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Ex-Maryville Academy chief removed from ministry over sex-abuse allegations

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

For decades, the Rev. John P. Smyth ran Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, a Catholic Church facility for troubled kids.

In a bombshell announcement on Friday afternoon, the church said that Smyth had been accused of sexual abuse of minors in “the 2002-2003 time period” when he was assigned to Maryville and that he has been removed from ministry.

The Archdiocese of Chicago said in a written statement that it “has begun its review of these matters.”

According to the archdiocese’s statement, “In keeping with our child protection policies, the allegations were reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Cook County state’s attorney. The persons making the allegations have been offered the services of the archdiocese’s Office of Assistance Ministry.”

“The archdiocese has begun its review of these matters,” its statement said. “His faculties to minister in the Archdiocese of Chicago have been withdrawn.”

DCFS released a statement saying, “Generally, DCFS would investigate an older allegation if the perpetrator is currently in a role through which other children could be abused.”

State’s attorney’s spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said, “We cannot confirm or deny whether there is an ongoing investigation.”

Smyth is retired but until recently was still living in the rectory of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the grounds of Maryville, which is dedicated to the treatment of children with emotional and medical needs at that and several other Chicago-area sites.

He “will reside away” from there as the allegations are investigated.

Smyth, 84, couldn’t immediately be reached.

Anne Maselli, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Blase Cupich, said she was unable to say how many children were involved in the abuse allegations and whether they had been living at Maryville.

“It’s sexual abuse of minors” being alleged, Maselli said. “We can’t go into any more details.”

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.”

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• Read the 2002 Sun-Times investigation

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 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.”

Maryville Academy’s Rev. John P. Smyth (left) with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the chapel at the cardinal’s residence in 1993. | Sun-Times files