Shefford priest John Ryan, accused of abuse, arrested in 2003

St Francis Boys Home -  closed in the mid 1970s and converted into flats St Francis Boys Home in Shefford, Bedfordshire, closed in the 1970s and was later converted into flats

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A priest at the centre of claims of sexual and physical abuse at a Catholic orphanage was arrested in 2003.

Former residents have alleged they were abused by Father John Ryan at St Francis Boys Home in Shefford, near Bedford, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The BBC understands Fr Ryan, who died in 2008, was released without charge.

The Crown Prosecution Service said it was trying to establish whether it was contacted by Bedfordshire Police to give advice during the investigation.

Bedfordshire Police started a new investigation after a former resident alleged he was sexually abused by Fr Ryan.

'Like Oliver Twist'

The man, who is now in his 50s and cannot named for legal reasons, told the BBC last month: "Father Ryan abused me. He used to get me up to his office. Then he turned round and said 'If you let me fondle you, I won't hit you'.

"It took place every six months. I was a pet. He ruined those years. It was terrible."

The BBC has since heard of a large number of cases of alleged physical abuse by Fr Ryan.

Willy O'Brien, 63, who now lives in El Paso, Texas, said he hoped the new police investigation would have more success than the 2003 inquiry.

"The orphanage was like in Oliver Twist. I was beaten until I bled," he said.

'Apology call'

Sidney Hibbitt, 64, of Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, said as well as regular physical abuse, some boys were sexually assaulted.

Gordon McIntosh, 63, of Roehampton, south-west London, said a number of former residents were looking at starting legal action and were meeting for a reunion on 22 June.

"I suffered physical canings and beatings," said Mr McIntosh.

Damian Chittock, 51, of Tower Hamlets, east London, called on the church to issue an apology to boys at the home who were allegedly abused.

Bedfordshire Police said: "We have received a complaint concerning St Francis Boys Home and are in the early stages of an investigation."

A spokesman for the Northamptonshire Diocese of the Catholic Church, which ran the home, said it "deeply regrets" any hurt caused, but stressed the "claims are not proven".

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