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Fr Paul David Ryan (“Fr Ryan”) was born in Melbourne on 12 September 1948.
In his late teenage years, Fr Ryan started training for the priesthood at St Francis Xavier’s seminary in Adelaide.
In 1971, halfway through his third year, the seminary asked Fr Ryan to leave; the reason for this rejection is unclear. However, at this time, Fr Ryan was close friends with Fr Ronald Dennis Pickering, a prominent priest in the Melbourne Archdiocese, who knew Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. This meant that Fr Ryan now had useful connections within the Catholic Church.
In late 1971, Fr Ryan moved to the Ballarat Diocese in Victoria to take up a teaching position at St Joseph’s College in Mildura. Fr Ryan also asked the Bishop to sponsor him as a Ballarat candidate for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne. Despite having poor references, Fr Ryan was accepted as a candidate and spent the next five years at Corpus Christi College.
The seminary’s documents reflect that Fr Ryan was abrasive and hard to deal with, and was also reported to have had sexual relationships with six other trainee priests during his seminary course. At the end of his training in 1975, the Ballarat Diocese gave Fr Ryan a three-month probationary period at St Columba’s Parish in Ballarat North. Fr Ryan was also allowed to teach at the Ballarat Catholic School.
In 1976, Fr Ryan was ordained in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat, however, during that same week, a woman had contacted the Ballarat Diocese and reported that Fr Ryan had sexually abused her son. She threatened to go to the media if Fr Ryan was allowed to minister in the local parishes, however, the Catholic Church maintained a lenient attitude towards Fr Ryan.
The seminary arranged for Fr Ryan to see a Catholic psychologist. Fr Pickering suggested to the psychologist that Fr Ryan should have a year of “spiritual formation” in a religious community overseas. The psychologist supported the idea, and the Ballarat Diocese contacted Fr John Harvey in the United States of America, where Fr Ryan would minister to homosexuals. Fr Harvey requested details about Fr Ryan’s sexual activity, wanting to know if it involved adults or minors. The Ballarat Diocese told Fr Harvey that Fr Ryan’s sexual behaviour included “mutual masturbation” with other seminary trainees, but “it seems certain that more serious acts occurred not infrequently”. The Ballarat Diocese also suggested that Fr Ryan was sexually active “even on the night of his ordination”. Fr Ryan ended up spending 15 months in the United States of America. Fr Ryan subsequently visited the United States of America six more times over the next two decades.
In 1979, during Fr Ryan’s second trip to the United States of America, he completed theological studies and ministered at the Star of the Sea Parish in Virginia Beach. Fr Ryan worked as a counsellor at the Star of the Sea School, which meant he was involved with primary school aged children up to 14-year-old children. One particular male student was in Grades 7 and 8 when Fr Ryan worked at the school. This student disclosed that Fr Ryan gave him alcohol and marijuana and then proceeded to sexually abuse him. Two other boys also disclosed that Fr Ryan held “counselling” and “religious instruction” sessions but used these sessions to abuse them.
Fr Ryan’s Australian superiors exchanged letters about the complaints with his United States of America supervisors, however, no action was taken.
In 1991, Fr Ryan returned to Victoria to undertake a permanent position at the Ararat Parish as an assistant priest, however, fresh allegations had been made against him. A convicted child sex offender had informed the Court that he too was a victim of child sexual abuse; whilst Fr Ryan wasn’t named specifically, the Catholic Church knew that he was the offender, and the allegations quickly were in the media.
Fr Ryan then decided to go back to the United States of America where he was sent to the St Luke Institute in Maryland, a refuge for priests with “sexual problems”. He was assessed and rejected after it was confirmed that he had a drinking problem. After being rejected from the refuge, Fr Ryan moved back to Australia and lived with a local Warrnambool family. He did not contact the Bishop, and eventually, Fr Brian Finnigan signed an “Employment Separation Certificate” so Fr Ryan could apply for social security benefits. The certificate said Fr Ryan was “unsuitable for this type of work” and did not mention any misconduct.
Fr Ryan has abused a large number of children — students and altar boys alike — across Australia and the United States of America, showing them pornographic images and sexually assaulting teenagers in their most vulnerable state.
In 1997, Towards Healing received a complaint from a Mrs Helen Watson, who had discovered that her son, Peter, had been abused by Fr Ryan in Ararat in 1991.
In 2003, another woman complained to Towards Healing that Fr Ryan’s abuse had damaged her son’s personal development. In 2005, this woman’s son provided a written statement to the police detailing the abuse by Fr Ryan at Warrnambool. The Warrnambool Criminal Investigation Unit discovered that the Ballarat Diocese had received multiple complaints about Fr Ryan since 1976 and that Towards Healing had heard from Mrs Helen Watson in 1997.
In 2006, Fr Ryan was arrested in Cairns QLD, and charged with indecent assault. Fr Ryan was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In 2019, Fr Ryan was charged again for the sexual assault of three boys who were aged 14, 15 and 17 at the time of the abuse. The first boy was training to be an altar boy, and the other two victims were students at the Warrnambool Christian Brothers College, where Fr Ryan worked as a school chaplain and offered sex education classes. The court heard that Fr Ryan asked one of the victims about masturbation during confession and bought the boy alcohol and cigarettes. He would actively seek out the boys who confessed to masturbating, thinking that they would be an easier target. He also showed the boys pornographic images of men that he carried around in a briefcase. The court also heard that the victim had approached Bishop Mulkearns, but the boy was told not to go to the police. Fr Ryan was sentenced to a minimum of 17 months in jail.
In court, Fr Ryan’s crimes were described as “brazen”, “humiliating”, and “degrading”.
In May 2021, Fr Ryan was indicted in the United States of America on charges of sexual assault against a teenager in 1979. According to the charges, Fr Ryan had taken the victim on a ski trip to Massanutten Resort in Rockingham County, Virginia, “under the pretence of a church-sanctioned outing”. Fr Ryan arranged for the boy to stay with him in a private house where he sexually assaulted the victim twice. Several other victims from Virginia have come forward and shared their stories about Fr Ryan.
We are specialist abuse lawyers and can help you receive acknowledgement, meaningful apology and financial resolution from those institutions and systems of power that failed to protect you from harm. If you would like advice in relation to a childhood or adult sexual, physical and/or psychological/emotional abuse claim in any jurisdiction in Australia, please reach out to the author, Emily Wright, at Littles Lawyers today.
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