Remembering Ryan

ImageThursday 8 February 2007 

By Rebecca Cullen 

It’s been 40 years since the hangman's noose was slipped around Ronald Ryan's neck on in the last-ever state-sanctioned hanging to occur in Australia.

Convicted of murdering a prison warden during an attempted jail break, Ryan's death sentence made headlines across the nation because it was the first not to be commuted by the Government for many years.

The then-Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte's insistence on making an example of Ryan by allowing him to hang on 3 February, 1967 stirred public debate, leading to widespread protest that eventuated in the abolishing of capital punishment in all Australian states and territories.

The sombre anniversary of Ronald Ryan's execution was marked on Saturday, 3 February, 2007 by two services held in Melbourne.

The first took place outside the main gate of the notorious former Pentridge Prison, where the hanging was conducted. This service was attended by Ryan's legal defence team who, together with Ryan's grandchildren, placed a floral tribute against the gate.

The second service was a memorial Mass, held at St Ignatius Church in Richmond, where Ryan's family lived at the time of his trial and execution.

Organised by St Ignatius parish priest Fr Peter Norden, the marking of Ronald Ryan's anniversary was a reunion of sorts for those who were involved in the 1967 protest and for those who today hold firm convictions against the taking of human life.

Fr Norden is well known for his strong condemnation of capital punishment through his involvment in the public campaign to save the life of former St Ignatius student, Van Nguyen, who was convicted of drug smuggling and hanged in Singapore in December 2005.

“We've been quite opposed to capital punishment through this parish with the earlier involvement with Van Nguyen and since I worked at Pentridge,” said Fr Norden.

“I followed up from Fr John Brosnan, who was the prison chaplain for 30 years, and…was centrally involved in the opposition to capital punishment as well. He had to ministered to Ryan during that time, had to administer the last rites, and was also involved in the public campaign [to spare his life], which was quite significant,” Fr Norden said.

While the Catholic Church's unequivocal opposition to capital punishment is clear today, as evidenced by the Vatican's condemnation of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's execution, Fr Norden said this official position was only adopted 15 years ago.

It was for this reason that in 1967 the then-Vicar General, Mgr Leo Clarke, could make only a personal plea for clemency in Ryan's case, and not speak with the Church's authority.

“We can presume in all fairness that those who administer the law are doing so in this particular case in all sincerity and with the best motives. However, I honestly believe that the welfare of the community and of the individual would be better served by mercy than by justice,” Mgr Clarke wrote in a statement on 25 January, 1967.

Fr Norden told Catholic Communications Melbourne that he, together with a number of prison chaplains from around the world, had made a plea to the Vatican in 1990 for the Church to adopt a firm position against the use of capital punishment.

“We said there shouldn't be any ambivalence about the death penalty. If we are opposed to abortion and euthanasia, we also have to be opposed to capital punishment… 12-18months later, an amended version of the Catechism came out and the Pope then started intervening [in] cases.”

The best way that Australians can protest about capital punishment throughout the world, Fr Norden explained, is to talk about why we oppose it.

"I am opposed to capital punishment because I believe in the value and dignity of all human life, regardless of innocence or guilt. Those who espouse Christian faith cannot sit in judgment on others in such a way that they can support the execution of another person," said Fr Norden.

One can only hope that the value and dignity of all human life will be upheld throughout the world through the eventual abolishment of capital punishment.