Broken Rites exposes a cover-up: How the church concealed a priest's crimes

Posted by a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 6 August 2010

Broken Rites has revealed how a Catholic Church leader, Monsignor Patrick Cotter, covered up the crimes of one of Australia's worst pedophile priests, Father Vincent Gerard Ryan.

Ryan was a priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in New South Wales. By 1997, he had been jailed for a total of 16 years (with a minimum of 11 years) for sexually assaulting boys in his parishes.

During their investigation of Ryan, police learned that Ryan's earliest crimes (in the 1970s) had been covered up by Monsignor Cotter (the vicar-general of the diocese), who was effectively the acting bishop of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese up to June 1976.

Bishop Leo Clarke took over the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese from Monsignor Cotter in June 1976. Clarke, who continued the cover-up, remained bishop until 1995 and died in 2006.

In 1996, police prepared a brief of evidence to prosecute Monsignor Cotter on charges of having concealed Father Ryan's serious crimes.

In 1996, Broken Rites learned about Monsignor Cotter's possible charges while we were interviewing police officers about Ryan's charges.

Eventually, the case against Monsignor Cotter did not proceed to court, mainly because the Director of Public Prosecutions considered that Cotter (aged 82 in 1996) was too elderly to prosecute.

Broken Rites kept its notes about Cotter. On 10 September 2007, we posted some material about Father Ryan our website, and (for the first time) we published a mention of Monsignor Cotter's cover-up. Our website article was noticed by the Newcastle Herald, which phoned us to ask about the Cotter angle.

After being briefed by Broken Rites, the Herald obtained the 1996 police files on the Ryan case. These files confirmed the Broken Rites article about Cotter's cover-up.

On September 22, 2007, the Herald began publishing articles, by reporter Joanne McCarthy, greatly expanding the Broken Rites information about Ryan and Cotter.

Following are the Newcastle Herald articles in September 2007.

"I decided to say nothing": Monsignor Cotter

Newcastle Herald
Saturday 22 September 2007

The former acting Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese, Monsignor Patrick Cotter, orchestrated a cover-up of the activities of pedophile priest Vince Ryan for nearly two decades, admitting as early as 1975 that he had "decided to say nothing" despite repeated allegations against the priest.

So serious were allegations of a cover-up against Monsignor Cotter that he was interviewed by police in 1996, along with Bishop Leo Clarke.

A brief of evidence, recommending Monsignor Cotter be prosecuted for concealing a serious crime, was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Although Ryan admitted to him as early as 1974 that he had indecently assaulted two boys, aged six and eight, Monsignor Cotter not only failed to act, but sent Ryan to Melbourne one year later after the priest committed more serious sexual assaults.

A year later, Cotter was either actively involved in (or did nothing to stop) Ryan's return to the diocese where the priest resumed sexually assaulting young boys.

And despite repeated complaints to the monsignor in subsequent years, including in 1991 when a woman spoke to police after telling Monsignor Cotter, "Are you aware that Father Ryan is molesting boys?", Cotter did nothing about it.

Cotter never reported Ryan to police.

Ryan was eventually sentenced to a total of 16 years' jail after pleading guilty to more than 50 sexual assault charges involving 26 victims aged six to 14, between 1972 and 1991.

The police case against Monsignor Cotter never proceeded, in large part because of his age.

Monsignor Cotter died in August 2007. On August 7, 2007, Bishop Michael Malone and priests from across the region celebrated the funeral of a man described as a "dearly loved uncle, grand uncle and fellow priest" at the Catholic Cathedral at Hamilton, Newcastle.

Documents obtained by The Herald include police interviews with Ryan, Monsignor Cotter, the late Bishop Clarke, a psychiatrist, three nuns and people who complained about Ryan.

The documents confirm what the Maitland-Newcastle diocese has not acknowledged for 10 years, since Ryan was first charged with sexually abusing 26 boys — that one of its senior members (Cotter) knew he was a pedophile from the early 1970s.

In a letter to a psychiatrist/priest on December 16, 1975, when Ryan was sent to Melbourne after allegations of serious sexual abuse, Monsignor Cotter wrote: "The problem which now brings him [Ryan] under your care became known to me about one year ago."

Monsignor Cotter noted that Ryan "suffered" embarrassment because he "knew that I was aware of what happened".

Cotter admitted: "I decided to say nothing."

"Unfortunately this was a mistake on my part, because apparently such a condition does not come right without the help of treatment," he wrote.

In an interview with police in January 1996, while he was being investigated for allegedly concealing a serious crime, Monsignor Cotter, then 82, repeatedly said he had no recollection of parents approaching him with allegations of Ryan's sexual misconduct from as early as 1974.

When shown a copy of the 1975 letter seized by police during a search, Monsignor Cotter said he had "some recollection" of it but could not recall writing it. Monsignor Cotter acknowledged, however, that the letter carried his name.

At the end of the police interview, the monsignor denied knowledge of an incident he was being questioned about.

"I had knowledge of the rumour about that, I had no definite knowledge about it," he said.

He agreed with police that "sexual assaults on children was wrong".

Asked if allegations of sexual assaults on children should be reported, the monsignor said: "Of course, if they're substantiated."

A spokesman for the Broken Rites website for victims of sexual abuse by priests said the Ryan case, and the cover-up of his activities by superiors, was "very much a live issue as far as we're concerned".

Broken Rites was contacted by one victim as late as July 2003, seven years after Ryan was jailed, to say he had been indecently assaulted by Ryan in 1973, aged 10.

In a phone call in 1991, the mother of one victim, who had just revealed he had been sexually abused by Ryan as a child, told Monsignor Cotter that Ryan was "still a priest, and a pedophile, so what are you going to do about it?".

In a statement to police she said the monsignor replied: "He's not doing any of it any more."

Priest consoled, returned to fold

Newcastle Herald
Saturday, 22 September 2007

The Hunter Region's most notorious pedophile priest was "consoled" by a psychiatrist/priest in Melbourne in 1975 with the words: "You're not the only one to have done something like this."

While devastated parents of sexually abused children relied on the church to "rehabilitate" pedophile Vince Ryan, the priest knew that the year in Melbourne was just a cover-up.

He said so in an interview with police in November 1995. "I suppose it was a cover-up for me being out of the diocese [because of the incidents]," he said.

He had one assessment session with the psychiatrist/priest and spent the rest of the year attending "a sort of refresher course in things pastoral" with other priests and nuns.

He only did the course because he "had to do something", Ryan said. He said there were no documented reasons ever given for him leaving the parish to go to Melbourne, or for his return a year later.

In a record of interview with police obtained by The Herald, Ryan said he only ever had one session with a psychiatrist, and that was in Melbourne, despite years of reports of further allegations of child sexual abuse.

"Well, I felt disappointed at that, but the year was a good one, which just helped me put things in focus, I guess, and get on with life," he said.

He resumed sexually abusing children within a year of returning to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

Ryan could not recall how he came to return to the Hunter, or whether it was Monsignor Patrick Cotter or the new Bishop Leo Clarke who approved the move.

"When I got back I would've just rung the then bishop Leo Clarke, or he might've rung me. I don't remember."

(In a police interview, Bishop Clarke said he approved Ryan's return to the diocese after Ryan wrote him a letter.)

Ryan was asked by police to describe the characteristics of some of his victims.

He described one boy as "a child you couldn't really warm to" and others as "troubled".

Ryan concluded: "Some kids are really obnoxious."

He had a flash of revelation about his behaviour in late 1997, telling police while in jail that "I didn't comprehend I was doing harm". But he did not believe responsibility lay with him for dealing with his 20 years of offending.

"I said nothing about these things because I thought since I've already hurt them [his victims], why should I now interfere with their lives?" he said.

"It's up to them."

Stolen childhood leaves scar for life

Newcastle Herald
Saturday 22 September 2007
by Joanne McCarthy

Newcastle solicitor Kate Maher has acted for victims of Vince Ryan and another Hunter pedophile, former teacher Peter Boys.

Some are in and out of courts for minor drug and alcohol issues. Some are struggling.

For Ms Maher and others, including police Inspector Troy Grant who led the investigation against Ryan and Monsignor Cotter, the damage wrought by pedophiles, and particularly those in positions of power such as priests and teachers, is devastating to witness.

"It is distressing how these predators chose their victims and then stripped them of their childhood," Ms Maher said. "The abuse has continued to affect these victims as they struggle to lead a satisfying and fulfilling life."

A spokesman for Broken Rites, a support group for victims of church-based sexual abuse, said the Ryan case was an example of where people within the church knew of a pedophile priest's activities, but no one took responsibility for stopping him.

Search for truth left faith in ashes

Newcastle Herald
Monday 24 September 2007

Pedophile priest Vince Ryan shattered the innocence of the young boys he molested over almost two decades, but the cover-up by the former acting Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese Monsignor Patrick Cotter destroyed the boys' parents' faith in the church.

From as early as 1974, when a man and woman told Monsignor Cotter that Ryan had molested two boys, aged six and eight, Cotter's response confronted and appalled Catholics in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

"I can remember looking at him [Monsignor Cotter in 1974] and the colour sort of drained from his face," the woman told police in a statement as part of an investigation into whether the monsignor and others in the church had concealed Ryan's crimes.

"He had a look of anguish and shock on his face.

"He sat there and didn't say anything for a short time."

The Herald revealed on September 22 the contents of documents, including police interviews and witness statements, which indicated that Monsignor Cotter had orchestrated a cover-up of the activities of convicted pedophile priest Vince Ryan, remaining silent about the abuse from the mid-1970s. He died last month.

Police in 1996 had recommended the monsignor be prosecuted for concealing a serious crime but the charges never proceeded, in large part because of his age.

In another statement that was part of the brief of evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions, there is a reference to allegations in another part of the diocese in 1972.

The woman said the monsignor summoned Ryan, and the allegation that the priest had molested the boys the previous afternoon was put to him. She told police Ryan said: "They're just words."

"I thought to myself, so is the Catholic Church; so is parish priest. They're just words too," the woman said in her statement.

"I was expecting an apology or something and I was surprised by Father Ryan's response."

The woman told police she was "at a bit of a loss" at the reaction of both men, but "I knew in myself I couldn't put my boy through court and didn't think much else could be done".

"I thought to myself, what can I do? It is the word of a little boy against that of a Catholic priest. Basically the subject wasn't raised again, and I have lost my faith in priests in general."

In an interview with police in November 1995 after he was arrested, Ryan said he admitted to Monsignor Cotter in 1974 that he had molested the two boys when the parents raised the allegations.

In his interview with police in January 1996 the monsignor was asked if he wanted to answer questions about the 1974 allegations. On the advice of his solicitor he replied: "Don't wish to answer, no."

Parents were furious when Ryan returned to the diocese in late 1976 after a year of "rehabilitation" in Melbourne and conducted a mass for Catholic school children. The allegations relating to Ryan were known to many, one parent told police in a statement in the 1990s.

"I was ropable [about his return and saying Mass]," one woman said in a statement in 1995.

The woman said boys at the Mass refused to accept communion from Ryan, saying he was a pervert.

The woman said she went to her son's class where she heard boys telling their teacher, a man, lurid stories about Ryan's activities.

She spoke with the teacher and later with a nun who said she would "do something about it" and later rang to say she told Monsignor Cotter.

In the 1990s when the woman's son disclosed he was a victim of Ryan's, he challenged her about "why she hadn't done anything at the time".

"I said I did what I thought was best at the time. Monsignor Cotter made a decision [to send Ryan away and bring him back again] and everyone abided by that decision," the woman said.

The woman's son continued to challenge her, she said.

"How would you like your first sexual experience to be by a Catholic priest?" he said.

"I can't believe that stronger action was not taken to keep Father Ryan away from more children to prevent this from recurring," the woman said in 1995.

Another woman told police she had been to see Monsignor Cotter about Ryan in 1975 and he said "it's been taken care of, the priest has been sent to Melbourne for rehab".

Yet another said she raised allegations against Ryan with a nun in 1975, who referred it to another nun, who referred it to the monsignor.

Another woman raised allegations about Ryan with the late Father Jim Hughes.

"After talking with Father Hughes about the subject, Hughes got up and walked away from me and he didn't want to know," the woman said.

"He left me sitting there . . . and I haven't been to church since. I lost my faith in the church."

A woman who rang Ryan in 1991 with yet another series of allegations relating to the early 1970s, told him she hoped he "rotted in hell", before ringing Monsignor Cotter.

"I said to him, are you aware that Father Ryan is molesting boys?," the woman told police.

"He said: 'Yes we are aware. He has been to Melbourne to get psychiatric help'.

"He sounded calm and I couldn't believe that he knew. I said to him, 'He's still a priest. What are you going to do about it?'

"He said: 'He's not doing any of it any more'."

She told police Monsignor Cotter ended the call with the words: "We'll deal with it."

"I finished the call and sat down and had a good cry," she said.

Revealed: the rehab that never happened

Newcastle Herald
Monday, 24 September 2007

Pedophile priest Vince Ryan's first sexual experience with another person was when he donned the garb of a trainee priest.

"His sexual history revealed masturbation with a fellow seminarian, and this was his initial sexual experience," a psychiatrist/priest to whom Ryan was sent for "rehabilitation" in 1975 told police in a statement 20 years later.

While Monsignor Patrick Cotter spent the best part of two decades fending off allegations about Ryan's offences by saying he had received treatment during his Melbourne "rehab", both the psychiatrist and Ryan made it clear that no rehabilitation occurred.

In his police statements, copies of which have been obtained by The Herald, the psychiatrist said he made it clear that the centre where he worked was "not a treatment centre in any way suitable for Father Ryan".

"I explicitly did not enter into any treatment agreement and referred him back for appropriate and available treatment closer to his own diocese."

In the end Ryan had one assessment session in Melbourne and spent the rest of the year at a course for priests and nuns because he "had to do something".

The psychiatrist told police the response of the church at the time to pedophile priest allegations was "an authoritarian one".

"The church in many ways attempted to disassociate itself from the misdemeanours.

"I do not think that the cover-up was malicious but reflected the culture of the time.

"Over the past 20 years, major changes have occurred both in the readiness of the laity to reveal the failings of the clergy and in the church's greater readiness to acknowledge openly those failings."

Asked by police if he had any conversation with Ryan about the criminal consequences of his actions, the psychiatrist/priest replied he would not have deemed it a question related to what he was required to do. But he said it was "clearly a breach of pastoral, a duty of pastoral care".

No talk of alerting police

Newcastle Herald
Monday, 24 September 2007

A nun interviewed by police in 1996 during an investigation into whether the Catholic Church covered up Vince Ryan's crimes said there was "no discussion of reporting this matter to police" when she raised it with Monsignor Cotter.

The nun said she "strongly recommended psychiatric help for Ryan" when allegations of molesting young boys were made in 1975. She also suggested the alleged victims might need counselling.

It was the nun who recommended the name of a psychiatrist/priest in Melbourne. Ryan saw the psychiatrist/priest once for an assessment, but told police in the 1990s that his "rehabilitation" was a "cover-up".

The nun said reporting it to police did not arise in the conversation with the monsignor because "it wasn't my place or position to discuss or advise in relation to the criminal side of the matter".

The nun spoke with Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Leo Clarke 20 years later, in November 1995, after receiving a phone call from a "very upset" woman who said she was the mother of a student molested by Ryan in 1975.

Bishop Clarke said in his statement to police that he advised the nun to phone a priest in Sydney. The priest told the nun that Ryan should see him in Sydney.

When she asked Bishop Clarke if he would give the message to Ryan, the bishop told her to "contact Monsignor Cotter and ask him to hand that message to Ryan as he was Ryan's priest when those allegations took place in 1975".

Another nun who gave evidence in 1995 said she reported allegations about Ryan to a superior in 1975. She was told that "Monsignor Cotter had seen to the situation".

Ryan's victims cheated of rights

Newcastle Herald
Tuesday, 25 September2007

The retired head of the police north region major crime squad believes pedophile priest Vince Ryan's victims were "denied their rights" when the Director of Public Prosecutions refused to charge former acting Catholic bishop Patrick Cotter with concealing his crimes.

"I thought it was expedient of the DPP to decide not to proceed on the basis of what I understand were issues relating to his age, among other things," said retired police commander John Ure, who headed the major crime squad in 1995 when Ryan was charged and Monsignor Cotter was investigated.

The Herald revealed on Saturday [September 22, 2007] that the monsignor decided to "say nothing" in 1975 about Ryan's offending, which allowed Ryan to molest at least another 20 boys.

Mr Ure said he was disappointed and surprised by the DPP's decision not to prosecute the monsignor.

"I was surprised by the response because the reason you put people before the courts is for the victims to be heard, and then to punish the offender, but the victims didn't get that chance in the case of [Monsignor] Cotter."

Although Mr Ure had no direct knowledge about who in the church knew about the 1996 police investigation into the cover-up of Ryan's criminal activities, he was "surprised to see the level of eulogisation at [Monsignor Cotter's] funeral" six weeks ago [August 7, 2007].

The funeral was conducted by Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Michael Malone and attended by priests from across the region.

"I would be surprised if the church as an institution did not know about Cotter's conduct," Mr Ure said.

Retired Newcastle detective John Mooney, who supported the police officer who led the investigation, Constable Troy Grant, said there was a "very strong brief of evidence against the monsignor and he should have gone to trial, notwithstanding he was a high-ranking member of the clergy".

Mr Mooney had "real personal feelings" about Monsignor Cotter's funeral. "I was married at that church," he said. "I don't think he deserved a send-off like that, and I'm fairly strong on that.

"I think that send-off was very, very hurtful to the victims, and what sort of a message does it send to them from the church?" Bishop Malone declined to comment.

Victim's mum confesses a loss of faith

Newcastle Herald
Wednesday, 26 September 2007

The woman who first told Monsignor Patrick Cotter in 1974 that Father Vince Ryan was a pedophile has not been to a church or confessed to a priest for years.

She says she has no faith in the church.

"I believe in God but I wouldn't go to church, and I haven't been since 1999 when my mother died and I didn't have to take her any more," she said. "I don't need the church. I don't need a mediator. I just need God."

She had not confessed her sins to a priest for many years.

"I couldn't confess to a priest. He might be one of them," she said.

She has questions for Bishop Michael Malone about the church's decision to conduct a large funeral for the monsignor at Hamilton Catholic Cathedral last month.

And she does not agree that the Vince Ryan case and Monsignor Cotter's cover-up is a matter for the past, not while Ryan's victims and their families are suffering the consequences in silence.

"He's destroyed a lot of families," she said yesterday.

The woman, whose son was six when Ryan indecently assaulted him, did not appreciate the extent of Monsignor Cotter's continued cover-up of Ryan's activities until The Herald's articles on Saturday outlining the monsignor's decision, in 1975, to "say nothing".

"My husband looked at the paper on Saturday and said 'Those so-and-so Catholics' and threw it down," she said. "He couldn't read it."

But the woman said she read every word.

In a statement to police during the Cotter investigation in 1996, she said "the colour sort of drained from his face" when she told the monsignor in 1974 what Ryan had done to her son the previous day.

In a damning letter that led police to recommend that a charge of concealing a serious crime be laid against him, the monsignor admitted that deciding to "say nothing" about the woman's allegation in 1974 was "unfortunately . . . a mistake on my part", and that Ryan had gone on to commit "more serious" offences against boys the following year.

She was horrified when she read of the extent of Ryan's activities and Monsignor Cotter's knowledge of them for almost two decades.

"Maybe if it had been nipped in the bud when I spoke, if something had been done then, there wouldn't have been so many children and so many families affected," she said.

She understood why Monsignor Cotter's large funeral would have angered victims and their families.

"In my opinion he should just have been buried and a notice put in the paper to say he was gone," she said.

"He didn't deserve it."

Bishop offers regrets

Newcastle Herald
Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone has acknowledged that a former acting bishop, the late Monsignor Patrick Cotter, "has been judged negligent" over his cover-up of the activities of pedophile priest Vince Ryan, in a surprising statement to the region's Catholics.

Bishop Malone, who has repeatedly refused to speak to The Herald about Ryan and the cover-up by Monsignor Cotter, told parishioners in a statement posted on the diocese's website that the "suspicion of cover-ups hang over [the late] Bishop Leo Clarke and myself".

He admitted that, "with the benefit of hindsight, more could have been done to confront sexual abuse in the Church".

"I truly regret that this did not happen and approach these matters with greater understanding these days."

The statement, which the diocese refused to release to the newspaper on Saturday [September 22, 2007], was written after a series of articles outlining a police investigation of the monsignor and others in 1996 that uncovered Monsignor Cotter's decision to "say nothing" about Ryan's offending as early as 1975.

Ryan went on to molest at least 20 children until he was arrested in late 1995. A significant number of them successfully sued the church for failing in its duty of care.

Monsignor Cotter died last month. Bishop Malone conducted the funeral attended by priests from across the region.

The funeral surprised police who investigated the Ryan and Cotter matters, and appalled the woman who was in 1974 the first to tell the monsignor that Ryan had molested a child. The boy, her son, was aged six.

"In my opinion he [Monsignor Cotter] should just have been buried and a notice put in the paper to say he was gone," the woman said.

In his weekend statement Bishop Malone called on parishioners to "support one another" during "these long and difficult days" following Saturday's Herald reports.

Bishop Malone described the statement as a "message of encouragement" to the region's Catholics, and said it was "unfair" to judge "the decisions of Church leaders from over 30 years ago with today's knowledge of similar incidents".

In articles on Monday [September 24, 2007], The Herald recounted how one woman phoned Monsignor Cotter about Ryan in 1991. When she told the monsignor Ryan was molesting boys and asked him what he was doing about it, the monsignor responded, "He's not doing any of it any more", and finished by saying "We'll deal with it".

The woman said she wept after making the call.

Asked to comment specifically about his statement that there was a "suspicion of cover-ups [which] hang over Bishop Leo Clarke and myself", a spokeswoman for Bishop Malone said: "Bishop Michael won't be commenting any further beyond the statement he made on Friday [September 21, 2007] and the statement on Saturday [September 22]."

More covering-up

Footnote by a Broken Rites researcher:

When Vince Ryan was first jailed in 1996, some of the coverage in the Newcastle Herald was written by journalist Jeff Corbett, who had been born a Catholic. Corbett was a former pupil of St Pius X College, Newcastle.

Corbett's 1996 articles pointed out that the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic hierarchy had known for years that Vincent Ryan was committing child-sex crimes.

Corbett wrote in a column on 1 October 1996: "Fr Ryan's crime is serious ... but it may be a lesser crime than that of anybody in the Church who may have permitted his behaviour."

In another article ten years later, on 22 September 2007, Jeff Corbett reveals that Monsignor Patrick Cotter visited him on 10 October 1996, imploring him to stop writing articles about Vince Ryan.

Corbett indicates that Cotter was acting furtively. Corbett says that Cotter had insisted that this meeting should take place at Corbett's private residence, not at Corbett's office or Cotter's office.

And Cotter did not park his car outside Corbett's house but half a block away, around a corner.

Corbett's article of 22 September 2007 also gives some interesting information about how Bishop Leo Clarke retired in 1996. Corbett writes: "A few years later my former St Pius College rector, or principal, the very Irish Fr Patrick Helferty, who had taken to phoning me at work and who was memorably distressed when I referred once to bishops as geezers, told me that Bishop Leo Clarke, who had been head of the Maitland Catholic diocese for much of Vince Ryan's career, had been ordered by the Vatican to retire when it learnt of the police investigation into Ryan."

More on Vincent Ryan

To see the main Broken Rites article about Father Vincent Ryan, click HERE.