charges were dropped.

Because of Ryan's guilty plea, the court merely had to conduct the sentence proceedings. At a pre-sentence hearing on 15 August 2016, the court heard extracts from a written statement by the victim, in which he said: "I could not say no to someone as important as a priest". The victim also felt that he couldn't tell anyone about the priest's offences as he would not be believed, particularly by his grandfather who believed Ryan "was a very good man".

On 14 October 2016, the court gave Vincent Ryan a 15-month jail sentence which was suspended. The judge noted the 14-year sentence already served by Ryan for similar child sexual abuse that occurred in the same decade.

In August 2016, Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission held a public hearing in which it examined how the church's Maitland-Newcastle diocese had handled (or mis-handled) complaints about Fr Vincent Ryan's abuse. The commission heard that the diocese was made aware of abuse allegations against Ryan in the mid 1970s but police were not notified until two decades later.

New charges in 2017

On 27 April 2017, prosecutors filed additional charges against Ryan in the Newcastle Local Court. These charges comprised six fresh offences against three additional alleged victims between 1973 and 1991. There were three charges of indecent assault on a male, two counts of sexual assault with a person under 16 years of age and attempted sexual intercourse with a child between 10 and 16.Ryan's case will come up again in Newcastle Local Court later in 2017 for the next step in the court process.

More about the cover-up

Broken Rites is doing further research about Father Vincent Gerard Ryan — and also about his superiors who covered up for him.

  • To see more about Monsignor Patrick Cotter's cover-up, click HERE.