Ralph S. Strand
“Matthew,” a survivor of Father Ralph Strand, reached out to the Attorney General’s investigators to help shine a light on the issue of clergy child sex abuse. After years of abuse and decades of recovery, Matthew was able to share what Strand did to him. Matthew believes the Archdiocese of Chicago should take responsibility for assisting survivors in moving forward. “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.”
“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.”
Matthew met Strand in the mid-1980s between fifth and sixth grade. He was an altar server at Saint Mary in Des Plaines; Strand showed an interest in becoming friends, and Matthew often served mass for him. Matthew now recognizes Strand “groomed the entire family” during those years. Having gained the trust of Matthew’s parents, Strand often took the boy to lunch, dinner, the movies, concerts, and trips—just the two of them. There were also shared meals with Matthew’s family and socializing outside of church. Matthew believes these acts of grooming—used to build trust as a prelude to abuse—were “as damaging as the actual abuse.”
Matthew often spent the night at Strand’s room in the rectory at Saint Mary. As he looks back, he is certain the others who lived at the rectory—two priests and a housekeeper—must have known what was going on. “I would be very surprised if those three did not know I spent the night,” he says. “They would see me there at night—and then see me there for breakfast.”
In seventh grade, Matthew was having difficulties at home. On a particularly rough day, Strand put his arm around Matthew’s waist in an overly intimate way. Matthew thought to himself, “This is not what I signed up for.” He stopped communicating with Strand. But the next year, when Matthew was having some behavioral issues, he and a few friends vandalized the parish school. They were about to be expelled until Strand mediated the situation. As a result, the boys remained in school and graduated with their class. Matthew felt indebted to Strand and was willing to give him a second chance.
Matthew kept in touch with Strand even after beginning high school at Loyola Academy. He began questioning his sexuality and shared those feelings with the priest. Strand apparently saw an opportunity; he invited Matthew to his room in the rectory to view the contents of his extensive pornography collection. Finally, after dinner in the rectory one evening, Strand performed oral sex on Matthew. When it was over, the priest told the boy, “No one can know about what happened tonight.” The abuse continued throughout Matthew’s time in high school and after Stand became the pastor of Saint Francis Borgia in Chicago—hundreds of times over a three-year period.
During his senior year in high school, Matthew started to become deeply troubled by his “relationship” with Strand. But he could see no way out. Finally, in the spring of 1993, he summoned the courage to tell someone—his freshman year religion teacher. Matthew described what Strand had done to him over eight long years. Not only did the teacher believe Matthew, he said he wasn’t surprised. He had become suspicious when Matthew was a student in his class three years earlier—especially when Strand drove the boy to meet the teacher one night to drop off a research paper. The teacher admitted he “had a feeling something was not quite right.”
The teacher reported Strand’s abuse of Matthew to the Cook County state’s attorney and the archdiocese; he also helped Matthew share his experience with his parents. A few months later, in May 1993, the state’s attorney indicted Strand on criminal charges relating to child sex abuse. The archdiocese’s reaction was to protect itself and its disgraced priest.
In March 1993, the archdiocese’s review board determined there was “reasonable cause to suspect” Strand had sexually abused Matthew. Two days later, Strand was placed on administrative leave from his parish assignment. But Raymond Goedert—who was serving as auxiliary bishop, one of the archdiocese’s top officials—lamented this state of affairs in his handwritten notes: “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).” Goedert questioned the benefits of reporting child sex abuse allegations to the state’s attorney and insisted removing “a pastor with the devastating effect of the media on his good name is too high a price to pay.” “Bottom line,” Goedert concluded, “under the present system, the church simply can’t win. We are damned, no matter how we handle the issue. The irresponsibility of the media render us helpless to protect the good name of the accused.”
The urge for self-protection did not stop with Goedert’s meanderings. Two months later, in May 1993, Strand sent a letter to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin resigning as pastor of Saint Francis Borgia. “I feel deep regret,” the disgraced priest wrote, “over the pain that my human frailty may have caused the good people of that parish and the Archdiocese.” Strand’s words sent shock waves through the archdiocese’s highest echelons and earned him a worried missive from the vicar for priests suggesting Strand write the cardinal again so as not to leave “a wrong impression”:
Ralph, my own feeling about this is that your resignation may have left a wrong impression. I suggest you put it on record that you did not in any way admit guilt for the allegations of sexual abuse. I’m sure that, had you consulted your attorney on the wording of your resignation he would have made sure that you reiterated that you were in no way incriminating yourself. You are of course free to talk to your attorney on this matter. My reason for suggesting a follow-up letter in your file is that we must keep the copy of the resignation that you sent since it was accepted, but you have the right to submit clarifications. I recommend that you do so.
The archdiocese continued to be concerned with optics as Strand’s criminal trial loomed. In fact, church officials seemed intent on pressuring Strand to avoid a public proceeding. A March 1995 memo from the vicar for priests summarized a “presentation” given to Strand designed to highlight “some of the possible ramifications of going to trial that others may not appreciate.” “The trial will be public,” the vicar warned. “The church will be affected. The priesthood will once again come under heavy scrutiny and possible criticism.” And the vicar expressed particular concern that this scrutiny and criticism might lead to serious consequences for the archdiocese’s bottom line: “If the family is put through a trial, whether they win or lose, their disposition to demand damages from the Archdiocese might heighten, feeling that they have been put through an additional wringer and have been re-victimized.”
In the end, Strand took the vicar’s advice to avoid a trial; he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual assault of a minor, for which he served 21 months in prison. And in the eyes of the church at least, that marked the end of the book on Strand’s crimes against children. Or so it thought.
After Matthew stepped forward, seven additional survivors of Strand’s abuse made reports to the archdiocese. Some of these came in while Strand was alive; others after he died in 2013. The allegations against Strand—the man whose “good name” Goedert had wanted to protect—included lewd talk of sex, groping, rubbing genitalia, and anal sex.
The archdiocese’s review board “substantiated” several of the claims made before Strand’s death but, in accordance with its policy at the time, declined to investigate those made after he died. Rather than look for the truth, the archdiocese chose to risk revictimizing those survivors, who may have wondered: Does the church believe me? Does the church care about my experience? Does the church acknowledge the abuse? The archdiocese recently agreed to change its policy—to investigate all claims against all priests—in large part because of the Attorney General’s work to highlight the pain its prior refusal to investigate abuse claims against dead priests was causing for survivors.
As for Matthew, early adulthood was tough. He tried college twice but returned home each time. He self-medicated and had a “very serious drug addiction.” Matthew was on the brink of losing friends and family before going through detox and rehab, after which he successfully returned to college and obtained his degree. Later, he would earn master’s and doctorate degrees.
Sober for 22 years now, Matthew believes “it’s important for the church to understand the long-term impact—abuse like this can uproot an individual, a family, and a community.” To ease this damage, Matthew thinks the church should make sincere efforts at “restorative justice,” facilitating conversations between church leaders, abusers, and survivors to “at least create a chance for healing.”