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Lawyer for ex-Maryville priest calls sex-abuse allegations ‘ridiculous’

Rev. John P. Smyth in 2003.

Rev. John P. Smyth in 2003. "He's been in and out of rehab and the hospital, and, in the last month or so, he's been very, very ill," said Cheryl Heyden, associate executive director of Maryville Academy. | Sun-Times files

The attorney representing a Catholic priest who is accused of sexual abuse during his time as head of a facility in Des Plaines that cared for troubled kids called the allegations “ridiculous.”

Attorney Frank DiFranco said Rev. John Smyth “adamantly denies” the allegations that he molested two boys in his office while head of Maryville Academy.

“It never happened. It’s a lie. The stuff that was alleged is nonsense,” he told the Sun-Times on Monday.

“You’ve got this man who’s never been accused of anything … and then you’ve got two convicted felons who concoct a story in prison of how
they were abused,” DiFranco said. “It’s ridiculous, especially when you consider the thousands and thousands of kids who went through Maryville.”

Jeanine Stevens — the attorney representing the two accusers, who are both in their 30s and but were ages 13 and 14 when they were allegedly abused — said it’s common for traumatic events to take years to bubble to the surface.

“People spend their lives burying this kind of thing. People don’t concoct these stories. They feel humiliation and shame,” she said.

Stevens denies that the men ever concocted a story while serving time in an Illinois prison.

“They happened to see each other one single time and one of the men said, ‘Hey, are you so and so from Maryville? I’m trying to reach a lawyer about what Smyth did to me.’ And the other man said,  ‘He did it to me, too.”

Stevens said she received a letter from one of the men early last year and first brought the abuse allegations to the attention of archdiocese officials last March.

The Chicago Archdiocese announced in a bombshell statement issued Friday that Smyth, 84, had been accused of sexual abuse of minors when he was assigned to Maryville during the “2002-2003 time period” and that he’d been removed from ministry.

The allegations were reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as well as the Cook County state’s attorney, and the archdiocese “has begun its review of these matters,” the archdiocese said.

DiFranco contends that restrictions on the movement of children on the Maryville campus would never have allowed for the two accusers to be in Smyth’s office.

Stevens dismissed DiFranco’s reasoning. “Kids go where they’re told to go,” she said.

No lawsuit has been filed in the case, but one could be forthcoming if church officials do not come to the table to discuss a settlement that would have to include financial damages and therapy for life, Stevens said.

DiFranco said the accusers are looking for “easy money” from a church that’s been scarred by sex abuse scandals in recent years, he said.

Stevens said Monday that her clients — one is in prison, the other is on probation and currently under house arrest — would not be made available for media interviews. She also declined to say what crimes they committed in the past.

Smyth was once one of the Chicago area’s best-known and most-respected priests during the decades he ran Maryville. He was renowned for his ability to raise money from the power elite to help fund the facility.

In the early 2000s, he came under intense scrutiny with an FBI investigation that looked into Medicaid fraud. Maryville was the recipient of millions of dollars in government funding. No one was ever charged in the federal probe.

Also, child-welfare workers were alarmed by violence and suicides involving kids living at Maryville, which were the subject of a Chicago Sun-Times investigation in 2002.

The first of those stories, published in September 2002, began: “Maryville Academy’s City of Youth — Illinois’ biggest haven for abused and abandoned children — is ‘dangerous,’ and key group homes
are ‘in a state of crisis,’ according to government reports obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.”

Maryville had been started more than a century ago to help care for the orphans of the Great Chicago Fire.

Amid the turmoil more than a decade ago, Smyth resigned, and its residential program was shut down.

It later reopened and now, at that and other facilities, houses around 100 children, including kids who have been physically and sexually abused.

Smyth had been superintendent of Maryville from September 1970 to Dec. 1, 2003, and, before that, assistant superintendent there since July 1962.

He later was hired as president of Notre Dame College Prep, an all-boys high school in Niles. He was president of Notre Dame from July 2007 to April 2014.

He resigned from that post amid conflicts with the school’s board, then led by Paula Waters, who is now Cardinal Blase Cupich’s main press aide. She couldn’t be reached for comment.

A Maryville spokeswoman, Marcy Jensen, said that, since Smyth left Maryville’s board in late 2004, he has attended two “luncheons” but otherwise has had little contact with the institution.

Jensen said that Maryville’s “highest priority” is to protect children.

Smyth was a college basketball star at the University of Notre Dame. The St. Louis Hawks picked him in the third-round of the 1957 National Basketball Association draft, according to the NBA’s website. But, according to a biography of Smyth, he “elected to forgo a professional basketball career and entered the seminary instead.”