Foundation official says 'nothing at all sinister' about removal of Smyth statue at Maryville

Citing necessary repairs, an official for a charitable foundation started by the Rev. John P. Smyth says the organization removed a statue of the late priest from Maryville Academy in Des Plaines and they deny Archdiocese of Chicago claims it was taken without authority.

Smyth, Maryville's longtime leader, died in April at age 84, just as claims surfaced that he molested two teenage boys while they lived on the campus in 2002-03. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in June deemed the accusations unfounded, and Smyth's attorney strongly denies the allegations.

Called "Standing Tall," the bronze statue was dedicated June 29, 1996, to honor Smyth's work at Maryville. The statue, featuring Smyth with his arms outstretched to a child soaring above him, was installed in the middle of a circular entrance off Central Road to what now is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe's side of the sprawling archdiocese property.

Archdiocese officials say they want the statue returned, contending that it was removed without permission by the Standing Tall Charitable Foundation that Smyth launched in 2005.

But Frank DiFranco, a Standing Tall board member and Smyth's lawyer, said a company was hired to remove the statue a few months ago for refurbishing, which was "nothing at all sinister." He said mourners at the priest's funeral noticed the statue appeared deteriorated and a benefactor offered to have it repaired.

"I don't know who would have to grant permission," DiFranco said. "I'm not even clear on the ownership. My understanding is it was owned by Fr. Smyth's charity, Standing Tall, which still exists, and that was one of the foundation's assets or foundation's statue of him. That's where he had his office and that's where he was (living)."

DiFranco said he doesn't know where the statue is being stored. Standing Tall is moving its office from the Des Plaines church property to a Park Ridge location that cannot accommodate the Smyth statue.

"We'd be happy to talk to the archdiocese about their interest and where they want to put it or what we can work out," DiFranco said. "Right now, we're just going through the transition where we're moving."

Archdiocese spokeswoman Anne Maselli said the statue was commissioned by the Maryville board. She said it was observed being taken, but a Des Plaines police report was not filed.

"Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe staff knew about the removal of Fr. Smyth's statue in July 2019 and alerted the Archdiocese of Chicago at that time," Maselli said.

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. After repeated calls for his ouster, Smyth eventually agreed to leave Maryville in December 2004, ending a four-decade-long tenure at its helm.

Smyth started Standing Tall 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.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich asked Smyth to step aside from the ministry after the molestation accusations became public about a year ago. Maselli said the archdiocese still is investigating the allegations.

In September, Clarence George Jr. filed a lawsuit in Cook County against the archdiocese alleging Smyth sexually abused him at Maryville from about 2001 to 2004. The archdiocese declined to comment on the complaint.

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  This plaque remains where a statue that honored the Rev. John P. Smyth's work with children at Maryville Academy stood until its removal on the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe's side of the campus in Des Plaines. John Starks/
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