Former Maryville, Notre Dame College Prep leader the Rev. John Smyth dies

The Chicago-area Catholic community is mourning the death of the Rev. John P. Smyth, who after choosing the priesthood over a chance to play in the NBA served as the longtime leader of Maryville Academy in Des Plaines and later as president of Notre Dame College Prep in Niles.

Smyth, 84, died Tuesday night at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

His death comes three months after Cardinal Blase J. Cupich asked Smyth to step aside from the ministry after two men claimed he sexually abused them as boys at Maryville in 2002-03 - an accusation strongly denied by the priest's attorney.

Patrick McCaskey, a Chicago Bears board member and team vice president who grew up in Des Plaines, said he knew Smyth since he arrived at Maryville as a new priest in 1962. Smyth was a family friend and presided over the funeral Mass of Bears Chairman Ed McCaskey at Maryville in 2003.

McCaskey said Smyth will be missed.

"He was a builder and a visionary and a great catalyst for raising money for Maryville, the Standing Tall Foundation and Notre Dame College Prep," McCaskey said.

Smyth started the Standing Tall Charitable Foundation in 2005 in an effort to provide educational and vocational training scholarships, along with cash awards to institutions. Its emphasis is on assisting those most at risk and in need.

The foundation made at least $700,000 in donations annually, according to his lawyer, Frank DiFranco.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart serves on Standing Tall's 11-member board of directors, which included Smyth.

"Father Smyth was a great friend and wonderful man who dedicated his life to helping others," Dart said in a statement issued Wednesday.

McCaskey said the nonprofit Sports Faith International will continue with the Fr. John Smyth Award given to an athlete or coach pursuing a religious vocation. McCaskey is board chairman of the organization, which in part recognizes and encourages excellence in sports and in the Catholic faith.

Smyth captained University of Notre Dame's basketball team and was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks in the first round of the 1957 NBA Draft, but chose the priesthood instead.

The Chicago native was assigned to Maryville in Des Plaines after he was ordained in April 1962 and became its executive director in 1970. He began hosting fundraisers and received credit for reforming the care of children at the City of Youth, bringing in the family teaching model.

But he departed Maryville amid controversy in December 2004. Though a hugely popular figure within Chicago-area Catholic circles, Smyth became a lightning rod after a series of fights, rapes and child runaways under his watch at Maryville, which then was the state's largest care facility for abused and abandoned children.

After repeated calls for his ouster, Smyth eventually agreed to leave Maryville, ending a four-decade-long tenure at its helm. He then wound up at Notre Dame College Prep.

Notre Dame officials in a statement Wednesday said they were grateful for Smyth's leadership of the school from 2006 to 2014.

"Fr. Smyth truly saw and valued the potential in every young person, regardless of their past or troubles, long before they saw it for themselves," the statement reads. "His tenacity and belief in others changed thousands of lives for the better. He will be missed."

In January, sexual abuse accusations made against Smyth dating to 2002-03 became publicly known. He was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

The accusers allege Smyth molested them when they were 13 and 14 years old and residing, at a judge's orders, in Maryville's Scott Nolan Center, according to their attorney, Jeanine Stevens. She said Wednesday she wants the archdiocese to continue investigating the allegations, regardless of Smyth's death.

DiFranco said Smyth never molested anyone and that his accusers are attempting extortion.

"I think that anyone that knows Fr. Smyth knows the allegations were outright lies," DiFranco said. "He was a giant in the Catholic community."

Stevens said "there is no attempt to extort." She said she's heard from at least 10 more alleged victims of Smyth since the claims became public and it was his prominence that prevented accusers from coming forward in the past.

After requesting that Smyth step aside from ministry, the archdiocese told him to move from the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe grounds on the Maryville campus in Des Plaines while the allegations were investigated.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Many in the Chicago-area Catholic community are mourning the death of the Rev. John P. Smyth, who led Maryville Academy in Des Plaines and Notre Dame College Prep in Niles over his long tenure in the priesthood. Daily Herald file photo, 2006
The Rev. John Smyth addresses a crowd at a Mass recognizing Joseph Bernardin on the occasion of his elevation to cardinal in 1983 Daily Herald File Photo, 1983
The Rev. John Smyth speaks to young people on the Des Plaines campus of Maryville Academy in 1994. Smyth, who died Tuesday at 84, led Maryville for decades. Daily Herald File Photo, 1994
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