Priest Is Indicted on Sex Charges

By Andrew Fegelman
Chicago Tribune
December 5, 1991

When he arrived in January at St. Odilo Church in Berwyn, parishioners said Rev. Robert Mayer seemed like everything the parish's former pastor wasn't.

He was compassionate and warm. He loved to be around children. Parishioners say he cherished strolling the hallways of the church school, talking to pupils.

On his first day in the pulpit, Mayer even told the congregation he wanted them to feel they could approach him at any time and give him a hug. That way, Mayer told parishioners, he could truly feel their love.

But in recent weeks, what had seemed so innocent began to take on a sinister appearance to many parishioners. Parents began talking about the graphic way Mayer conducted sex education classes that included descriptions of homosexual lovemaking. They wondered about the retreats on which he would take teenage boys to his vacation home.

On Wednesday, the 51-year-old Mayer was indicted for allegedly sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl. Mayer, who had mysteriously left the parish in July, is charged with four counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

According to prosecutors, Mayer fondled the girl, then an 8th grader at the school, when she came to the rectory for tutoring. The incident is alleged to have occurred in January, just after Mayer was transferred to the parish from St. Dionysius in Cicero.

The indictment comes as the Chicago Archdiocese battles a credibility crisis over the way it has handled allegations of sexual misconduct by priests. Six priests, including Mayer, have been removed from parishes since this summer because of charges of sexual misconduct.

A lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court charging Rev. Henry Slade with sexually abusing an 18-year-old man afflicted with cerebral palsy. The suit alleges the incident occurred in January 1990 while Slade, who is on leave, was a priest at St. Isidore in Bloomingdale in the Joliet diocese.

Mayer is scheduled for arraignment Dec. 19. According to the archdiocese, he has been undergoing psychiatric treatment at St. Luke's Health Center in Baltimore since July and would have to be extradited.

Andy Knott, a spokesman for State's Atty. Jack O'Malley, said he didn't expect any problems extraditing Mayer.

Mayer's attorney, Patrick Tuite, could not be reached for comment.

While sexual abuse charges against priests in the archdiocese are rare, they are not unprecedented. In 1985 a Catholic priest was convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy who was living at Maryville Academy, a home for troubled youths in Des Plaines.

Attempting to quell the anger and resentment that has arisen among some Catholics because of the allegations, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin appointed a three-member panel in October to examine the question of how priests should be treated when they are accused of sexual misconduct, including the issue of whether they ought to remain assigned to a parish.

In a statement released Wednesday by the archdiocese, Bernardin called the sexual abuse of minors "a tragedy" and said Mayer's indictment "underscores the seriousness of such charges."

"I pray that through the judicial process justice will be achieved for all those involved in this particular case," Bernardin said in the statement. "In addition to cooperation with civil authorities, the archdiocese is working diligently to safeguard our young people and to ensure the confidence of their families."

At St. Odilo, a 64-year-old church with an ethnic mix of parishioners, there has been anything but confidence among the congregation. The feelings of anger and betrayal that arose when the reasons for Mayer's departure were disclosed in October still were very much in evidence Wednesday. One woman said the whole situation had caused her to question her faith as a Catholic.

The anger was not targeted at St. Odilo or even Mayer but at the archdiocese. What troubles parishioners is the fact that the archdiocese assigned Mayer to St. Odilo without disclosing his past.

While a priest at St. Edna in Arlington Heights, Mayer was accused in a 1982 lawsuit of exposing himself to several altar boys and of trying to pull the bathing suits off of two boys during an outing.

Des Plaines police also investigated allegations that Mayer sexually abused children but could find no evidence to charge the priest.

"It was a silly thing for the church to give him a parish with children," Anna Svatos said Wednesday as she waited outside St. Odilo to pick up her son from school. "Anyone in the Catholic faith has been hurt by this."

The anger also had been fueled by the failure of church authorities to disclose just why Mayer suddenly left St. Odilo. It wasn't until a series of meetings in October with parents and pupils at the church school that most of the parishioners learned of the reasons for the departure of the popular pastor.

It was during one of those meetings, authorities said, that the parents of the 14-year-old girl who accused Mayer of attacking her first mentioned the incident. The girl subsequently filed a complaint with Berwyn police, sparking a grand jury investigation.

One source close to the investigation said that among the parents and pupils who testified before the grand jury were several boys who recounted how Mayer would sometimes talk about wanting to have sexual relations with the girl.

"I think there is anger here, but I think there is also a feeling of lets put this behind us," said Rev. Peter Cyscon, who replaced Mayer. "Because it is not the people of St. Odilo who did anything wrong, but it seems like the more coverage we get it seems as if it is the people in the church who are being attacked."


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