Marist Brothers Catholic order hid abuse by member who helped run Chicago school in the 1970s, suits say
‘I was groomed really from the start of school’ by Brother Robert Ryan, says one of the men who sued. ‘It’s infuriating that the order knew this guy was doing this to children, and they just transferred him around.’
After Brother Robert Ryan died in 2017, a relative posted an online tribute, calling him “the favorite uncle” who “lived a giving life” and “selflessly” served God.
Two lawsuits paint a different picture of Ryan, one that’s become public only after his death at 83. They accuse him of having molested children over a years-long span during which he was a member of the Marist Brothers Catholic religious order.
One of the lawsuits says victims of the abuse included students attending Marist High School on the Far Southwest Side in the 1970s.
At Marist, Ryan’s “sexual abuse of minor boys worsened in both frequency and intensity . . . and he began to engage in more violent conduct, such as anal rape and sodomy,” according to the lawsuit.
Beyond describing what it says was the emotional and physical damage caused by Ryan, the suit accuses his order of covering up for him for years. It says the Marist Brothers were aware of allegations against Ryan and dealt with them by transferring him from coast to coast, in addition to placing him in Chicago, rather than removing him from ministry. The order also failed to report the sexual abuse allegations against Ryan to the police or to inform parents, according to the suit.
Most Catholic dioceses and many independently run Catholic religious orders now inform their church communities and the public about what they deem to be credible allegations of abuse of minors by their priests, deacons and brothers.
But the Marist Brothers, who have a hub in Chicago, do not. So, unlike, for instance, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the order does not post a public list of its members in Chicago and elsewhere who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
There has been growing pressure from inside and outside the church — including a public call by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich as well as private pressure — for orders to come clean about clergy sexual abuse, in part because that’s seen as a way to promote healing among victims.
That push comes in the face of the ongoing scandal regarding clergy sexual abuse in the United States that first exploded into public view in the 1980s. It has led many dioceses and religious orders to post lists of their abusive clergy and their past assignments.
But some orders in addition to the Marist Brothers have not heeded those calls. In a series of reports, the Chicago Sun-Times has detailed how other male Catholic religious orders that operate in and around Chicago also have tried to keep a lid on sexual abuse by their clerics. They include:
• The Dominicans, who operate Fenwick High School in Oak Park.
• The Augustinians, who run Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox.
• And the Passionists, who for decades served Immaculate Conception parish on the Far Northwest Side and ran the church school — including a period during which the pastor there had been accused of being a serial child molester.
Cupich maintains a public list of clergy who directly reported to the Archdiocese of Chicago — the arm of the church for Cook and Lake counties that he oversees for Pope Francis — who have been determined to have been credibly accused of abuse.
Though he also has been demanding the same type of information from religious orders that operate in his territory regarding their members, he doesn’t make that available to the public, the Sun-Times reported in February.
In addition to Chicago, the other church jurisdictions where the two lawsuits and an attorney say Ryan abused or tried to abuse children include the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, the Diocese of Rockville Centre in Long Island, New York, and the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire. Those dioceses either don’t post public lists of abusive members or clerics, or they do but don’t include Ryan.
In the 1970s, Ryan was an assistant principal at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon, according to a lawsuit filed in March in New York and a separate lawsuit filed in October in Oregon. Each of those civil cases was filed against the order by men who say Ryan molested them when they were students at high schools where he was serving.
The Oregon case, which doesn’t name the accuser, says Ryan “befriended, mentored, supervised and acted as disciplinarian” for him at the high school and “successfully gained plaintiff’s trust and obedience.”
That suit says the accuser “was also conditioned by his school, family and Catholic faith to obey individuals in positions of school authority,” including Ryan and “all Marist High School staff.”
It says Ryan “sexually abused plaintiff on numerous occasions beginning in approximately 1975 and lasting until approximately 1977, including forcibly kissing, fondling, masturbating and performing oral sex upon plaintiff.”
The suit says that “at least some” of the abuse occurred at the school, which no longer is run by the order but remains open, now operated by the Portland archdiocese.
Though the Oregon case doesn’t name the accuser who filed it, he agreed to speak with a Sun-Times reporter on the condition of not being named.
“I was groomed really from the start of school by Brother Robert,” the man says. “It’s infuriating that the order knew this guy was doing this to children, and they just transferred him around. I just wonder how many victims are in the wake of his path, his career.”
He says that, if he could confront Ryan today, he’d ask: “What were you thinking? Why would you do this to a kid?”
And: “What was it that made you choose me?”
Catholic religious orders all ultimately are under the authority of the pope. But they operate relatively independently, often spanning more than one diocese. They typically focus on a mission or follow in the mold of a particular saint.
Founded in 1817 by a French priest, the Marist Brothers “are an international religious community of more than 4,000 Catholic brothers dedicated to making Jesus known and loved through the education of young people, especially those most neglected,” according to the group’s American province, which is based in Queens, New York.
“The call of a brother is to live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and offering some other non-sacramental service to God’s people through such works as education, health care, social work, spiritual accompaniment and prayer,” according to the order, which notes that religious brothers differ from priests in that the “call of a priest is to the altar, offering the sacraments of the church to people.”
The Marist Brothers administered the Oregon school from 1968 until 1993, one year after members “decided to withdraw from their ministry in Eugene due to . . . personnel commitments in Chicago, Boston and New York,” according to the school’s website.
“Though the Marist Brothers have withdrawn, they have left an indelible mark on the school and the greater community by their dedication and example,” according to an online history that notes a Dominican order priest took over leadership when the Marist Brothers left.
According to the New York lawsuit, Ryan “forcibly fondled numerous boys” at the Marist Brothers high school in Oregon during his relatively brief tenure there.
By 1977, the Oregon school and Ryan’s order “had received complaints and allegations from students (and others) that Brother Ryan had sexually abused minor boys at Marist High School in Eugene,” according to the New York suit.
But the school and the order “failed to notify and/or warn law enforcement officials and students and/or parents,” the suit says.
Instead, it says, the Marist Brothers’ U.S. province “took its first malicious action in a multi-year pattern and practice of deceit and duplicity by quietly transferring Brother Ryan to Marist High School in Chicago, Illinois, in or about 1978.”
Administrators at the Far Southwest Side high school won’t comment other than to say that, according to their records, Ryan “worked at Marist-Chicago in 1968-69 and from 1972-75” and that they “are unaware of any allegations/lawsuits at Marist-Chicago.”
They directed questions to the order, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The New York lawsuit says that Ryan, while assistant principal at Chicago’s Marist, preyed on the school’s then-all-male student population, saying he:
- Would “engage in sexually explicit conversations that often focused on the boys’ masturbatory habits.”
- Forcibly “kissed numerous minor boys.”
- Forcibly “engaged in masturbation with numerous minor boys.”
- Forcibly “performed oral sex on numerous minor boys.”
- Forcibly “anally raped and/or sodomized minor boys with implements and/or sadomasochistic objects.”
The suit characterizes the sexual abuse as “more violent” than what had occurred in Oregon.
It says officials at the school and with the order were aware of at least some of the allegations against Ryan but didn’t notify the police or parents.
Instead, sometime around 1979, the suit says, the order “took another malicious action ... by quietly transferring, coordinating the transfer or endorsing the transfer” of Ryan to what’s now called St. Mary’s College Prep High School in Manhasset, New York.
The New York lawsuit was filed by Steven Gormley, who was a student there in the early 1980s. The suit says Ryan sexually abused him over a span of two years when the brother was his school guidance counselor. Gormley says in the lawsuit that Ryan often had him pulled out of class and told to go to his school office, where he says Ryan raped him.
Gormley’s suit says Ryan forced him “to take alcohol” and drugs including sedatives to make him “more relaxed” and “compliant.”
As a result of this “introduction to drugs and alcohol” by Ryan, Gormley says in the suit that he “suffered from serious drug abuse and alcohol abuse from 1982 through 2006.”
The man who filed the Oregon lawsuit says he “drank nightly for 35 years.”
“I would certainly say” the abuse was “a contributing factor,” he says.
Gormley’s suit says Ryan molested at least three more boys who were in his grade as well as “numerous” boys in other grades.
“Brother Ryan’s sexual abuse ... was so horrific that even now, 40 years later, when plaintiff is examined by a physician, the physician — without prompting — often asks him about the childhood sexual abuse that he suffered,” Gormley’s lawsuit says.
The Marist Brothers order knew of St. Mary’s kids being molested by Ryan but didn’t notify parents or the police, according to the suit, which says by around 1981, Ryan had “developed a notorious and unsavory reputation” among students for regularly asking them to “engage in sexually explicit conversations, often about their own masturbatory habits.”
The suit says Gormley told the order in the early 1990s of the abuse he suffered by Ryan and was cautioned not to “escalate” things and urged to “protect the church.”
The order made a payment to Gormley at that time, according to his recently filed lawsuit, which says the Rev. Alan Placa — a priest, lawyer and longtime church official with the Diocese of Rockville Centre — helped broker that deal.
Placa grew up with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and has worked for Guiliani’s consulting firm.
Nearly 20 years ago, a grand jury report accused a clergyman identified only as “Priest F” of “repeatedly making improper advances to children,” according to The New York Times, and Placa later acknowledged he was that cleric, though he has denied any wrongdoing. The newspaper said the grand jury “report said that as a diocesan official he had shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish.”
Placa couldn’t be reached.
As part of its out-of-court settlement with Gormley in the early 1990s, the Marist Brothers agreed to: waive tuition for a family friend enrolling at St. Mary’s; give Gormley, who’s now 53, $15,000 for counseling; and make sure Ryan would never again “associate or interact with children,” according to the lawsuit.
Yet Ryan’s superiors subsequently let him work at Camp Marist, a summer camp run by the order in New Hampshire, and “work with children at that camp,” according to the suit.
Peter Janci, a Portland lawyer who represents the man suing the Marist Brothers in Oregon, says there’s evidence the order knew before his client was molested that Ryan had tried to abuse a child at the camp but did nothing.
The camp’s executive director referred questions to the Marist Brothers.
Brother Dan O’Riordan, head of the order’s U.S. province, didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Kevin Mulhearn, Gormley’s lawyer, declined to comment.
Rockville Centre diocese spokesman Sean Dolan says the diocese “is not commenting on particular cases at this time. Allegations are being addressed in the appropriate judicial forums.”
In 2006, one of Ryan’s superiors with the Marist Brothers wrote a letter of apology to Gormley regarding Ryan’s actions, though not for the way the order supervised Ryan or for shuffling him around and not informing the police or the public, according to Gormley’s lawsuit.
“It is difficult to express adequately my concern and support for you,” the superior wrote. “Please be assured that I am very sorry for the pain you have experienced.”
St. Mary’s is located within the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which has faced so many child sexual abuse claims that it filed for bankruptcy protection last year.
As part of its bankruptcy court proceedings, the diocese published a list of its sexually abusive clergy.
Ryan’s name wasn’t on it.