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Survivor Narratives

Robert E. Mayer

To say that the Archdiocese of Chicago received a significant number of allegations over the years concerning Father Robert Mayer sexually abusing children would be an understatement. 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 hope that Mayer would somehow change his ways was wishful thinking.

Archdiocesan documents are riddled with similar allegations against Mayer: he offered alcohol to children, typically boys; he showed them pornography; he exposed his genitals to them; and he engaged in mutual masturbation or fondling. It is an experience that one survivor who spoke to the Attorney General’s investigators knew all too well.

“Vincent” and his family were members of Saint Mary in Lake Forest when Mayer arrived there as an associate pastor in the mid-1970s. Vincent says Mayer was “known to be the cool, young priest.” Mayer was generally approachable and would open the parish gym for kids to play basketball on the weekends. Vincent had friends who attended the parish school and had gotten to know Mayer well.

In the spring of 1977, Vincent was a freshman in high school and had just turned 15 years old. One night, Saint Mary hosted a dance for high school students. Vincent attended with a male friend who knew Mayer and suggested they visit the rectory to see if the priest was there. According to Vincent, “the idea was that he probably had alcohol and would probably let us have it.”

Vincent had never had a drink in his life, but true to his friend’s prediction, Mayer did indeed provide them with alcohol. With nearly no tolerance, Vincent recalls that he quickly became intoxicated. He returned to the dance for a while but eventually decided to head back to the rectory to see if Mayer had any more alcohol.

When Vincent arrived, Mayer was with another boy looking at pornographic magazines. Shortly after, Vincent and Mayer engaged in mutual masturbation. Mayer “implied that this is sort of what guys do: drink, look at girly magazines, and help each other have a good time.” Vincent explains, “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.

Vincent says this rationalization was all part of Mayer’s process to convince young boys to willingly participate in the abuse. Mayer “was an outgoing guy, very personable, related really well to young people, and showed a lot of interest in me. At first, none of it felt creepy. I was an athlete and mildly popular. He treated me like a cool guy.” Vincent also says Mayer “had this shtick that he was helping us to grow sexually and teaching us how to please women.” Mayer made the boys feel like they were “learning how to be sexual creatures,” and the priest’s claimed goal was to “help you enjoy your sexuality and teach you the ways of the world.” Vincent says that Mayer’s targets for abuse were also purposeful and aimed at normalizing what was happening: “It wasn’t like he was preying on the kids who couldn’t protect themselves. It was prominent or successful teenagers instead.” Vincent says this technique “somehow normalized it for me again.” Vincent “wanted to be part of that little gang of kids.”

Two or three weeks after the dance, Vincent and his same friend were out on a weekend night looking for something to do. His friend again suggested that they visit the rectory to see if Mayer had any beer. According to Vincent, what they witnessed upon arriving was “practically an orgy.” Two or three kids were already there, everyone was drinking, and apparently some sexual activity had already happened. “It was almost like we came in halfway through the party and we joined on in,” Vincent says.

Vincent recalls that Mayer participated in the masturbation during these encounters. “That’s what made it seem okay. He’s the priest. If a priest is telling you it’s okay, it must be okay.” While Vincent declined Mayer’s attempts at oral or anal sex, he knows that Mayer wanted it—and also knows Mayer engaged in those activities with other kids.

The archdiocese did nothing to stop Mayer’s behavior, other than moving him from one parish to the next. Archdiocesan documents evidence that the clergy personnel board was aware of “allegations” directed at Mayer in 1982. An April 1982 letter to Cardinal John Cody from staff members at Saint Edna in Arlington Heights where Mayer was assigned complained that the priest was providing alcohol to kids. The letter further noted that Mayer would come out of the shower nude, even when others were present, and had made sexual advances towards a teen. Additional allegations came forward in 1982 that Mayer took teenage boys to his cottage, exposed himself to them, and attempted to remove their pants while swimming.

In response, the archdiocese somehow determined that there was insufficient evidence to warrant Meyer’s removal from Saint Edna. However, archdiocesan officials made it clear that if Mayer was transferred, the public should never know that it was because of sexual abuse, and certainly not because of any complaints by parishioners. Officials wrote, “if Mayer is transferred in the near future, it must be construed that he personally requested the transfer.” In October 1982, Archbishop Joseph Bernardin penned a letter saying that Mayer would in fact be transferred, but on grounds other than those complained of by the parishioners. But the archbishop was seemingly aware of the significant risk of placing Mayer in another assignment. He wrote, “If there really is a problem with [Mayer], it will not be long for a crisis to develop elsewhere.”

Bernardin transferred Mayer to Saint Stephen in Des Plaines in 1983. But the problems persisted. In 1984, a parishioner came forward stating that Mayer had a library of pornographic movies, had taken photographs of children passed out, and maintained an album of those photographs. A memo to now Cardinal Joseph Bernardin that same year acknowledged concerns that Mayer was serving liquor to children, as well as the concerns that Mayer was showing pornography to young people, and had a photo album filled with pictures of sleeping or unconscious teens. A 1987 memo again acknowledged Mayer was serving liquor to children, and someone had called the Des Plaines police to report Mayer may have engaged in oral sex with a 15 year old boy.

Again, the archdiocese’s response was to transfer Mayer to new parishes—first to Saint Dionysius in Cicero in 1988, and then to Saint Odilo in Berwyn in 1990. At least one church official acknowledged this was a risky approach: “There has always been a lot of smoke surrounding Bob, and there is no guarantee that the allegations of sexual misconduct won’t surface again.”

Once again, Mayer did little to change his behavior. A fellow priest at Saint Odilo told an archdiocesan official that “kids [were] all over the place” at the parish rectory, including in Mayer’s room. Finally, in July 1991, the archdiocese removed Mayer from ministry, telling Saint Odilo parishioners that the move was for “personal reasons.” In reality, Mayer had been accused of making sexual advances towards a young adult man. In a July 1991 draft statement to be given to Mayer ostensibly in response to this incident, Cardinal Bernardin acknowledged Mayer’s history. However, the cardinal’s concern was not for the safety of any children or other parishioners. Instead, Bernardin worried about Mayer’s reputation, and that of the church. “Over the years,” the cardinal wrote, “you have repeatedly been the subject of allegations of sexual impropriety, and yet you have refused to modify your behavior in such a way that the risk to yourself and to the Church would be eliminated.” The cardinal also referenced a 1987 agreement signed by Mayer that required Mayer to avoid unsupervised contact with anyone under 21 years of age.

When Saint Odilo parishioners found out the real reason behind Mayer’s removal, they were understandably angry. They met with church officials in October 1991 and questioned how the archdiocese could have sent Mayer to them in the first place. During the same meeting, a young girl stood up and stated that she too had been abused by Mayer.

Authorities charged Mayer with aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a girl between ages 13 and 17 in December 1991. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. He never again ministered as a priest and was laicized in 2010.

In the early 2000s, more survivors came forward accusing Mayer of abuse. Many of their accounts were similar to Vincent’s: alcohol, pornography, masturbation, fondling. The archdiocese reported to the Attorney General’s investigators that it had received 51 allegations of sexual abuse by Mayer.

That the archdiocese gave Mayer so many opportunities to commit abuse sickens Vincent. “The fact that this guy was a creep is bad enough,” he says. “If they caught him at Saint Mary’s and threw him in jail, that would have been one thing. But the fact that the church knew about it and moved him and hid him was despicable to me.” Vincent adds, “I felt anger that the church would let this happen to other kids.”

Even as recently as 2005, the Archdiocese of Chicago attempted to wash its hands of Mayer. In a declaration, Cardinal Francis George wrote, “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.” It’s this type of attitude that frustrates Vincent. “I have pretty strong feelings about the damage the Catholic Church has done,” he explains. “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.”

“If they caught him at Saint Mary’s and threw him in jail, that would have been one thing. But the fact that the church knew about it and moved him and hid him was despicable to me.”

Mayer’s arrest led to the 1992 cardinal’s commission and the overhaul of the archdiocese’s handling of abuse claims. But Cardinal George’s declaration 13 years later, after the publication of the Dallas Charter, is further evidence that the archdiocese was willing to detach itself from the most vulnerable of its faithful in an attempt to shield itself from liability. Children, like Vincent and many others, who were subjected to the most vile of treatment by a man the archdiocese knew was a child sex abuser but did almost nothing to stop.

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*