Sarah Ferguson spends her working life wading through murky waters, tackling difficult, confronting and harrowing stories but none has tested her like the project that consumed her for the past year: Revelation — a three-part documentary investigation into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, in which she comes face to face with two of Australia’s most notorious serial paedophiles.
“Throughout the long-running scandal of clerical abuse in Australia, there was one voice we hadn’t heard and that was the perpetrators.
“I wanted to ask them how they led their double lives and how the Church enabled them, but how do you interview men whose crimes are so vile and disturbing, who’ve committed crimes against vulnerable children?
“It was a struggle not to let my revulsion at their crimes drag me off course.”
In a series of television firsts, Revelation (airing weekly from Tuesday, March 17 at 8.30pm on ABC TV and iview), features in-depth interviews with an ordained priest and a religious brother convicted of historical child sexual abuse, and, with unprecedented access granted by the courts, films their trials as they unfold.
“Apart from an excellent US documentary in 2006, as far as I know, this is the only time it’s happened in the world — certainly, long interviews with child-abusing priests still in the priesthood we have never seen. And this is the first time we have seen their trials on camera,” says Ferguson.
One of the interviews was done behind bars in a maximum-security prison where Bernard McGrath, a former St John of God brother, teacher and headmaster in residential schools in Australia and New Zealand, is serving 39 years for crimes against children.
“A prison warden brought McGrath into a secure room where we’d set up the cameras and he tried immediately to draw me into a whispered private conversation,” recalls Ferguson.
“I moved backwards on my stool, making him lean in and shifting the power balance.
“I was apprehensive, not because of who he was but because of the professional challenge of drawing him out.”
Ferguson also interviewed Vincent Ryan, a priest of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese who became known in the media as a monster.
He’d already spent 14 years in prison and was facing trial on new charges from men who had been altar boys in his church in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The interview went for hours across two days because the material was exhausting to both of us,” says Ferguson.
“Ryan looked at me at one point and said whatever we thought of him, he was sure of God’s forgiveness.
“I am not easily offended because it obscures critical thinking, but this outraged me.
“Not because it wasn’t possible according to his faith but because he had not earned it.
“He was so far from understanding the effect of his crimes and that he was nowhere near forgiveness.”
“So, even though they have been convicted they don’t want to talk about what they did except on their own terms, they don’t want to talk about how the Church enabled them, there is still a strong sense of solidarity towards the Church.
“They told us more than they intended but their allegiances remain.
“After the interviews I was physically and mentally drained.”
Throughout filming, Ferguson was conscious of the confronting nature of the material and the impact on the audience.
“There is a risk in putting criminals like this on camera and the material has to justify the affront and I had to ensure the interviews had meaning,” says Ferguson.
“But the moment of seeing the person themselves, the person who actually perpetrated these crimes, in their ordinariness, it is a revelation.
“It’s dark but it’s compelling and the experience of the few people who have seen the series is you can’t take your eyes off it, but it also leaves a lot to think about afterwards.
“This is this ultimate double life — you are standing up in church on Sunday preaching about morals and committing heinous acts before and after, sometimes immediately before and immediately after.
“How is someone capable of leading a life like that?”
Finding a suitable case, an accused — let alone two — willing to take part in the documentary, and navigating the legal hurdles to get cameras into court was an enormous task for Ferguson and the production team, particularly executive producer Nial Fulton, working with principal cinematographer Aaron Smith and researchers Sophie Randerson, Kate Wild and Alison McClymont.
“Finding priests or brothers willing to have their trial filmed was extremely difficult,” says Ferguson.
“In America there’ve been cameras in court for a long time, but not much in Australia, although that’s changing.
“But this was a new frontier, filming sexual assault trials.
“We had the support of the Chief Judge of the NSW District Court, Derek Price, and the Chief Judge of the County Court in Victoria, Peter Kidd, who, to their immense credit, got the arguments to bring into the public domain how these cases go through the system.
“They made it possible.
“The DPP in NSW and Victoria and three trial judges were all crucial parts of the process, along with barristers and solicitors.
“These are heavily protected cases.
“There is great concern in the system to protect the victims of child sexual abuse going to court, there are individuals you can’t identify but we found a way to tell the stories.”
Ferguson has also spoken to a number of survivors, including those who were abused by Ryan and McGrath.
She travelled to Ireland and the Vatican to interrogate church leaders and the final episode reveals the story of a man who has kept a shocking secret for decades.
The access the Revelation team secured is extraordinary but when you consider how reviled paedophiles are, how dreadful their crimes, and how adept they’ve been at concealing those crimes, it’s hard to comprehend why they’d agree to such intense public exposure and scrutiny of their actions.
“People will say that paedophiles often display narcissistic traits, I’m not a psychiatrist so I can’t say if that’s right or wrong, but perhaps that narcissism makes them want to talk about it,” says Ferguson.
“They say they want to make some kind of amends for what they’ve done by adding to the sum of human knowledge, you can believe it or not as you watch and decide if there is any truth in that.
“Over the years, though, I have found that some people want to talk about things they’ve done, even very bad things.”
Over her career, Ferguson has witnessed and reported on dreadful things — mass death from the Boxing Day tsunami, the suffering of abused women and children escaping domestic violence, the exploitation of the people smuggling trade, cruel treatment of cattle sent for live export.
All have left a mark, but none like Revelation.
“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.
“But I believe that understanding is our best defence against a repeat of these crimes in the future.”
Revelation airs weekly from Tuesday, March 17 at 8.30pm on ABC TV and iview. Read more behind-the-scenes stories on ABC Backstory.