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Ex-Maryville chief dies months after removal from ministry over sex 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

The Rev. John P. Smyth, who once was one of the Chicago area’s best-known and most-respected priests but saw the Catholic church’s Maryville Academy for troubled kids, which he led for decades, come under intense scrutiny in the early 2000s over violence and suicides involving children, has died.

“Father John Smyth passed away last night at Loyola University hospital,” Anne Maselli, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said Wednesday.

He died around 11:15 p.m. Tuesday, according to Cheryl Heyden, Maryville’s associate executive director.

His death at 84 came three months after the archdiocese made the bombshell announcement that Rev. Smyth had been removed from ministry and accused of sexual abuse of minors in “the 2002-2003 time period” while at Maryville.

Chicago attorney Jeanine Stevens said she initially was representing two former Maryville residents who say Rev. Smyth molested them when they were children. On Wednesday, Stevens said there are now 11 people making similar “credible” claims dating back decades.

Stevens said no lawsuits have been filed but that Cupich’s office has been made aware of the accusations.

Rev. Smyth’s former lawyer, Frank DiFranco, described the allegations as “all lies” by people looking for a payout from the church and called Rev. Smyth “a great man.”

Rev. Smyth was retired at the time the initial abuse allegations were made public. For at least part of his retirement, he’d been living in the rectory of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, on the grounds of Maryville, which houses and treats children with emotional and medical needs at that and several other Chicago-area sites.

Rev. Smyth was superintendent of Maryville from September 1970 to Dec. 1, 2003, and, before that, assistant superintendent since July 1962. He was renowned for being able to raise money from the power elite to help fund the facility.

But in the early 2000s he came under intense scrutiny, with child-welfare workers alarmed by violence and suicides involving kids at Maryville.

Those allegations were the subject of a Chicago Sun-Times investigation in 2002. The first of those stories, published in September 2002, reported: “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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There also was an FBI investigation that looked into Medicaid fraud — Maryville got millions of dollars in government funding. No one was ever charged as a result of that investigation.

In four decades at Maryville, Heyden said Rev. Smyth helped “a tremendous amount of children and families.”

“He’s been ill for a number of months,” Heyden said. “About six months . . . he’d gone back in, I believe, for some hip-replacement surgery.”

She said her understanding is that he developed an infection related to that.

“He’s been in and out of rehab and the hospital, and, in the last month or so, he’s been very, very ill,” she said.

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, Rev. Smyth resigned, and Maryville’s 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.

Rev. Smyth left Maryville’s board in late 2004.

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 amid conflicts with the school’s board.

Rev. Smyth went to college at the University of Notre Dame, where he was a standout basketball player, chosen in the third round of the 1957 National Basketball Association draft by the St. Louis Hawks. 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

Contributing: Sam Charles