While serving as a priest in the Chicago area in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, James M. Ray engaged in disturbing conduct, according to allegations contained in church records, from having children sit on his lap while he had an erection to grabbing a boy’s penis and helping a disabled man masturbate in an airport bathroom.
The Catholic church didn’t kick him out of the priesthood but in the 1990s moved him into a supervised setting to live away from children — at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House adjacent to the Mundelein Seminary where, in 1975, Ray had been ordained.
He wasn’t alone in living at the north suburban retreat center, which the Archdiocese of Chicago for years used to house troubled priests, as well as for spiritual gatherings for prelates and the public. Church records show Ray and eight others were staying there in 2008, a year before he left and quit the clergy.
The last of the priests accused of sexual abuse there were moved in 2013. But the stigma lasted.
The archdiocese — the Catholic church’s arm in Cook and Lake counties, overseen by Cardinal Blase Cupich — recently changed the name of the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House. It’s now called the Joseph and Mary Retreat House.
The church’s explanation for the change, outlined on the retreat center’s Facebook page, says: “We want the name to reflect a more inclusive retreatant, moms, dads, young adults, grandparents as well as maintaining a spiritual renewal place for priests” and deacons.
“We feel that the name Joseph and Mary” — Jesus’ stepfather and mother, according to the Christian Bible — “reflects that new mission of inclusive spiritual renewal. We have made many new improvements to reflect the needs of our retreatants.”
But records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times indicate that a governing body within the archdiocese approved the name change late last year in part to try to distance the facility from its past.
“There are misconceptions about the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House because it has been associated with men who have been removed from the priesthood,” according to the minutes of a September meeting of the Presbyteral Council, which is comprised of priests and bishops and is described as “a major consultative body” to Cupich. “There has been some discussion about changing the name.
“After a discussion regarding the pros and cons . . . the Presbyteral Council took a vote and it was decided that the name should be changed.”
The retreat house — which for decades bore the name of the late Cardinal Samuel Stritch, Chicago’s Catholic archbishop from 1940 until his death in 1958 — “was built in 1952 with the mission of giving retreats for the priests” in the archdiocese and the Diocese of Joliet, which includes Will and DuPage counties, according to a church website.
“For many years the retreat house served its mission well. Over time, as we all have seen, the Catholic landscape has changed and continues to change. The research coming from those who we talk too, those who come for retreats, the impact of . . . Renew my Church” — Cupich’s plan to close and consolidate Catholic schools and churches in the Chicago region — “and the information coming from our website all tell us that the time has come to look at the mission a little different but still keeping a mission of spiritual growth.”
Cupich’s spokeswoman Paula Waters and the Rev. John Canary, who runs the retreat center, didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment on the name change.
While published reports have said troubled priests lived at the facility from 2000 to 2013 — in a different part of the building from visitors — church records show Ray was there off and on from the early 1990s until 2009.
For years, the church kept the presence of the men there quiet. But eventually word got out, and there were complaints in part because Carmel Catholic High School is nearby.
Ray taught at that school part-time while studying to become a priest, records show.
At the Stritch house, Ray was subject to rules that required him, among other things, to provide a written account of his whereabouts when he wasn’t on the grounds.
But his restrictions were relaxed at times — until the church tightened up protocols in the early 2000s, after a new wave of priest sex abuse cases and cover-ups by bishops came to light around the country — and he was allowed, on occasion, to officiate at funerals, weddings and baptisms.