The 11-year-old boy was an altar server at St. John Vianney in west suburban Northlake during the early 1960s, when a popular priest began inviting him out to dinner, drive-in movies and even sleepovers at the rectory.
His parents were pleased.
“Where could you be safer?” they remarked at the time.
The Rev. Thomas Francis Kelly offered the boy beer at the rectory and then, in the middle of the night, the child awakened to find the priest sexually assaulting him.
The pastor told him to keep it a secret, he recounted decades later to Illinois attorney general’s office investigators in one of a series of harrowing victim narratives revealed in a bombshell report on Catholic clerical sexual abuse in Illinois released last week.
“This is a good thing, but it’s just between you and I,” he recalled the priest telling him as a boy, according to the report. “You don’t ever say anything to anybody.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago moved Kelly from parish to parish, despite records that “establish it was well-aware of Kelly’s abuse as it was happening;” the priest abused more than 15 boys ages 11 to 17 in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the report.
The sweeping five-year investigation found 451 Catholic clergy and religious leaders sexually abused at least 1,997 children in Illinois since 1950, wrongdoing often enabled through denial and cover-ups by church officials. The attorney general’s office determined Catholic leaders have vastly underreported clergy sex abuse cases statewide.
In response, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich questioned some of the report’s data, claiming it “might be misunderstood” or presented in a potentially misleading manner, according to an archdiocese statement. He added that no clergy member with a substantiated allegation is in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Cupich pointed to archdiocesan reforms going back to 1992, including an independent board overseeing clergy sexual abuse allegations, and maintained that there are no undisclosed or unreported allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy in the archdiocese.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Friday said the cardinal’s “claims of being blindsided are misleading” at best.
“At worst, they are more of the same, a continuation of the church’s decades-long pattern of turning a blind eye and covering up allegations of child sex abuse to the detriment of survivors,” he said in a written statement. “We released this report to give a voice to survivors and to shine light on the church officials who covered up child sex abuse in the church, allowing child sex predators to continue to abuse children who trusted them.”
Afterward, the archdiocese in another statement maintained that it has “reported every single allegation of child sexual abuse by a cleric known to us,” adding that in 2002 church officials cooperated with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office “to report all allegations found in an extensive search of historical files, and we have reported every allegation since.”
“This is the opposite of hiding,” the archdiocese statement said.
The statement also claimed the attorney general’s office appeared to have received information during the investigation “about substantiated allegations involving clerics not on our web list and they did not bring that information to our attention.”
Experts say the investigation’s staggering numbers illustrate that the scope and magnitude of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church is far greater than previously understood.
Many Catholics still grapple to comprehend the scale of abuse — and its concealment — by clergy and other church officials, said Marcus Mescher, associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He added that many current and former Catholics “carry the wounds of betrayal.”
Often, those who are abused suffer alone due to stigma and shame or out of fear that they won’t be believed, he added.
“Priests are trusted figures not just because they are authority figures, but they represent what is sacred,” he said. “For some they represent the Holy in our midst; for others, they are ambassadors of the whole Church. … People go to priests in a moment of vulnerability and to have that vulnerability violated makes it difficult for a person to feel safe and able to trust others. And in many cases, survivors of clergy abuse experience stigma and shame, loneliness and futility.”
The Rev. Gerard McGlone, an expert on clergy sexual abuse who is also a survivor, said Catholic leadership needs to take on a “survivor’s perspective.”
McGlone, a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, also urged the church to undergo “lamentation and penance.”
“A penitent church. In other words, one that is always aware of its sin before us but lives in hope of healing,” he said.
Here are a few of the accounts of those who endured clergy sexual abuse in Illinois, as told to investigators in the attorney general report.
In spring 1977, the high school freshman attended a school dance at St. Mary in north suburban Lake Forest.
An associate pastor “known to be the cool, young priest,” would often offer alcohol to children, usually boys, according to the report. The 15-year-old “had never had a drink in his life,” but the Rev. Robert E. Mayer provided him with alcohol and he quickly became drunk, the report said.
The priest was with another boy looking at pornographic magazines, the victim recalled; then the victim and Mayer “engaged in mutual masturbation.”
“I am not a homosexual and I was not attracted to him, but I was 15 years old with raging hormones and trying to figure out how the world worked, and there was a priest telling me how to” masturbate, he told state investigators.
He recalled the priest claimed to be helping boys enjoy their sexuality and teaching them the ways of the world, the report said. The victim recalled walking into the rectory once and witnessing “practically an orgy.”
“That’s what made it seem OK,” the victim recalled to investigators. “He’s the priest. If a priest is telling you it’s OK, it must be OK.”
Multiple allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against Mayer, but he was transferred several times to other parishes.
“Perhaps the most alarming part about Mayer, however, is that the archdiocese knew of his sexual abuse of children in the early 1980s but refused to remove him from ministry,” the report stated. “The hope that Mayer would somehow change his ways was wishful thinking.”
In 1991, Mayer was convicted of criminal sexual abuse of a child and later sentenced to three years in prison. He never served as a priest again and was laicized — removed from his role as a clergyman — in 2010, according to the report.
Cardinal Francis George wrote in a 2005 declaration that, “the Archdiocese does not consider itself in any way responsible for the activities of Robert E. Mayer,” and “is not to be held liable for any scandal or harm to the souls for which he has been or is responsible,” the report recounted.
The archdiocese has reported more than 50 allegations of sexual abuse by Mayer, according to the attorney general’s office.
The victim in the report felt particularly angry that “the church would let this happen to other kids.”
“I have pretty strong feelings about the damage the Catholic Church has done,” he said in the report. “I think there are hundreds of thousands of me across the world. But rather than there being any accountability, they protected the priests. I can’t think of anything more horribly bad for a religion.”
During fifth and sixth grade, the boy was an altar server at St. Mary in northwest suburban Des Plaines in the mid-1980s.
The Rev. Ralph Strand would take him to movies, concerts and on trips. It would be just the two of them, he recalled in the report.
But the priest also shared meals and socialized with the boy’s family, to build trust. Looking back, Strand “groomed the entire family,” the victim recalled in the report
After the first act of abuse, the priest warned the boy, who was by then in high school, that “no one can know about what happened tonight.”
The abuse continued on hundreds of occasions over three years, according to the report.
In spring 1993, the victim found the courage to tell a teacher about the abuse; the teacher reported it to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and archdiocese. Shortly after, the state’s attorney indicted Strand on criminal charges related to sex abuse, according to the report.
After the archdiocesan review board found there was “reasonable cause to suspect” the priest had sexually abused the teen, one top bishop “lamented this state of affairs in his handwritten notes,” the report said.
“Is there not some other way to protect children + at the same time not destroy the accused, e.g., leave the accused in place but assign a monitor, spell out his restrictions, inform leadership, etc. (‘house arrest’ is better than public disgrace),” the bishop wrote, according to the report.
Strand was removed from ministry in 1993; he was convicted of criminal sexual abuse of a teenager in 1995 and served 21 months in prison, the report said.
More allegations emerged against Strand while he was alive, several substantiated by the church, as well as more after his 2013 death, investigators found.
“Victims and survivors have carried an undue and unfair burden; the church has completely failed in taking responsibility for the long-term traumatic impact of child sexual abuse,” the victim told state investigators in the report.
The high school sophomore’s home life was turbulent: Her parents had separated and her father abused her, according to the report.
After getting caught drunk at a school basketball game in the 1970s, she was sent for counseling sessions with the Rev. George Klein, principal at St. Benedict High School in the North Center neighborhood.
The victim said the sessions occurred in his office, where she told him how her father abused her; she said the priest convinced her not to report this to law enforcement, cautioning that she would be taken from her home.
“As the counseling continued, Klein moved to her side of the desk and started pulling her into his lap. He then molested her,” the report said.
The abuse continued for about a year, according to the report.
“He could have helped me,” the victim told state investigators. “If you can’t go to your parents or your priest, there is no one to go to.”
She met with archdiocesan representatives in 2011 and recounted the experience; the archdiocese offered her counseling for the abuse, according to the report.
“Are you kidding me?” was her reaction.
“It was counseling from a priest that led to her abuse,” the report said. “Why, she wondered, would she ever accept more counseling from the church?”
Then the review board found there was “insufficient reason to suspect that (Klein) engaged in the sexual abuse” while at the same time determining that the priest’s conduct was “otherwise inappropriate,” according to the report. The board also said he should be permanently banned from “public sacramental ministry,” though he was caught saying Mass soon after at a Northfield church.
The restrictions were lessened over the years but later reinstated by Cupich, before Klein’s death a few years ago.
“To this day, his name does not appear on the archdiocese’s public list of clerics with credible accusations of child sex abuse, despite his noted dishonesty, his repeated inappropriate relationships with women and his acknowledged inappropriate behavior,” the report said.
The victim has called upon the archdiocese to add Klein’s name to its public lists, which she said would aid her healing.
“Their image is their priority,” she said in the report, “not the victims.”