NARRAGANSETT — Ryan Brophy was making ice cream at his family’s shop on Monday when he heard about the new priest who had quietly been moved into town.
The Rev. Eric Silva was fresh off a five-month leave, after an uproar over him asking children in Cranston and Barrington about their sexuality. By July, though, Bishop Thomas Tobin decided that Silva was ready to go back to work and assigned him to be an assistant pastor at St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett in mid-August. Until then, “Father Eric” was assisting at Mass at St. Veronica Catholic Chapel in Narragansett.
That’s down the road from Brickley’s Ice Cream. Brophy, 35, dropped what he was doing, ignored his parents’ pleas to stay, and went to Staples to make a sign: “Catholic Church, Home to Child Predators World-Wide.”
And then he began his daily vigil, standing with a sign outside St. Veronica, where a different sign advertises vacation Bible school this week.
Those who honked and waved during his three-day protest on busy Boston Neck Road, those who gave him bottled water and thanked him, or who cursed him, argued, and swerved as if to hit him — none knew the truth about Ryan Brophy.
He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He has an 11-month-old daughter. This felt personal. Brophy decided to take a stand.
“What is more important than protecting children? The answer to that is nothing. Right?” Brophy said, holding a sign overhead. “The moral answer is nothing.”
The Brophy family, locally known for their popular ice cream shops in Narragansett and Wakefield, have never spoken publicly about the trauma of what happened to their oldest son. They didn’t know the truth, until just a few years ago. The news about the priest at the church down the street triggered Ryan in a way they’d never seen before.
For most of his life, Ryan and his family knew there was something deeply troubling him that he couldn’t express. Ryan said he struggled early in his life with abuse of alcohol and drugs, depression, and anger.
His parents, Steve and Christina, saw a boy who was always smart, athletic, quick to stand up to bullies. And they saw his rages and pain, which eluded the help of counselors, therapies, and medication. “There’s a lot of pain all around, and we’ve done everything under the sun to try to support him,” Steve Brophy said.
They didn’t know what was wrong, but there were clues: a diagnosis once that prompted questions years ago about whether he had been sexually abused, Christina Brophy said. They dismissed the idea. And Ryan didn’t remember anything.
They remember, though, watching the movie “Spotlight,” about The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Roman Catholic Church’s coverup of sexual abuse. Steve and Christina Brophy sat in silence in the theater in Warwick, watching the end of the film as it scrolled through a long list of places where priests were accused of abusing children. Steve wondered how could anyone have any faith in the church.
A few months later, in summer of 2016, the Brophy family got answers about what happened to Ryan.
He was an infant when they moved into a house in Dedham, Mass., in 1987, and didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood. Then one day, the woman who’d sold them the house knocked on their door and asked if they needed a babysitter for Ryan when Christina went back to work.
Ann Touchstone was a former nun and teacher, and her husband, Thomas Touchstone, was a baker at Boston College. They had moved to a house nearby. To the Brophys, the Touchstones seemed like a simple and kind couple. “We were struggling about what to do, and things fell into place,” Steve Brophy said.
This was the beginning of a long family friendship between the two couples. Ann Touchstone adored Ryan, Christina Brophy said. “She gave him tons of love, we never ever suspected a single thing,” Christina Brophy said. Even though he wasn’t the caretaker, Thomas Touchstone was often around as well.
The Touchstones were very involved with their Catholic parish and often brought Ryan to Mass with them. Thomas Touchstone made the boy’s birthday cakes each year. Ryan wasn’t yet 5 when the Brophys moved away, first to Rochester, N.Y., and then to Narragansett, but they continued a friendship, including visits, with the Touchstones.
After Ann died, Thomas moved to Florida to live with a nephew, but the families stayed in touch. Then in 2016, Thomas called Christina Brophy to say he was hospitalized and wasn’t doing well. He hung up before she could learn which hospital. So, she called one of his sisters, asking about Touchstone’s illness and seeking his phone number.
The sister refused and hung up. Minutes later, she called Brophy back: Didn’t anyone tell you that Tom is a child molester?
Christina Brophy began to cry as she told a Globe reporter about the conversation. “I felt like I was punched in the stomach,” she said.
Touchstone wasn’t in the hospital. He had been arrested in Florida for not registering as a sex offender. The sister told Brophy that Touchstone had molested several boys in the family, including a child with Down syndrome.
Touchstone had been convicted of child molestation two months before his wife, Ann, knocked on the Brophys’ door and offered to babysit their infant son. Touchstone had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 years of age in 1986 in Massachusetts.
It was the answer to the mystery of Ryan’s trauma. And for all these years, the Touchstone family saw their child with the convicted molester and never said a thing.
“I found out when my son was in his 30s, and no one told me. I never would have suspected Tom,” Christina Brophy said. “His sister said to me, yes, my sweet kind Tom — he’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
They told Ryan. “There was a strange relief,” he said. “Then sadness and anger.”
He has blamed his parents for allowing Touchstone into their lives. And he is certain that the abuse, which would have started when he was a baby, has robbed him of the opportunity to be the man he could have been.
His parents believe that Ryan was a victim of Touchstone, and the impact of the abuse has been tremendous. “This sexual abuse, there’s a ripple effect, it’s not just one person, it’s a whole family and a community affected by it,” said Steve Brophy. “Ryan is the victim, but everyone is caught up in it.”
They wonder whether Ryan’s rages are the result of abuse. They wonder what they missed. The Touchstones had seemed like simple people, with few friends, so the Brophys welcomed them into their family. They wonder why no one in the neighborhood or none of the Touchstones’ relatives ever told them the truth.
“This whole thing is so horrible, what it did to my family is so horrible,” Christina Brophy said. “If anybody is going to get anything out of this story, it’s that they have to tell people.”
Touchstone died in custody in Florida not long after his arrest. No one collected his remains.
Steve Brophy tried to persuade his son not to protest. He said he supports his son’s stand for abuse victims, but wanted him to find another way to express it.
Christina Brophy said she is proud of him. “I’m proud that he’s standing up and fighting for others. What he’s been through has caused him a lot of heartache, and I hope he can help others and find some peace in this process.”
For Ryan Brophy, there was no question that he would stand there, even if it meant standing alone: “I would be out here even if it hadn’t happened to me personally. Somebody has to say something.”
He kept note of those who thanked him and those who became furious at him. He made a larger sign: Catholic Church Protects Pedophiles.” A local artist, Tracy Weisman, who addresses clergy sexual abuse in her own artwork, stopped to make a better sign for him. The police arrived a few times on Wednesday when people threatened Brophy.
His last visitor on Tuesday was Ann Hagan Webb, a local psychologist who was molested as a child by the late Monsignor Anthony DeAngelis.
Webb and her husband used to stand outside the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence to draw attention to clergy sexual abuse. In 2019, Webb testified in graphic detail about being molested, to support the legislation sponsored by her sister, state Representative Carol Hagan McEntee of Narragansett, to increase the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.
Webb thanked Brophy. “We need people to know that it is still happening,” she told him.
Brophy told her about the reaction from passersby to him and his sign. “This moment is building,” he said. “It’s like people are starting to communicate with one another and everyone is realizing that ‘yeah, that happened to me too.’ ”
Webb wanted to know if he’d be back for Sunday Mass. Brophy said he was concerned about causing conflicts.
“Every time you stand in front of a church with a sign like this, somebody from the congregation quietly comes up to you and says, it happened to me too,” Webb said.
“So, then, I’ll be here on Sunday,” Brophy said.
Webb tells him: “Perhaps we can get some people to stand with you.”