Former Our Lady of the Ridge Altar Boy Recalls "Predator Priest"
By Lorraine Swanson
March 26, 2019
|Fr. Norbert Maday as a young priest; and Maday from a 2018 photo on the Wis. Sex Offender Registry (Jeff Anderson Assoc. | WI Sex Ofdr. Reg.)|
As a boy growing up in Worth and attending Our Lady of the Ridge School, Robert Mergenthaler always felt there was something off about the parish priest Fr. Norbert Maday. He was overly friendly to the children, especially the boys, but he could just as quickly turn mean.
"Maday was weird. The other priests in the parish were stern, but they never tried to intimidate us," said Mergenthaler, now 47. "Around adults he would turn on the charm, but around us kids, he'd get mean."
Maday's name appears in the Anderson Report, a list containing the names of roughly 400 Illinois priests released last week by lawyers representing victims of sexual abuse by priests. Maday was ordained to the priesthood in 1964 when he was 26. Between 1964 and 1994, Maday was assigned to St. John of God and St. Leo in Chicago; St Louis de Montfort in Oak Lawn; Our Lady of the Ridge in Chicago Ridge; and St. Jude the Apostle in South Holland. Maday also served stints in Catholic Scouting and the Archdiocese Council on Youth.
In 1993, Maday was arrested for sexually molesting two altar boys from Our Lady of the Ridge while on a field trip across the Wisconsin state line. The field trip occurred 7 years earlier, in 1986. After a year's leave of absence, Maday was subsequently charged and convicted in 1994 on three felony counts of sexual assault and for intimidating a victim. Maday was handed a 20-year sentence in a Wisconsin prison. During his career in the priesthood, Maday is suspected of abusing a dozen boys from 1967 to 1986, and has been named in four civil suits, according to the Anderson Report.
Much of Mergenthaler's school years intersected with Maday's assignment at Our Lady of the Ridge. Unbeknown to Mergenthaler, there was evil happening all around him, to his friends and to other kids from the school and neighborhood. Mergenthaler, himself, barely emerged unscathed.
Mergenthaler grew up in Worth. He was one of five siblings. His father died suddenly when he was five. His mother remarried a man with two children, and they became a blended family. Mergenthaler attended Our Lady of the Ridge for all eight years of grammar school, from 1977 until his graduation from eighth grade in 1986.
When he was 11, Mergenthaler became an altar boy under Maday's charge. Mergenthaler enjoyed the perks of his new position: Movie nights at the rectory, piled on Maday's bed with three or four other boys watching VHS tapes; sitting on Fr. Maday's lap while the priest let them "drive" his car and special field trips.
"Looking back I can see the signs," Mergenthaler said. "He'd take us to Premo's for ice cream, he never took the girls. Maday was sizing us up. He'd show up at kids' houses when he knew their parents weren't home and say that he just happened to be in the neighborhood. He was stalking us."
When Mergenthaler was 12, Maday took him and four or five other boys to the Holiday Inn on 95th Street to go swimming. Neighborhood businesses were always happy to offer freebies to the local priests: Free meals, ice cream or a dip in the motel pool. There was casual gossip among the kids of Maday grabbing boys in the water and moving his hands over their crotch, in such a way they couldn't tell if it was accidental or not.
"He did that to me, grabbed me in the pool from behind and wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug. He wouldn't let go," Mergenthaler recalled. "I fought to get away. I played a lot of sports and was pretty strong. I finally got loose and swam to the side of the pool. I wrenched the tie string on my trunks as tight as I could."
Mergenthaler never told his parents. Like a lot of kids of that era, nobody talked about the subject of child sex abuse, or even had an understanding or awareness of when it was happening to them. Parents were just as trusting of the authority figures in their children's lives, handing kids off to teachers, coaches, scout leaders and priests.
"I was a jock, a football player. I was embarrassed," he said. "We would talk about in our close-knit group of friends and that was it. Our parents put the priests on pedestals. We never thought of telling anybody."
After the encounter in the Holiday Inn pool, Mergenthaler and some other altar boys, whom Maday had also grabbed or threatened, started being openly hostile to the priest. The summer between seventh and eighth grade, Mergenthaler and his friends were playing baseball in Medard Park when they saw Maday swimming in a backyard pool facing the park. The priest had a young boy trapped in his arms, restraining him in the water.
"He was a CCD kid, he went to public school. His parents were at work, so he was home alone," Mergenthaler said, who still remembers the boy's name. "We all started yelling, 'let that kid go.'"
Mergenthaler resigned as an altar boy in disgust. His blended family moved to Las Vegas, but he was so homesick, he came back to Worth to live with his older sister and finish out his last two years of high school at Shepard. He is married and the father of two daughters, dividing his time between Ohio and Las Vegas.
Reflecting back on his childhood, Mergenthaler can still see the sudden mood changes of boys he knew from the parish, the shadows of darkness that swept across the faces of once happy-go-lucky boys.
"There were some kids whose attitudes really changed from seventh to eighth grade," Mergenthaler said. "Even in their early 20s, their demeanor was quiet and withdrawn."
Maday, now 81, was defrocked by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2007, after serving 13 years of his 20-year prison sentence. The ex-priest lives in a town home in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, with other sex offenders. Due to his propensity to re-offend, Maday is living out his life as a "sexually violent person" under continuous supervision. He is not allowed to leave the town home without a chaperone, must stay out of taverns, and is not allowed to have any unsupervised or unauthorized contact with minors.
Except for a brief conversation he had with his best friend ten years ago, Mergenthaler still hasn't discussed the sexual molestation that happened to the boys he grew up with, and how close he came to being one of Maday's victims himself. He hasn't even discussed it with his wife. He says he feels survivor's guilt for not speaking up or doing more to protect his friends.
"I should have done something, or said something," he said. "After Maday got caught, my stepfather would make cracks about it. I still didn't say anything."
He hopes now that by getting his name out there, the other boys he grew up with will be encouraged to come forward, to no longer let Maday silence them with shame, including the boy in pool by Medard Park.
"Maday was a monster," Mergenthaler said. "It makes me angry to think of how many lives and families he destroyed or hurt, and how he used the church for his own sexual fantasy."