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Priest Accused of Inappropriate Behavior While At Maxwell

May 4, 2003 | Mobile Register

One of the priests named in a local criminal probe into sexual abuse was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior while he was a chaplain at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, according to church and law enforcement officials. That priest, Barry E. Ryan, has been a high school teacher in Florida, where school officials say they didn't know of the accusation against him.

Little information has been disclosed about the allegation involving Ryan, who recently requested leave from his job as a school library media specialist in Stuart, Fla. Ryan's home diocese, the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., provided no specifics during several interviews, and Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr. said he has seen no details in local church documents that identified Ryan as an alleged abuser.

The Archdiocese of Mobile provided the local documents pertaining to Ryan and five other clergy in response to an open-ended request by Tyson in March. He asked the church for information on J. Alexander Sherlock, a Montgomery priest who resigned from his post because of accusations of child sex abuse, and any other priests with similar problems.

The allegation of sexual misconduct was news to Ryan's employer, as well as the president of the Council of Parent-Teacher Associations in Martin County, Fla., which is about 40 miles north of Palm Beach.

"If there's an accusation somewhere, then it certainly needs to be investigated to find the truth," said PTA president Nancy Lyons, adding that it would be horrible to be wrongly accused of such a thing. "But if there's some truth to it, that guy needs to go."

An employee with the 17,000-student Martin County public school system said officials were concerned about Ryan's connection to the Mobile probe. But she said they would not take action until they knew more.

Frequently in such cases, however, there hasn't been anything more than allegations, because of the way that the Catholic Church has handled reports of sexual abuse in the United States. Historically, church officials have not referred many of the matters to criminal authorities. Instead, agreements or settlements have been struck with some victims, and priests have been removed from ministry or moved to other parishes.

Beyond the allegations of sexual abuse of children (and sometimes adults), the church has drawn fire for failing to disclose sex abuse cases.

"No one really wants to take responsibility for making public any bad conduct of an employee," said Susan Archibald, who heads The Linkup, a Louisville, Ky., support group for victims of clergy abuse.

"So these people end up skating out where it's a perfect opportunity to abuse again."

In Ryan's case, there is no definite information that he abused anyone.

He declined to speak to the Mobile Register and didn't respond to a FedEx letter delivered to his house. Within days of receiving the package, he called the principal of Martin County High and requested medical leave for the remainder of the school year, said Deana Newson, head of personnel for the system. She said it is unclear whether he will return.

A Diocese of Brooklyn official said last week that Ryan, 55, went on medical leave from the school system due to a life-threatening case of stomach cancer.

Ryan's assignment at Maxwell Air Force Base is the only apparent connection to the Archdiocese of Mobile. The Mobile archdiocese covers the southern half of Alabama, including Montgomery.

Ryan was ordained in March 1976 and served at two churches in Brooklyn, according to church records. He started active service with the Air Force as a chaplain in 1984, according to military records.

His last military assignment, from 1993 to 1995, was at Maxwell, records show. There, Ryan worked at the Air Force's Chaplain Service Institute and edited a Catholic religious education guide, according to his Florida teaching personnel file.

In 1995, Ryan requested a leave of absence from the church for personal reasons, said Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn. He was discharged from the military in June 1995. What kind of discharge he received is not publicly known because that information does not fall under the federal Freedom of Information Act. There are no records that suggest he was court-martialed.

Ryan has been on leave from the church since 1995. He is not allowed to minister or function publicly as a priest, DeRosa said, and has maintained only limited contact with the Brooklyn diocese.

Limited disclosure is the common thread among the church and the military regarding Ryan's history.

In the Official Catholic Directory, he is listed as "absent on leave." That description has been used across the country to account for priests who have been removed from the ministry because of sex abuse, though that wording also has been used for priests who are taking time off for other reasons.

Catholic military chaplains fall under the authority of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. That archdiocese, said Vice Chancellor Tom Connelly, does not discuss personnel matters. He said the military services generally would not share investigative information about chaplains with the archdiocese unless the cases had been handled by courts-martial.

The Air Force sends all personnel files for departed military to a records center in St. Louis, which released only basic information about Ryan's military career.

Asked why Ryan's name would come up in connection with a clergy sex abuse probe, DeRosa responded that there had been no allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior within the diocese.

"Our main concern is how it affects our situation up here ... and I know there was nothing up here," DeRosa said.

In a later conversation, he said Brooklyn church officials were aware of an "incident" in the Mobile archdiocese, but he didn't have any details.

DeRosa said Ryan's latest job is acceptable to the diocese, which still has authority over him as a priest. According to another church official's explanation, DeRosa said, Ryan repaired school computers and sometimes demonstrated them for students, "always with the teacher there." DeRosa didn't elaborate on why a teacher would always be with the priest.

Asked whether parents of students at Martin County High should be concerned about their children, DeRosa said, "In his time teaching down there, there have been no allegations. That says something about how he has handled himself."

Before becoming a full-time teacher at Martin County High for the 1998-1999 school year, Ryan worked at a computer training center in Hempstead, N.Y., as a substitute teacher in Stuart, Fla., then as a software instructor and network administrator at another town in Florida, according to Martin County school personnel records.

Among the references for his teaching job were two letters from Air Force chaplains, one of whom said he was Ryan's supervisor from 1993 to 1995 at Maxwell.

Officials with the school system said they hadn't heard of any problems in Ryan's background. Newson pointed out that a criminal background check didn't turn up any convictions.

Such background checks are usually routed to the FBI's fingerprint identification center in West Virginia. An official there said military records would not be in the database unless an arrest was involved. Non-judicial disciplinary actions would not be in the database.

"That's just an accusation," said Jack Valerio, assistant principal at Martin County High, adding that he will not pay any attention to it because "this is one of the most exemplary people I have met in my life."

Ryan had been Teacher of the Year, said Valerio, who wrote a recommendation letter for Ryan in 1997 when he was seeking a full-time teaching role. Valerio's letter lauded Ryan's work as a substitute teacher: "How often do you find a substitute teacher captivating a class with soliloquies from Shakespeare? Barry did so."

When a reporter first contacted Ryan by telephone, the newspaper was unsure of his connection to the Mobile archdiocese. Ryan's name had been given to the newspaper by Tyson.

In his interview, Ryan said he had never lived in Mobile, and he didn't respond when he was told that his name had come up in an investigation of priest sex abuse.

When he was asked why that would happen, he said, "I think that's the end of my interview. Thank you," and hung up.

Ryan has not held a teaching certificate in Alabama, according to a state Department of Education spokesman. Such a certificate would be required to teach in public schools, although not in private schools.

And while Martin County records show that Ryan claimed a year of teaching experience in private school, a church official in Mobile said the priest wouldn't have taught at any of the schools in the archdiocese.

Tyson expressed surprise when told that Ryan was a teacher. He said he didn't know enough about Ryan to say if parents there should be concerned, but "if I had a child in his class, I'd sure be asking questions."

Tyson noted that a bill pending in the Alabama Legislature will require clergy to report allegations of child abuse, with some exceptions. Current law does not include clergy.

Even without the legal requirement, Tyson said, church officials should have reported such accusations to law enforcement or child welfare officials.

"What's frustrating to me is, I don't think we should have had to say, 'Oh, by the way, you need to protect children.'"

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