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[00:00:00]

I have this photo of Father Ryan when he was still young. He's wearing tight wranglers with snakeskin boots and a black tank top. His hair looks blow dried back. There's a bullet belt wrapped around his waist and his expression is so confident. He looks like a 70s porn star. On the one hand, this photo is funny, it's steeped in such a specific time, but I also get this dark feeling when I look at it like I'm looking at two completely different people and maybe I am.

[00:00:42]

You see in this photo, Father Ryan is tanned and smiling, but down the line, his life couldn't look more different.

[00:00:52]

He tried out disco clothes for a priestly robe, give communion on Sundays, baptized kids.

[00:00:59]

But Father Ryan wasn't always so virtuous he'd meet a priest who'd be murdered in another who would die suspiciously.

[00:01:08]

There are people who say he had something to do with each of those deaths, he'll leave a wake of angry followers and missing money wherever he opened a church.

[00:01:19]

Most of them were in the Midwest where I'm from. But in that part of the country, the church is the community in some small towns for devoted Catholics. The priest is the man at the center of their community. He's their mortal connection to Jesus, God and the afterlife. And in a small town like mine, if that person were to ever betray the trust of their congregants, well. It would be devastating. I get how important faith is in that part of the country, but what I don't get is why Father Ryan isn't in jail.

[00:01:59]

He's accused of stealing millions, leaving women who put their faith in him penniless.

[00:02:05]

He took every single cent from that woman.

[00:02:09]

This man spreads pain levels. That just fuckin astounding. Stunning.

[00:02:17]

I've never been caught like that in my life.

[00:02:20]

If all these accusations are true, then there are so many questions. And that's where this shit really starts to get fun.

[00:02:29]

I wanted to get the answers from Father Ryan himself. Turns out the fact he was dressed like a 70s porn star is the least interesting thing about him from now on the media.

[00:02:42]

I'm Alex Shuman and this is season one of Smoke Screen Fake Priest. Father Ryan has this way about him when he enters your world. It's hard to forget him. That's how it happened for me. As soon as I read an article about him, I was instantly hooked. The article described a man who had an older woman adopt him into her family. He reportedly had become her power of attorney when the adoption happened. He would have been in his late 50s and she'd have been in her 80s.

[00:03:20]

Her children weren't being allowed to speak to her. They worried she'd been brainwashed and taken in by a cult led by this middle aged man she'd adopted. The alleged cult was called the Holy Rosary Abbey, and the man who ran it was known as Father Ryan S. and Scott. I'll call him Father Ryan, this father Ryan claimed to run a Catholic abbey where nuns and monks live. The woman who adopted Father Ryan was one of his nuns. People could also pay to stay at the abbey as kind of a religious retreat.

[00:03:57]

There was a chapel where the public could attend mass, too. Now, it's not as if there's a lack of churches in the Midwest. So what made some of his followers choose this one?

[00:04:09]

Father Ryan was offering something you couldn't get in other churches. He was old school. It turns out that he was part of this whole religious subculture. I never knew existed. He did his masses in Latin that year and his day actually quite dominant government leading a mass in Latin. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is because in the 1960s, the Catholic Church moved away from speaking Latin. It was like an atomic bomb went off for the first time.

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They allowed Mass to be spoken in local languages instead of Latin.

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The Lord be with you a reading from the Holy Gospel. According to Matthew, it was a result of something called the Second Vatican Council.

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They enacted a number of changes, things like no longer requiring Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays. But these changes also moved away from how the church had operated for centuries. So the fact that Father Ryan was offering the traditional worship that many local churches had shed made him very appealing to a very specific group of people. They call themselves traditional Catholics.

[00:05:17]

There are thousands of them all over the world, sort of operating underground. Still reading the article on Father Ryan, I knew there had to be more to his appeal than just the Latin masses. It wasn't just that he attracted congregants of the faithful. These congregants were like zealots. The older woman who adopted Father Ryan had moved around the country with him. They started in North Dakota, went to Illinois, then Iowa, and then down to Missouri. You don't move that much for a Latin mass.

[00:05:57]

If he walked in this door right now, the whole room would turn to him.

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This is Maria Brown. Maria is matter of fact, she looks a dad in the eye. She's a private investigator who spent a ton of time with Father Ryan after he was arrested in Missouri. I'm not Catholic. I had no idea what was so appealing about this guy. But as we sat at her kitchen table talking, I began to understand.

[00:06:24]

I mean. Yes, he was the best of the best he could have done PR work for a presidential election and he would have been successful. That's how good he is.

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But Father Ryan didn't choose a big, bright career. He took a vow of poverty and gave his life to God. Maria was so passionate as she talked about him.

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Once he possibly hands you a rosary or a coin and transfers that energy, you're hooked. He seemed to have this kind of power. I spoke to a few traditional Catholics and they all said it, he wasn't just a priest, he had charisma. One guy I talked to on the phone said he felt the presence of God in the room when Father Ryan delivered his sermons.

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His mass was done in a very reverent only way. He said the Holy Rosary Abbey was a beautiful father. Ryan filled the abbey with religious art and statues. The sanctuary in the mass was done was was set up very nice.

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I also talked to a woman who moved from North Dakota to a small town in Iowa to be part of his church. She said those living at the abbey wouldn't question him.

[00:07:39]

They happily started their day at five twenty in the morning because that was the schedule he set up dressed in the church, say in the office, regular work at mealtimes or Labora. You know, things went in a very orderly fashion.

[00:07:57]

Besides just being fun to say, or a labora is a Catholic phrase for working and praying. This incredible appeal of his his sheer charisma is the only way the rest of Father Ryan's uncanny story makes any sense, because no matter where he goes and he moves around a lot, he also seems to get into trouble. He often gets accused of stealing money and property, defrauding local governments. Then there are the stories like the crime Maria described from the first article I read where he's accused of cheating his own followers.

[00:08:33]

I couldn't believe all this happened. And not very far from where I grew up, one of his churches was only about 30 miles from my hometown in Iowa.

[00:08:43]

I've been working as a reporter for almost a decade. I could tell this was going to be a tough story to get, but I wanted to understand who this guy was and what motivated him to do what he did. Why on earth devote yourself to the church, but then mistreat your followers? He felt like a man at war with himself. Who was Father Ryan? I figured the best place to probably start was with the guy who introduced me to Father Ryan in the first place, the author of that article.

[00:09:16]

His name is Dennis McGee. And that wasn't his only article about Father Ryan. He'd written a ton. Luckily, when I got in touch with Dennis, he was happy. I called.

[00:09:28]

Turns out he kept everything he knew someday this story would come up again. It's a Sunday afternoon. We're setting things up for Dennis's interview at his house in northeast Iowa. There's a basketball hoop and an American flag out front.

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You can only see one house through his windows. The rest is farmland. He's already flipping through things before we get started.

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How many different claims have you run into? Thousands, I mean, literally thousands of random turn to a page.

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So I got this timeline inside the living room and kitchen are one big space. His wife had chili ready and prepared this whole buffet set up on their counter.

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Oh, and take this for what it's worth. You know, a lot of this never made it in print and a lot of it doesn't matter, but it's all just more. You know, mystery surrounding the whole thing. Oh, my goodness, and I stationed ourselves at his long kitchen table. He's got short salt and pepper hair and a small hoop earring in his left ear. He's wearing a nice dress shirt. This was back in the spring of twenty eighteen.

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It was the first time I was interviewing someone about Father Ryan.

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I have to admit, I'm I'm fairly amazed by him.

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And I just got deeper and deeper until the point. You have five binders.

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Dennis has this irreverent smirk. You can tell he loves doing this. He's just one of those awesome, aggressive local reporters depicted in movies who solves murders or other big cases.

[00:11:09]

He first heard about Father Ryan in 2011 when he worked for the Waterloo Courier there, a newspaper in northeast Iowa. The Courier ran a wire story about Father Ryan opening an abbey in a small town called Independence, Iowa. But he also had plans to do something unique. Father Ryan was going to open a llama petting zoo to make money.

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You heard that right, Llamas?

[00:11:34]

The gist of it was there was a group of monks and that they were going to raise llamas to fund their activities. And there was, you know, isn't this cute? Was basically the gist of it. Well, after we ran that story, then I took some a couple of emails and some voicemails just tearing us apart. And how could we be so stupid?

[00:11:54]

People were so angry about this guy. They called from all over to complain. He got any kind of positive coverage.

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Dennis didn't write the first story. It was just a wire his paper picked up. But after it ran, Father Ryan practically became his beat for a while there.

[00:12:12]

This binders, just the stories that I wrote and a timeline that I put together, he showed me all kinds of photos and documents.

[00:12:20]

He'd collected a picture of Father Ryan covering his face outside a courthouse in auctioneer holding up a big Virgin Mary statue.

[00:12:30]

So this binder is just the bankruptcy cases.

[00:12:35]

At first, Dennis just thought he'd look into the accusations against a priest, write a story or two and be done with it instead.

[00:12:43]

He was all these years later with box after box of information. It was a lot there were boxes on the kitchen table, chairs and floor, he even had Father Ryan's own writings.

[00:12:55]

He's pretty prolific writer, which was kind of helpful. Oh, whenever I found something that he had written, I would print it out and keep it. Father Ryan was a blogger of sorts for a while there. He had websites for his holy rosary Abbi's. But on them, he sometimes would just rant frequently on his websites.

[00:13:17]

He would have some sort of diatribe just tearing into somebody, something frequently the Catholic Church, the dioceses where wherever he may have been. I made his hit list a couple of times.

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You can only find snapshots of the sites by using this thing called the Wayback Machine, which lets you look at expired websites. That's why Dennis was such a godsend. He'd printed everything out. He did it to try to figure out where the lies started and ended with Father Ryan. A lot of local reporters would have just let it go, abandoned the story, but Dennis felt he had to get to the bottom of this. If this guy was a criminal in the Waterloo Courier, passed him off as a do gooder, that's no good.

[00:13:59]

We do want to be right. And the fact that we could have been that wrong was troubling.

[00:14:06]

One of the things that struck him was that whoever he seemed to call for his investigation not only remembered Father Ryan, but also had plenty to say.

[00:14:15]

They were so tired of this guy and they'd had such a bad experience that I would I would call them and they'd be more than happy to talk about it.

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And most of their claims related to money, a pattern appeared. Father Ryan left a long trail.

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He left under a cloud of lawsuits, missing money, unaccounted for funds, angry, angry people. Every entity that he touched was my experience. That's what I found.

[00:14:48]

Father Ryan had declared both personal bankruptcy and one of his abbe's bankrupt in 2011. That's the same year Dennis started covering him. But Father Ryan didn't seem to be struggling financially. Despite his bankruptcy filings, he was still shopping and gathering new followers. It didn't make sense to Dennis a little more than a year after the newspaper published that four story, Father Ryan and about seven followers suddenly abandoned the abbey in independence.

[00:15:18]

Straight up, walked away, vanished.

[00:15:22]

Leaving behind everything they couldn't quickly load into a van den has got to go inside when the building was repossessed.

[00:15:29]

He showed me pictures to see all the stuff that he and his followers abandoned, you know, hundreds and hundreds of statues, religious icons, popcorn makers, lawn chairs.

[00:15:43]

I mean, just this weird collection of stuff that they had assembled, Father Ryan, somewhere between 400000 and 800000 dollars in his bankruptcy claims from that year alone.

[00:15:57]

But he still managed to have all this pricey looking stuff.

[00:16:01]

It was a 12 foot clothing rack here of just the clothing that this is cassocks and robes and stuff. You know why one priest would need that many?

[00:16:11]

No, no expense spared when other people's money one picture didn't showed me was just a room full of statues.

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I mean, hundreds of statues and they looked like actual stone, not plastic or cheap ones. Another picture showed hundreds of crosses, was this guy a hoarder, what the hell was going on?

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So why do you OK, if you're certain if there's only three months, why do you need ten thousand crosses?

[00:16:42]

You know, he kept flipping through his binders. He just had picture after picture of religious relics. Father Ryan stockpile.

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I mean, that's an eight foot picture of Jesus.

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See, that's amazing to me because he's just pulling from some elderly small town people.

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So I don't get where that money would be coming from. Exactly. This was a room that they had turned into a chapel. It's actually pretty well nicely done. But even like those antique pews, I mean, these were old pews.

[00:17:17]

Those are expensive, you know, and very collectible and very sought after, particularly these little ones like that.

[00:17:25]

So, yeah, he's he's invested thousands of dollars, thousands, thousands of dollars in his tour of the old Abbey suggested Father Ryan had money to spend.

[00:17:35]

Strange to say the least, for a priest who is supposed to be more worried about serving his flock than buying off eBay. The only part that didn't show off his big spending was, oddly enough, where the followers lived inside and they're living on lawn furniture.

[00:17:52]

But the larger question for Dennis was about the bankruptcies. Even after declaring bankruptcy, it seemed like Father Ryan had been moving stuff around from one abbey to the next.

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Once you declare bankruptcy, you can't do that. You can't be moving your assets around when you declare bankruptcy.

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The bank is supposed to seize your assets. It's illegal to just grab your stuff and jump states.

[00:18:16]

And that's another in a why did he not get just hammered and go to prison? I don't know.

[00:18:22]

You don't know something. Something big. It seemed just wasn't right. It bothered Dennis so much that Dennis stayed on this story. Even after Father Ryan fled, Dennis drove hours from northeast Iowa down to Missouri to attend a hearing four years after he first heard about Father Ryan's father.

[00:18:44]

Ryan had been charged with abusing one of his followers and put in jail. Whenever Dennis had seen Father Ryan in independence, he'd always been dressed in his priestly uniform.

[00:18:56]

He always dressed in black with a little white collar. I had a cross hanging around his neck. He's got at that time he had like snow white hair. But that day at the hearing, it was the first time he'd seen Father Ryan without his little white caller sitting there in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs in court, Father Ryan seemed like just another man when I saw him in court and had short sleeves on and had a Playboy tattoo on his bicep and an Indian princess on his forearm.

[00:19:25]

He didn't look so priestly at that point. Before Dennis could ever interview Father Ryan, he lost his job in a round of layoffs, but it was clear Dennis still wanted answers as much as I did.

[00:19:38]

By then, we'd both tracked down some of the same sources. The biggest advantage I had over Dennis was time and a fresh face. People's nerves are less raw now that some time has passed. It made me more optimistic I could pick up where Dennis left off. That doesn't mean I thought it would be easy. Father Ryan wasn't just a one off story about somebody's mother joining a cult. Father Ryan had practiced all over the country, opening at least eight.

[00:20:06]

Abbi's in seven different states. He'd been the focus of police investigations for elder abuse, stealing money and fraud. He also has at least two birthdays and multiple aliases. Every new detail only makes it more confusing why Father Ryan is free and even more compelling.

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What this was really all about.

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Was he using this whole underground world of traditionalist Catholics just as a way to steal money? Or was it more layered than that? Did he really just want a group of devoted followers or was it darker? Did he actually want to form a cult?

[00:20:43]

How did the guy dressed like a 70s porn star go from skintight jeans to a loose robe with a white collar?

[00:20:53]

Can we just take a minute to appreciate how ridiculous all of this sounds?

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I was worried. Dennis is a great reporter. If he didn't get all the answers, I might not either. But I wanted to try these days, it feels like people with power get away with everything, and I'm tired of it. How he was able to keep this going is just stunning and why, you know, I maybe that's that's maybe why I hang on to it is because I still haven't answered the big question. You know, I'm just so fascinated with him how he able to pull this off.

[00:21:27]

Dennis never got to interview Father Ryan. He seemed almost sad. He had never figured out why Father Ryan had done what he'd done.

[00:21:34]

You know, I don't know. I don't know if I'll ever get those answered. Dennis didn't, but that only made me want to try harder. There had to be a wizard behind the curtain and I wanted to meet him. So I took the torch Dennis handed me and ran.

[00:21:54]

I figured, why not start with going to one of his Abbi's I asked one of Father Ryan's former followers to go with me. When was the last time you were here?

[00:22:04]

July 2000, a woman named Vida Bah agreed to come back to Pocahontas, Iowa, a town she hadn't been to since it changed your life.

[00:22:14]

Yep. There we are. There's a sign for Pocahontas seven miles that is short with dark hair.

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She's unassuming, but her persistence makes quite a soft spoken force of nature if she sets her sights on you. When she moved to Pocahontas, VITAC considered herself what's called a religious someone who takes a public vow to live a life of faith. This is a level of devotion where you don't question priests.

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The abbey we were headed to was only about 30 miles from where I grew up.

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There's a giant statue of Pocahontas, the Native American in front of a TV. Yes. And that's how, you know, you've arrived and. Pocono's is a typical small Midwest town. There are more churches than bars and a population of around sixteen hundred. It's the type of place Father Ryan would always choose to open his Abbi's this one. And Pocahontas was Father Ryan's third. He'd already been forced to leave to other towns. They didn't know about any of that, though.

[00:23:18]

She moved down here in the year 2000 from a different traditionalist church in North Dakota. She was in her 30s when this became her new home. And this is it, OK? We parked in front of what used to be the Holy Rosary Abbey. What's it like to see it like this? Sad. The building looks rough. It's one story with broken windows and graffiti.

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I mean, it doesn't look cared for at all. We walk down the snow up to the building. It was originally built to be a nursing home and still pretty much looks exactly like one back when she first got here. The fact this wasn't an actual church didn't bother Viter. Convents and monasteries, you know, sometimes have to make do with what building they can get to start with and adapt it to. Your expectation was that this was going to keep growing?

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Uh, yes.

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Only three people actually lived in the abbey, but more came to mass and confession, let's say about 15 on an average Sunday. And who is coming? Are these older people? Families are both both some older people mainly. There were mainly a couple of families who had moved up here from Texas to follow him.

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Later came expecting to work and pray that Ora Labora following strict rules to honor God. The routine is part of the thrill for a religious, but the wrong thing seems strict at the Holy Rosary Abbey. Father Ryan was controlling. He was the one who checked the mail, picked what could be watched on TV and monitored the phones.

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Oh, he could use the phone whenever he wanted to. You weren't allowed to know.

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One of the first things Weida noticed is that Father Ryan posted a schedule for the abbey, but then just kind of did what he wanted.

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He could get mad or he could decide something else or anything.

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Vido wasn't getting the great deeply religious experience she expected she was getting. This guy, Father Ryan, could easily skip Prain on Sunday to go antiquing. Vida felt something wasn't right. Occasionally he'd lose control. Did he have a bad temper? Very.

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How did that show itself? He could scream and yell all. And he's been known to throw things.

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She avoided his temper the first couple months. Then in the summer of 2000, Father Ryan decided they would go down to Louisiana to look into opening another location for the Holy Rosary Abbey.

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He sent me on ahead and arrived by car two days later, you know, meandering and his way down.

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They stayed with a family in Louisiana who gave money to the abbey. Vida was with them when Father Ryan arrived. That's when the fight started.

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I apparently did not greet him with enough devotion. When he showed up, I sort of held back and let the family that he was coming to visit Louisiana greet him first. And apparently that was a grave mistake. I should have been out there first, I guess, jumping on him when he got out of the car or something or laying on the ground so he could walk over me to greet the family or she said he started screaming.

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It was the first time Father Ryan ever yelled at her like that. Vida was shocked. She saw Father Ryan act this way to others, but never imagined he'd turn on her.

[00:27:12]

But now he had that day was a line in the sand. Oh, I was getting out.

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He was you know, I don't need that temper twice. I am nobody's whipped dog.

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Then there was this super awkward period where Father Ryan in the family shunned her for a couple of days before Father Ryan wanted her gone, were you locked in a room?

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I wasn't locked in a room, but we were in a town that was hours from anywhere. He had the family dealt me at a bus stop at an anchor.

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I talked to this family. They remembered an argument and giving her a ride, but nothing else. She arrived back in the Midwest on a Greyhound bus and she realized perhaps Father Ryan's Abby wasn't about God.

[00:28:06]

He wants to be in charge the way an Abbott is in charge of a monastery, because otherwise, if he just wanted to be in a monastery as a monk or something, he could apply and be a nice, humble, ordinary, everyday monk. And he has to be God. When you came here, the way that Father Ryan ran things, did he run them as if it was honoring God or did he sort of treat these people like they were honoring him?

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Him? Who did you feel like you served? I'd like to feel I served God. But.

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Sometimes, I'm afraid, not once back, but I've got a truck and snuck into the abbey through a window and got her stuff as she's packing things up. A member of the Abbe's congregation walked up to her. Well, when I was loading the truck, they came up to me with a copy of some of the pages out of the Medjugorje Deception book and said, here, you should read this. That phrase you just said you probably didn't understand was the Medjugorje Deception.

[00:29:33]

It's a book about fixers and prophets who claim they got a message from God. The pages Viter was handed mentioned Father Riet. It described him as working with one of these fake prophets.

[00:29:46]

Brian managed to get himself written up in a book pointing out some of what was wrong with his situation. She got out of there and found a computer. What she found was much worse than she feared. When I started verifying and double checking, I found out he was not a priest. Father Ryan wasn't who he said he was at all. The guy who's opened three different churches, wears the robes and speaks in Latin, isn't a priest.

[00:30:24]

She felt tricked and the more she found in her research, the more Father Ryan seemed like a con artist. Not only was he not a priest, his name wasn't even Father Ryan Scott. It was Randall Dean stocks. He was a divorced, convicted felon who'd been born a Lutheran.

[00:30:48]

This season on smoke screen, I've never been called like that in my life.

[00:30:53]

He took every single cent from that woman. I did an investigation about this guy who had defrauded someone of nearly two million dollars.

[00:31:06]

He's charismatic. He's flamboyant. You want to talk about white fuckin privilege.

[00:31:14]

I hope that you're able to go out and just document what this person has done and that finally the word spreads enough so that he dies, a poor old man, he's got old time religion.

[00:31:35]

There is his cash in a coffee can and he makes his decisions down on his knees.

[00:31:44]

He's a full grown man and he decreased its production of Neon How Media. It is reported and hosted by me. Alex Newman, the executive producer is Jonathan Hirsche. Producers are Natalie Rinn and Hannah Robbins. Catherine St. Louis is our editor, fact checking by Laura Bulloch. Thanks to Matt McGinley for our theme music and the blue dot sessions for tracks you hear on this episode of Sound Design and Additional Composition by Jesse Bernstein. And the song you hear now is Old Time Religion by Parker Milsap or engineer Scott Somerville.

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Special thanks to Peterman's. So Odelia Reuben, Haley Fagre, Cheryl Morris and Vikram Patel.

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It's good enough for me.