Interview: Journalist Sarah Ferguson on Catholic Church Sex Abuse Documentary ‘Revelation’ – Now on Netflix


[Listen to the interview above and read it below]

At the time of writing, in the Top Ten TV Shows highlighted on Netflix Australia is Revelation, a three-part documentary that sheds light on some of the atrocities committed by Catholic priests in Australia, how the church engaged in extensive cover-ups, and the horrifying toll that the sexual abuse has had on victims and survivors. It’s an eye-opening, heartbreaking, infuriating experience – and it’s one that needs to be seen.

I was lucky enough to have a chat with Sarah Ferguson, the acclaimed investigative journalist, documentary maker, and television presenter (Sarah is also the host of ABC’s current affairs program, 7.30) who serves as Revelation‘s presenter. Sarah was pivotal in getting the project off the ground, also serving as one of the directors and writers.

Among the discussion points in the interview below: What it’s like to now have Revelation hit Netflix following its ABC premiere in 2020; the decision to sit down with convicted pedophiles and have them speak on screen; and the emotional challenge of crafting an in-depth documentary on Catholic Church sex abuse. As for the latter, Sarah told me that once the project was complete, a breather was necessary. “I didn’t collapse, but I didn’t work for six months. I couldn’t do a thing.”

Read the complete interview below. Revelation is now streaming on Netflix.

Sarah Ferguson talking to convicted child sex abuser Bernard McGrath, Downing Centre Court, Sydney, 2019 | Image Provided

Guillermo Troncoso: Hello. It is truly a pleasure to talk to you today.

Sarah Ferguson: Thank you.

Guillermo Troncoso: I watched Revelation on Netflix over the last few days. I had to watch it in parts. It’s quite a lot to take in. I’m not sure how you, personally, would take compliments for something that covers matters like these, but I would like to say that it’s incredible work. From a documentary, journalistic, filming standpoint, I think you and the team should be really proud of what you have done here.

Sarah Ferguson: Thank you. I’m very glad to hear that. It was very, very hard work. It’s a weird thing, but we actually learned how to have a lot of fun together in spite of the material. You develop ways to manage when you’re dealing with really dark, fascinating material. So it was a rich experience for all of us.

Guillermo Troncoso: I can imagine. Revelation has taken a few years to hit Netflix. I know you filmed it around 2019 and it aired on Australia’s ABC in 2020. Well, thankfully, a platform like this means more eyes, a larger reach. What are your thoughts on having it go up on a big streaming service?

Sarah Ferguson: We’re delighted, because it [originally] came out during COVID and there was a little period where streaming services wanted light stuff. Everyone wanted to watch Ted Lasso. And then as time went on, I think that did shift. But for various reasons, this is the moment. And I think I’ve changed my mind about currency. I came up through journalism, and journalism is my thing and everything’s about currency. Now I feel very strongly that there are some stories that, a bit of time, a few steps away, is actually a really good thing. If the material is good enough. And in this case, getting our cameras into the courtrooms was such a – it’s never been done in the world. And so the uniqueness of that, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on now or in ten years, time doesn’t matter. It’s really down to the quality of the storytelling.

Guillermo Troncoso: Absolutely. Now, how did Revelation come about? Was it set up as a documentary first, or was it perhaps journalism that developed into a three-episode documentary structure?

Sarah Ferguson: No, it was always going to be a series of episodes. How many and how long they were, they did end up being feature length, which was… we probably could have split them into five at the end, but by that stage, we were all kind of on the carpet, barely able to stand, so we decided to stick with the three long episodes. It was set up as a kind of blue-chip documentary series for the ABC and funded by Screen Australia to take a very big and contemporary view of what had happened with this, which is obviously one of Australia’s biggest stories in its contemporary history. So to take a new view, which is where we decided to try and get our cameras into the courts, but to take a long series view of the extraordinary stories that are part of Australia’s Catholic Church criminal story.

Police mug shot of convicted child sex abuser Vincent Ryan | Image Provided

Guillermo Troncoso: Yeah, absolutely. The series highlights a large number of the atrocities committed by Catholic priests and the cover-ups that the Church spearheaded, which are shocking and eye opening factors on their own, but then you have the fact that we actually sit down with some of these priests and get their points of view. Why was it important for you and the team to have these men on camera sharing their thoughts?

Sarah Ferguson: So, I should say, we didn’t want them to share their thoughts because many of their thoughts are self serving and trying to look for ways to make you feel sorry for them or excuse them. So it wasn’t exactly their thoughts. What we wanted them to do, and they did, was to give us their idea of how the cover-up worked. None of what they did, not a single one of those crimes, would they have been able to get away with without a system to protect them, without the system of the Catholic Church generally and the way it controlled people’s lives or, more broadly, the actual criminal conspiracy of moving perpetrators around to hide what they were doing. To make sure that anybody who complained was rejected, and to protect the Church at all costs. At all and any cost, no matter what the consequences were for the individuals.

So these men in the middle of these systems – and they came from different parts, very different parts of the church – they’re the ones who understand better than anybody how that system worked. How that unspoken, often unspoken… [to] use Euphemistic language, so you’re never actually saying what it is, while everyone knew exactly what it was and how they moved them, pushed them from one school to another, one church to another, one parish to another. And then they’d do it again, and then they’d be moved again. These guys went from place to place to place. They could have committed one crime, they could have offended against one child and that would have been terrible, but they didn’t. They committed terrible crimes against many. And then they moved to another place. And then they moved to another place. In some cases, they moved more than ten times. And every time, those children in the church or in the parish or in the school, where they were incoming, knew nothing and thought they were welcoming another father, another priest into their midst – not knowing that. The Church knew perfectly well that this was someone who had done these things to children and he was going to do it again.

So it was about getting them to tell us with whatever veracity they could. Because once you become someone like this, you’re trained in deception of yourself, amongst first in the ranks and then everybody else. To try and get them to reveal some of how that system worked from the inside, which is the thing that no one had ever heard before.

Guillermo Troncoso: Right. And from their points of view, in regards to why they would accept to be on camera when it’s pretty obvious what the angle would be – it’s not exactly showing them in a positive light. Why would they accept it? And what was their train of thought going in? Was it self castigation, self defense?

Sarah Ferguson: No. So it’s a great question. And the way that you get people to do things, it’s a real art in its own right. You can never mislead people, but you can present a narrative to people that might make some sense to them if they don’t think, I think, if they don’t think about it completely. Whenever you see a documentary that has incredible access, behind it is someone who’s got the ability to present a story that appeals to the person. And there can be a whole range of reasons. Sometimes with criminals, they have a real sense of bravado and they want to be the ones that tell their own story. And it’s a great question, but it’s a complicated relationship, the way that you persuade people to do things and maybe I’ll write a book about it one day. But yes, you need to give them a rationale that is truthful, but you have to appeal to the person, you have to appeal to their personality. So there’s no tricks involved. But it is a very subtle negotiation, that one.

Bernie [surname withheld], victim and survivor | Image Provided
Guillermo Troncoso: Yeah. I find it absolutely fascinating. With your lengthy career as a journalist, I’m sure you’ve had a strong understanding of the rampant sexual abuse within the Church. Despite that, did this serve as a shocking journey of discovery for you? Or was it more a shocking journey of confirmation?

Sarah Ferguson: That’s another great question. No, I think I’m going to go with discovery, because whatever you think you know about this… until you confront it close up. Those simple things that I’m talking about. In one interview, I’m interviewing this man – very moving, very restrained, beautiful character. And he describes the day that he comes across this priest in Victoria, Father [Gerald] Ridsdale, and the fact that that man, Father Ridsdale, who in the end admitted to abusing hundreds of children, when he came into this man’s village in little Town in Victoria, all of the people around him knew who he was and what he’d done. And there’s this little boy who works, does some work to help out the priest. His family likes the fact that he’s the priest’s little helper. He’s got no idea what’s coming. He draws a picture of him to welcome him, a happy picture of him, and then he gets abused by Father Ridsdale. And he describes that day in some detail. And then him cycling home at the end of the day and then living with it for the rest of his life until it kind of burst out of him when he was in his 50s, which is quite a common pattern.

Even though I knew that happened, I knew stories like that, it’s not until you hear someone talking about it that the sheer wrongness, the outrage of a church, protecting a man like that, really comes home. And then in the case of the priests who are on camera, their trials, there’s something about the kind of clinical nature of a trial. So getting our cameras into the courtrooms was really important for us. And seeing those crimes dealt with as crimes, like any criminal, nothing special, don’t care if you’re a priest, you’re just an accused man, like any other murderer or someone who’s assaulted someone or whatever the crime is, they all get the same treatment. So seeing them presented as just ordinary criminals with the stuff you have to put in prison, your ID, and then in prison garb, all of that, reduced to who they are, which is criminals. It was a whole new, brand new, crazy journey all of its own.

Guillermo Troncoso: Just to dig a little further into that. From a personal point of view, putting aside the job itself, a journalist, an investigator, a director and writer here – you’re human. And so how do you manage the emotional side of things? Do you compartmentalise things to put aside some of the anger and sadness that could be overwhelming?

Sarah Ferguson: Yes, that’s exactly what happens. So you have to kind of find a very strong, professional demeanour to get through it. And honestly, to be really honest about it, the only way people deal with this kind of, living with these stories for a long months and months and months and months, more than a year, you use humour as a release valve amongst us. Always respectful, but still we can be funny with each other. We used to tease each other a lot. That was a way, but otherwise there’s a kind of massive professional restraint going on that when the project’s over. I didn’t collapse, but I didn’t work for six months. I couldn’t do a thing. I was supposed to write a book at the time, and I didn’t. So maybe now enough time has passed that my brain can take it again.

Guillermo Troncoso: Yeah, I think there’s only so much you can take, regardless of the stance that you put on it.

Sarah Ferguson: Correct.

Bernard McGrath, Prison Interview, NSW, 2019 | Image provided

Guillermo Troncoso: Well, while Revelation has a focus on Australia, of course, more and more atrocities around the world continue to come to light. For example, 216,000 children, in a report, sexually abused in the French Catholic Church system. That’s just since 1950. So in your opinion, with more atrocities that come to light, are we seeing a change, a positive change going forward with all these revelations? Or is it just, unfortunately, more of the same that’s just coming to light?

Sarah Ferguson: I think what you’re seeing is the same coming to light, that each country has had its own timetable of discovery. Some countries got here quicker than others. And I think there are parts of Asia and Africa, for example, where we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. The system was bad. The institution was set up to protect [abusers] at all costs, including at the cost of little children. And it operated in the same way from here to Asia to France, all through Africa. There is not a single place where the church was, where these crimes were not committed. It’s just that everyone’s on a kind of uneven timetable for when they accept that this has happened and finally start talking about it.

Guillermo Troncoso: And I think, well, that’s part of why work like this, work that you’ve done here, is so valuable and important for people to watch. I’ve already told a few of my friends, ‘We come from all walks of life, take care of yourself, how you approach information, but it’s information that I think is necessary to be taken, in one way or another.’ So, again, I commend you and the team for what you have done.

Sarah Ferguson: Thank you very much indeed. It may sound [like] tough stuff, but it’s actually compelling viewing. I just want to say that to your listeners. It sounds like, ‘Whoa, that’s hard work!’ But this is like true crime at its most powerful.

Guillermo Troncoso: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time today. I hope I get to talk to you again one day.

Sarah Ferguson: Thank you. It would be my honour and pleasure. Thank you very much.