“They had hoped he would go away quietly, fade into anonymity. Just another ex-cop with an axe to grind. In time they thought no one would listen. It has been 46 years almost to the day since Denis Ryan’s career as a Victoria Police detective came to an end after he tried to charge a priest, Monsignor John Day, with child sex offences. All hell broke loose in the Victoria Police Force; some of its most senior men tried to bring him down. But Ryan would not be silenced and people would, eventually, listen. In this week’s Australia Day honours, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia, recognition finally for his role in child protection investigations.
Ryan’s story is no tormented parable searching for meaning. The lesson is simple: do the right thing, no matter the cost. “I was a pain in the arse to the police force and the government. There was no way I would have stopped. None. I wish others would have done the same,” he says now. But Ryan paid a high price. It cost him the job he loved and the financial security of a police pension. He has just turned 86 and lives in a rented flat in Mildura, northwest Victoria, eking out a life on the old age pension. He knew at the time his doomed investigation of Day would lead to more victims. It troubles him to this day.
I got to know Ryan through a mutual acquaintance, former cop Bryan Harding. A family friend and former schoolmate of my father’s, Harding had made it to the rank of chief superintendent. He told me Ryan’s story. It was difficult to believe at first but I knew Harding did not waste time on fanciful stories. Harding did the introductions and I began to speak regularly with Ryan on the phone. I made contact with a publishing company and prepared a proposal for publication. It was accepted. We had a book to write.
Ryan drove up to my home, pulling his caravan along up the Hume Highway. He checked into the caravan park nearby and stayed the next 12 weeks. We sat down in my little office and got to work. Within a few days we had completed the draft first chapter. It dealt with Ryan’s life after the scandal that destroyed his career and the long period of suffering he endured: post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide ideations, a sense of utter hopelessness, panic attacks and nightmares that returned to his sleep almost every night.
I spiked it. The man was a cop and a proud one. His story demanded more than the excruciatingly painful details of victimhood. We set to work on the second draft of the first chapter, detailing Ryan’s first encounter with the paedophile priest John Day.
The extraordinary preface to a story that would dominate Ryan’s life took place on the streets of St Kilda in 1956 when he and two senior officers came across a big American car swerving down the road. They pulled the car over and saw a priest in the company of two prostitutes, drunk with his pants around his ankles. Father John Day from Apollo Bay.
Sergeant Tom Jenkins drove Day back to the police station. St Patrick’s Cathedral was contacted and two young priests drove out to collect Day and his car. He swayed down the corridors and out the door. Afterwards, Ryan approached Jenkins and asked why Day had not been charged. He was told Catholic priests got a pass from the police; short of murder, they were off limits to the normal restraints of law and order. Jenkins, a Changi veteran, had no loyalty to the Catholic Church or its priests. He simply understood how the system worked. He explained to Ryan that even if they had charged Day, it would have gone nowhere. There was a group within the force that would ensure Day walked away. That group was no figment of Jenkins’ imagination. Four years later, as a young detective, Ryan was asked to join it.
Fred Russell was an up and comer in the force, a detective sergeant. In 1960, in a crowded pub in West Melbourne, he pulled Ryan aside. Russell spoke quietly and on condition of secrecy. There was a group within the force that acted on requests from the Cathedral, he explained. Its job was to intervene before priests came to grief in the courts. “We know of your faith, Dinny. We’d like to invite you to join us.”
Ryan imagined the group’s interventions were aimed at traffic offences, drink driving, perhaps the sorts of public order offences Day had committed on the streets of St Kilda four years earlier. He couldn’t imagine the extent of it. Not then. But he understood these interventions necessarily involved perverting the course of justice. He politely declined Russell’s invitation. A decade later, Fred Russell would become a superintendent and the head of the force’s CIB. The group he was recruiting on behalf of was known in the cop vernacular as the Catholic Mafia.
Ryan had been raised a Catholic and as a young man was particularly devout. He would meet with his parish priest every week for coffee and a chat. Father Jim was an avuncular Irish priest full of bonhomie and jokes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant,” Father Jim often said. “As long as you’re Irish.” On one occasion, he leant forward with an earnestness Ryan had not seen in the priest. “Do you know a priest was caught by police down by Chelsea beach [southeast Melbourne], exposing himself to little girls?” Ryan knew nothing of the case. “Somehow this priest was not charged. Dinny, if something similar arises in the course of your duties, I want you to promise me the priest will be charged. These things must stop.”
As a young detective working with the CIB at Mordialloc in Melbourne’s southern beachside fringe, Ryan prosecuted a Presbyterian minister who doubled as a scout master for sexual assault of minors. The minister held bizarre induction rituals for young scouts and often sexually interfered with the young boys. When confronted by Ryan, he confessed to raping and sexual assaulting more than a dozen boys. He received a sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment. On another occasion, a president of an RSL branch in the area was accused of having an unhealthy relationship with a young intellectually disabled boy in his care. He, too, confessed to indecently dealing with the boy and received an eight-year sentence. Meanwhile, the number of Catholic priests prosecuted for child sex offences in Victoria stood at precisely zero.
Ryan’s eldest son, Michael, suffered severe asthma. On one occasion he had an attack so sudden and shocking that Ryan feared for his son’s life. Little was understood about asthma in the early 1960s but after seeing a host of specialists, Ryan was told they should move to a dry, hot climate. After much consideration, Ryan applied for and received a transfer to Mildura. A new life away from the ugly politics of the force beckoned.
On the eve of Ryan’s departure to Mildura he was approached outside Russell Street police station by a senior officer, Dinny Barritt. (Years later, Barritt would be appointed coroner in the Northern Territory and hand down the first response of the numerous public inquiries into the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. He got it right. The dingo did it.) Barritt pulled Ryan aside and warned him about going to Mildura. Barritt’s brother, Jim, was a detective sergeant in Mildura and would effectively be Ryan’s new boss. Dinny Barritt told Ryan his brother was an unstable character, an unusual man. These were euphemisms Ryan would only come to understand after arriving in Mildura.
Within minutes of his arrival at Mildura Police Station, Ryan was whisked away by Jim Barritt and taken on a meet and greet in the community that strangely had only one port of call — the parish priest at Sacred Heart presbytery in the heart of Mildura. Barritt introduced Ryan to the priest but no introduction was necessary. It was Father John Day from Apollo Bay, the priest Ryan had detained in St Kilda in 1956, sporting his clerical collar but with his pants around his ankles while two prostitutes drove him around in his car. At first Ryan did not let on, but when he returned to the car he told his boss: “You know that priest has some unusual habits.” Ryan proceeded to tell the St Kilda story. Barritt exploded into rage. Their working relationship, less than an hour old, was over.
The following day Ryan was summoned to the presbytery and another furious row ensued, this time with Day. The priest denied ever having been to St Kilda and threatened Ryan with defamation proceedings should he recount the story to anyone else. Ryan replied coolly, “I know it was you and you know it, too.” Day ordered Ryan out and slammed the door behind him. What Ryan did not know was that Barritt and Day had an alliance. They ran scams and extortion rackets around the town. There was a third member of the outfit, the Clerk of the Courts, Joe Kearney, then the most senior officer of the court in Mildura. The three men ran Mildura like it was their personal fiefdom.
Ryan determined to leave the three men to their own devices. They were powerful and he was not. He got on with the job of policing in the town, building his own contacts and investigating serious crime. The little he knew of the scams Day, Barritt and Kearney were pulling he chose to ignore.
However, after a phone call from a senior teacher at St Joseph’s College, John Howden, Ryan could no longer ignore Mildura’s unholy trinity. Howden had a serious matter to discuss and requested Ryan make no mention of it to Barritt. When Ryan arrived at the school he was greeted by Howden and the principal, a gaunt, painfully thin nun, Sister Pancratius. She rose from her seat and addressed Ryan formally. “What I am about to tell you is in breach of my vows and I will never repeat it but I have long known of Monsignor Day’s behaviour towards children. I wish you good luck with your investigation.”
The nun promptly left the room. Howden detailed a report from a parent alleging Day had sexually assaulted her daughter. Ryan began his investigation. Giving evidence to the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said it was relatively straightforward, “like stepping stones”. He went from one victim to the next, taking statements. At first it was five statements, then seven and finally 14 before the shit hit the fan. After the fifth statement, Ryan rang the most senior officer in the area, Superintendent Jack McPartland, who was stationed at Swan Hill. This was a major investigation and Ryan needed help. To Ryan’s astonishment and rising anger he was ordered off the inquiry by McPartland and told to hand over the five statements to the ranking uniformed officer at Mildura, Inspector Alby Irwin. Ryan knew Irwin would appraise Barritt of the investigation and from there it was only a phone call before Day himself knew. The fix was already in.
Ryan decided he would not let Day game the system so easily. He continued taking statements from victims. It all blew up in January 1972. The bigwigs at Russell Street knew they had a potential scandal on their hands and sent up their two grimmest characters, Detective Chief Superintendent John “Black Jack” O’Connor and Detective Chief Inspector Harvey Child. These men were internal affairs officers who reported directly to the chief commissioner, Reg Jackson, and no one else.
O’Connor offered Ryan an inducement — a promotion to Barritt’s job and a speedy transfer of Barritt out of Mildura, provided Ryan played ball and walked away from his inquiries. Ryan declined the offer, effectively ending his career with the Victoria Police Force. O’Connor and Child would later state they had reinterviewed all of the victims who’d given statements to Ryan. They claimed the victims had withdrawn their complaints. It was an outrageous lie and we proved it 40 years later while researching the book.
On Australia Day, at the Grand Hotel in Mildura, O’Connor and Child assured two senior parishioners that Day would be removed from Mildura. They were on their way to meet Bishop Mulkearns in Ballarat, they said, and would tell him to relocate Day. If he refused, they would charge Day. Mulkearns played along. Day was removed from Mildura two days later. Ultimately, he was given another parish in Timboon, near Warrnambool in Victoria’s southwest, where the old degenerate offended again. He died unrepentant and unpunished in 1978.
Day has been the subject of more than 100 separate Towards Healing claims (the Catholic Church’s protocol for dealing with complaints of abuse). We know this because Mulkearns’ successor as Bishop of Ballarat, Peter Connors, conceded as much in a conversation with Ryan many years later. And so in 1972, with paedophiles such as Monsignor John Day and the notorious Fr Gerald Ridsdale sexually abusing children virtually at will, the number of Catholic priests prosecuted for child sex offences in Victoria remained at precisely zero.
This conspiracy would have been wrapped up in a nice little parcel and secreted away in some remote, dusty police archive with a label that read: “Never to be opened.” But there was one loose end: Denis Ryan. He resigned because he had no choice. Had he accepted a transfer back to Melbourne, the scandal would have been buried forever. The only way the story would ever be told was if Ryan remained in Mildura and persisted as the loose end the police could not stitch up.
What did active clerical paedophiles like Day and Ridsdale learn from the conspiracy? If they didn’t already know it, they understood they could rape children with impunity and the police would not act. It would take another 21 years before Ridsdale faced the courts and in the ensuing period he ran amok, sexually assaulting perhaps hundreds of children. He was first jailed in 1993 for abusing numerous children and remains in prison today.
What did the diocesan bishop Ronald Mulkearns learn? He learnt Victoria Police expected him to simply move offending priests on when the clamour within their parishes grew too loud. Move them on to new groups of unsuspecting children. The victims themselves had been given a rough education in justice. They’d been told there was no point in coming forward. Victoria Police had shown it would not act.
Two months after Ryan left my home, I travelledto see him. I wanted to interview some of Day’s victims and check facts before we submitted the manuscript. One afternoon, Ryan and I drove from his home to the Sacred Heart presbytery and the church that Day built, a vast edifice more cathedral than parish church. I took photographs of the outside of the presbytery and wandered around the church. I spied the sacristy, knowing the evil that took place there. On one side of the church were the confessionals. I wondered who took Day’s confessions and who took Ridsdale’s.
As we walked back to the car, passers-by greeted Ryan with a “G’day Dinny” or a nod of acknowledgment. It happened a lot and it was more than country town familiarity. After the scandal in 1972, Ryan had dabbled in local politics. He became the Mildura Shire president in 1979. Two years earlier he established the Ethnic Advisory Council in Mildura. I had the strong sense the respect went deeper. The people of Mildura know the Denis Ryan story. They understand that when push came to shove, he had their backs, and that he was prepared to put it all on the line for them.
There has been vindication. The Royal Commission accepted Ryan’s testimony; he was not cross-examined. And after almost five decades, Victoria Police has finally accepted its gross failure. It has paid him $70,000 in compensation. Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton has visited Ryan’s home in Mildura three times and offered apologies in private. In August 2016, he extended a public apology to Ryan at St Kilda Road Police Headquarters. Now Ryan’s courage has been honoured. “Arise Denis Ryan AM,” I joked with him over the telephone. He replied that he wanted me to call him “Sir” now. We both laughed.
Ryan is more relaxed now. The demons of fear and panic have largely left him. The nightmares come less frequently. But he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing what the oath he took as a police officer required of him. The Andrews government is considering the matter of compensation, but it is taking too long. Denis often quips that government officials must flip through the obituaries hoping his name will pop up so they won’t have to cut him a cheque.
Denis Ryan’s Australia Day honour was proposed by victims’ groups in Mildura and Ballarat. This gives him a special sense of pride. For Ryan, it has always been about the victims. “They have suffered so much. How many people would have been spared the trauma of sexual abuse had Day been prosecuted in 1972? By my count, hundreds. It need not have happened.”