Finding justice and peace for Illinois youth

Sister Catherine M. Ryan - Natalie Battaglia
Sister Catherine M. Ryan —Photo by Natalie Battaglia
April 2012

To listen to Sister Catherine Ryan's colleagues, it seems fitting that Ryan lists Mahatma Gandhi among her heroes.

Ryan said Gandhi comes across as such an inspirational political leader and social reformer, one might forget he was also a lawyer.

The 65-year-old Ryan, too, spends most of her time fighting for peace and justice and along the way bucks what might be conventional ideas of the legal profession.

"She blows up so many stereotypes about lawyers," said Randall Roberts, compliance officer at Maryville Academy.

Ryan, executive director of the Des Plaines-based academy, focuses less on winning cases than on improving lives, Roberts said.

She prefers mediation to making money. She donates her salary to the Franciscan order, the order of nuns she belongs to.

"Her identity as a Roman Catholic nun is part and parcel with her identity as a lawyer," Roberts said.

In December 2004, Ryan became executive director of Maryville, the Chicago Archdiocese institution that serves about 2,000 young people a year and houses an average of 180 wards each night.

Eight years ago she took over the helm of the once-maligned campuses, but she has been fighting to improve Illinois' juvenile legal system and those who pass through it for at least three decades.

Joining the system

Iowa native Ryan, who grew up in Glenview, joined the Milwaukee-based School Sisters of St. Francis in 1965. As a young nun, she asked her order for permission to attend law school.

"At its core, law is supposed to be about peacemaking," Ryan said. "What lawyers need to do is work for real justice — not just who has the better lawyer, who has more power. We're contributing to the peace of our society and the future of our society."

To her fellow Franciscan nuns, law school seemed a natural fit.

"Sister Cathy is committed to the values of democracy and justice, equal treatment before the law and the right of people to be represented," said Sister Barbara Kraemer, who has known Ryan since 1969.

Kraemer, a Chicago native, said Ryan's decision to become a lawyer came at "a time of change in our community and sisters were beginning to move into new areas of work in the social arena."

"As the rather unique combination of lawyer and woman religious, she has impressed and inspired me, primarily because in Sister Cathy, both callings make profound sense," said Sister Deborah Fumagalli, who has known Ryan for 35 years.

Ryan graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1972 and joined the Cook County state's attorney's office in 1974. She later became chief of the office's Juvenile Justice Bureau, working alongside Richard Devine, then an assistant state's attorney.

The office initiated a small, but vigilant child abuse unit, and Ryan said she began recognizing flaws in the justice process. Inspired by the need for a more managerial review of the larger child welfare system, Ryan earned an MBA from Loyola University in 1979.

"For me, the value of evaluation is partly to introduce all of us to groups of thoughts that we might not have thought of," she said of how her new degree broadened her view of her legal work.

Ryan left government work in 1985 and spent 11 years in private practice. She worked on cases dealing with child neglect and juvenile mental health, often defending young people involved in custody disputes or delinquency matters.

Ryan maintains fond memories of handling the intricacies of both sides of a case, on defense and prosecution. She relished being in the courtroom and the chance to work on trials.

"I love doing trial work, getting to know the clients, working with one family at a time," she said. "I miss that piece."

Make no mistake about her kind, respectful nature, Roberts cautioned — Ryan is no pushover.

"She's not a wallflower," Roberts said. "She can be very firm and assertive in the courtroom."

"She never presents herself as emotionally involved in issues requiring a legal perspective," Fumagalli said, "and yet Sister Cathy provides advice that is at once compassionate and professional."

Devine called her "ethical at her very core."

When he took over as Cook County state's attorney in 1996, "the first call I made was to Cathy Ryan," Devine wrote recently in a letter praising Ryan and nominating her for Chicago Lawyer's "Person of the Year" honor.

Shortly after her return to the office — again as chief of the Juvenile Justice Bureau — she and Devine again became vocal about deficiencies in the county's juvenile court system.

This time around, Ryan and Devine didn't want simply to highlight the law's problems: They wanted to gut it.

Changing the system

Ryan said she recognized shuttling Cook County's children in and out of the court system was hardly the best thing for the youth or the county's overwhelmed courts and jails.

What inspires Sister Cathy Ryan?
Who mentored you early in your career?
“My religious community just taught me so much and witnessed so much. A lot of the teaching wasn’t with words.” It came in the community’s commitment to serving people, especially the poor. As a lawyer — Dick Devine. He helped teach me how to use the tools of the legal profession to help people and make society better.

What music do you listen to for inspiration?
Some religious music. I like Josh Groban and some country music.

Name a person who inspires you.
Mahatma Gandhi. He was absolutely committed to finding a nonviolent way to bringing justice. I aspire to at least work toward the same thing. Also, Martin Luther King Jr., and, not to minimize the wonderful people I work with who inspire me.

What’s the biggest change to the legal community?
For us to ensure that (within) the legal system, that we’re bringing about justice. I hope every lawyer enjoys being a lawyer as much as I do. It has been a wonderful ministry.

What’s the biggest challenge in your day-to-day job?
Calling it also a blessing, we have to continue to learn what it is our children need and our staff need to be able to respond to those children’s needs. We have to be a learning organization.

Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
"We can think we're doing the right thing. We can do what the law says, but the result isn't right," she said. "It's not about winning cases."


Her office began examining a more comprehensive approach to addressing youth crime through the then-burgeoning balanced and restorative justice concept.

A balanced and restorative justice philosophy focuses on remediating a criminal situation by analyzing what's best for the victim, the offender and the community.

As an eager lifelong student, Ryan described with zest the mental and anthropological aspects of restorative justice.

"The wonderful thing about children is they aren't finished yet," she said. "Restorative justice is not about being soft on crime; it's about being tough on crime."

But it also requires acknowledging that young people can commit crimes and that victims need their own justified redress, she said.

Ryan doesn't possess "pie in the sky" hope, Devine said.

"She's grounded," he said. "She knows the system inside and out. She recognized that we all have a responsibility, that you can't just dismiss (troubled juveniles)."

Roberts, who joined the Juvenile Justice Bureau of the state's attorney's office in 1997, worked alongside Ryan in evaluating the code.

"It was the best six years of my career," he said of his work with Ryan.

Ryan, Roberts and others realized the best approach likely meant writing a whole new code, instead of inserting patchwork fixes.

Editing an existing law could prove daunting enough. Creating one from scratch, and winning the legislature's approval, becomes the stuff entire political lives get spent on.

"I finally thought, 'You know, Cathy, go for it,'" Devine said. "She was really the driving force."

Ryan and other staff began holding regular meetings with members of other state's attorney offices — from Peoria to Madison counties — to hammer out new language. Getting a room full of lawyers to agree often proves an insurmountable task, but not when Ryan sits at the table, Roberts said.

"She had that kind of infectious desire and passion," Roberts said.

Ryan's office began collaborating with Gordon Bazemore, a Florida Atlantic University professor considered one of the country's leading experts on balanced and restorative justice.

Bazemore said he initially felt wary of implementing the kind of change required for restorative justice into the world of rough-and-tumble Chicago politics, but Ryan's creditability and passion for making change assuaged those fears.

"When she spoke, people paid attention," Bazemore said. "She really just had that moral authority."

Ryan possessed a healthy appetite for learning how Cook County could implement a restorative justice model, he said.

"I think she already had this in her gut," Bazemore said. "One of the first things she talked about was the idea of forgiveness."

She touted the need for accountability and responsibility, of both the offender and the community, he said.

After Ryan and the statewide group spent countless hours and roughly two years crafting language, the Illinois General Assembly adopted the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 1998.

Cook County then began diverting juvenile criminal cases out of the court system to mediation sessions involving victims, alleged perpetrators and community members. The number of young offenders funneled through the courts declined.

Ryan began speaking about the county's success in implementing the philosophy with Bazemore and others at conferences and meetings across the country.

When it came to the country's growing embrace of restorative justice, Roberts said, "She put Illinois on the map."

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority called Ryan a "major force" behind the state's restorative justice initiative. She received in 2003 at an Illinois restorative justice summit the "Champions for Balanced and Restorative Justice Award."

Taking over

Ryan soon took her faith in reforming troubled youth to Des Plaines.

"I don't think I came in with a specific philosophy," she said of being named the head of Maryville in 2004.

Ryan took the helm as Department of Children and Family Services officials deemed Maryville unsafe after the beleaguered institution endured violence, a young resident's suicide and alleged assaults among its wards.

When asked how she revamped Maryville, Ryan quickly praised her staff instead of reflecting on the past problems.

The closest Ryan will come to acknowledging drawbacks existed before her arrival is to say Maryville — and all child welfare agencies — need to better adapt to a system overwhelmed with children with particularly traumatic upbringings.

Her experience dealing with child abuse and neglect cases, she said, "gave me the opportunity to see how some of those principles are at work in the situation of child welfare."

"Here, at Maryville, you can save one child at a time," Ryan said. "The heart of this work is relationships. Our children are more than the trauma they've experienced. I see what a difference good staff and volunteers and donors make in the lives of children."

Ryan's former county colleagues soon found themselves working alongside Ryan again, like recruits who follow their seasoned coach from team to team.

Roberts said it took him "about 10 seconds" to agree to work with Ryan again, this time as Maryville's compliance officer. Devine left the state's attorney's office in 2008 and now acts as chairman of Maryville's board of directors while working in private practice.

Although Ryan is not a tall person, Devine said, "she stands head and shoulders above many lawyers" he knows.

"She's right up there with my favorite people," he said.

Devine said Ryan brought to Maryville the integrity and credibility she brings with any project she undertakes.

Since her arrival, Maryville established a crisis nursery, which serves as emergency care for young children up to 6 years old. The nursery acts as a short-term fix — usually two to three days — for families and guardians who need a brief respite, possibly to attend a job interview or undergo a medical issue.

Since opening five years ago, the site has served at least 3,000 children, Ryan said.

"This isn't because of me," she said of the nursery's success. "I hope that I had the good sense to listen to and learn from the good staff here at Maryville."

How does she do it?

One thing the people close to Ryan can't decipher about her is the source of energy.

"Someone should find out what she eats for breakfast because her energy appears boundless," Fumagalli said.

Bazemore called her a "little ball of energy."

"I never saw when she could sit still," he said.

Her fatigue-defying work won her praise from legal and religious communities alike. She received the "Award of Merit" from the Illinois State Bar Association and the Illinois Youth Court Association recognized her in 2003.

In 2007, she received The Chicago Bar Association's "Justice John Paul Stevens Award" as well as the "Public Service Award" from her alma mater, Northwestern University School of Law.

Holy Family Medical Center honored her in 2010 with its "C.A.R.E.S. Award," given, the group says, to the person "who has gone above and beyond the call of study to improve the quality of life" in the community. The same year, she received the "Cardinal Bernardin Award" from the Chicago Legal Clinic.

Fittingly, Ryan's biography on Maryville's website does not boast of these accolades.

Roberts said he learned under Ryan's tutelage to remain humble and always to treat people with respect.

"It sounds simple, but it's hard to do," he said.

Ryan advised him, he said, never to act in court as if you know more than your opposing counsel; never act as if you know more than the judge. Under Ryan, he said, he realized the importance of collaboration to resolve a case.

"I feel like I'm a better person and a better lawyer because of her," Roberts said.

Ryan's legal expertise and compassion benefit the goals of her religious order, as well as the young people she oversees, Kraemer said.

Her work, Kraemer said, "has furthered our mission through her law practice on behalf of children who were abused or neglected, juveniles who were put in detention and parents who wanted to adopt children or provide foster care.

"(She) also helped us as a community and our leadership because she prepared herself to handle legal matters related to nonprofit corporations. She also has an understanding of church law and is able to be clear about the relationship between church law and civil corporations."

Colleagues said Ryan handles a heavy — and often, heady — workload with an even temper and sense of humor unseen by many veterans of the legal and juvenile systems.

In all Devine's years of discussing cases with Ryan, he said, "Not once did I hear anything from her but wisdom and caring," for both victims and offenders.

Those close to her say Ryan's Irish roots help guide her through particularly bleak cases.

Kraemer, her longtime friend, called her sociable, with "a good sense of humor, true to her Irish heritage."

Fumagalli, another friend, said Ryan's "ever-apparent Irish humor is part of her charm and gets her through the most difficult situations."

For her part, Ryan seems not to focus on the dark side of her job and finds comfort in witnessing youths under her care thrive — even in something as simple as a basketball game.

Many of the children who make it to Maryville carved their path there through broken homes and mentally damaging abuse. Many simply never interacted well with others, Ryan said.

"If I see our children go to a basketball game, I know some of the challenges the children on that court are facing," she said.

She experiences simple joy from watching their teamwork. For many children, the mere idea of sharing the basketball proves a monumental achievement.

"I know what a huge step that is for them," Ryan said. "I am so proud of them when I see that at the game."

If there is such a concept as "free time" in Ryan's life, it might include traveling to the five provinces of her Franciscan order. Even then, she travels to locations like Latin America and Germany, where she recently visited, on official work as the order's treasurer.

Unsurprisingly, in her lifelong quest for fairness, she declines to name a favorite site among them.

"For me, every country has its own charm," she said. "It's always a lesson to me how people do it differently than we do."