CHICAGO - In the 15 months since the Rev. Richard McGrath abruptly retired from Providence Catholic High School amid a probe into "potentially inappropriate material" on his phone, the priest was the subject of two criminal investigations, accused in a lawsuit by a former student of sexual abuse and deemed AWOL from his religious order.
Authorities have now closed both investigations without filing any criminal charges against McGrath, who led the New Lenox, Ill., school for three decades until a student reported that she saw what she thought was an image of a naked boy on the priest's phone.
Yet McGrath is still considered "illegitimately absent" from his order, its leaders said, and his current whereabouts are unclear.
New Lenox police said they ended the cellphone investigation after McGrath "steadfastly refused" to turn over the device. In the other criminal probe, involving the sexual abuse claims by a former student, Will County prosecutors said there was "insufficient evidence to bring charges." But a civil case stemming from the same claim is still pending.
And police reports newly filed in that case reveal that after McGrath left Providence Catholic in late 2017, authorities interviewed three other male former students who all said McGrath touched or massaged them on their shoulders or torsos in ways that made them uncomfortable.
The revelation of those claims coincide with the release in March of a study that says nearly 400 Illinois priests have been accused of child sexual misconduct over several decades - a report that has brought renewed attention to a clergy sex abuse crisis that has scandalized the Roman Catholic Church for years.
McGrath's case also underscores the difficult question of what church leaders and society should do about priests who have claims against them that have not been, or cannot be, substantiated.
Robert Krankvich, the former Providence student who said he was abused by McGrath in the 1990s and is the plaintiff in a sexual abuse lawsuit against the school and the Augustinian order that runs it, told the Chicago Tribune he wishes he had come forward sooner.
"I regret the years that I didn't do anything about it," said Krankvich, who consented to being named. He added that he wonders "how many other people had been affected. It hurts a lot."
Krankvich has said he decided to come forward after reading news reports about McGrath's sudden retirement.
That happened after a Providence student reported that while attending a wrestling match at the school, she saw McGrath sitting alone on the bleachers, approached him to say hello and saw on his phone a photograph that she told police appeared to be a naked teenage boy, shown from neck to knees.
Though she said she "wasn't completely certain if she saw male genitalia" in the photo, the girl told police that when McGrath saw her, he "'freaked out, like when someone saw something that you don't want them to see' and pulled his phone close to his body," according to a police report.
New Lenox police said McGrath's attorney, Patrick Reardon, declined their initial request to discuss the girl's claims with McGrath, and he refused multiple requests to turn over his school-issued cellphone.
"Mr. Reardon indicated that he doesn't believe that (the) cellular phone exists and that it would be huge waste of time looking for the cellular phone," police wrote in a report. "Mr. Reardon explained that he does not think the cell phone will surface or ever turn up."
Providence officials cited the phone investigation when they announced Dec. 22, 2017, that they were "sincerely saddened" to report McGrath was retiring after 32 years as principal and then president of the school.
"This action is in response to an investigation by civil authorities of an allegation of potentially inappropriate material on (McGrath's) mobile device," the school wrote in a message to parents and an online post.
What school officials didn't say in that message is that, around the same time, they apparently had been contacted by a former Providence student and football player who said McGrath "would talk to and stare at the naked boys while they took showers" after games and "would regularly come into the lunchroom and rub the shoulders and pectoral area of the male students," according to police report written after New Lenox authorities interviewed the man in Florida, where he lives.
The man first contacted police about his claims by phone on Dec. 17 and said he also had made contact with a Providence officials "at the same time."
The former student told police, according to the police report, that he was told that the Augustinian order that runs Providence "would pay for any counseling that he wanted" and "was removing Fr. McGrath from the student population due to the nature of his complaint."
The former Providence football player was among three former students who told authorities in New Lenox that they had received unwanted touching from McGrath while attending the school, police reports show.
One of the students, who attended Providence starting in the late 1990s, said McGrath once approached him as he was collecting tennis balls from a secluded area on the school grounds, where the priest "put his hands up the (student's) shirt and groped his stomach, side and chest area," according to a police report. Authorities also interviewed the student's high school girlfriend, who said he had told her about unwanted touching from McGrath while they were enrolled at Providence, the report states.
The same male student, along with a fourth former Providence pupil, both said McGrath had asked them during their high school years if they were "a good boy or a bad boy."
One former student, who also attended Providence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, told police that once while he was retrieving a book from his locker during class, McGrath "came up behind (him) while his arms were raised and grabbed (his) ribs underneath his armpits (and) ... forcefully massaged his ribs under his armpits and it was very uncomfortable and painful."
The same former student told police that he was once paged over the intercom and told to report to the main office, where he said McGrath asked about his family and then took a picture of the teen to "remember him over the summer," the report states. Another time, the student said, McGrath once asked him to follow him into the locker room, where the priest asked the student to remove his shirt - the student kept on his undershirt - and commented about the teen's posture.
That student also said that McGrath's "routine (shoulder) massages in the hallway and cafeteria were a well-known joke amongst (the student's) peers" and that he "was teased by fellow members of the hockey team for the unwanted attention from Father McGrath."
None of the students told police that the claimed touching was sexual or involved genital contact.
But the former football player called McGrath's claimed actions "awkward, creepy and unacceptable" and said they "weighed on him heavily throughout his life," according to the police report.
Reardon, the attorney who represented McGrath during the cellphone investigation, declined to comment on the claims by former students.
After McGrath's retirement, the Midwest Province of Our Mother of Good Counsel, the Augustinian order that runs Providence Catholic, removed him from all public ministry and he was assigned to live at a friary in Chicago, "an environment that allowed the Augustinians to supervise him and ensure that he had no unsupervised access to minors," according to a release from the order's leader.
The friary is run by the Chicago Archdiocese, but a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said late last year that the Augustinians had not informed Chicago church officials that McGrath had been accused of sexual abuse. When the archdiocese became aware of that, he was asked to move out.
According to the Augustinian province, arrangements were made to move McGrath "to another supervised location" but that, "without permission," he did not go along with the move. Order officials said in a March statement that, under church law, he is considered "illegitimately absent from the Augustinian community."
Because of that, McGrath is "no longer an agent of the Augustinians," the statement said. Though he is still a priest, McGrath is "without the faculties to function as one," the order said.
Officials with the Midwest Augustinians said they could not comment further because of the pending lawsuit filed against them and Providence regarding McGrath. It's unclear whether officials in the order know McGrath's whereabouts.
But Reardon disputed the notion that McGrath has disappeared.
"It's not like he's some kind of fugitive or something," Reardon said.
In fact, McGrath has been engaged in regular discussions with the Augustinians about his future in the community, Reardon said, adding that McGrath is considering whether to return to or leave the priesthood all together.
It's difficult for clergy to continue in their roles after allegations of sexual misconduct have been raised, even if, as in McGrath's case, investigations did not yield any criminal charges, Reardon said.
"The guy is trying to live his best on his own," the attorney said. "He is trying not to burden the order at all, and at some point, I'll probably hear what his final decision is, but it's not mine to make for him."
A man reached at a phone number believed to belong to McGrath declined to comment. "I'm sorry ... I have nothing to say," he said.
Krankvich, the former Providence student who is suing the order and the school, saying they failed to protect him from what he claims was sexual abuse by McGrath, said he's relieved that at least McGrath was removed from Providence.
"It's better than him being in charge of a school," Krankvich said. "The whole point was to get him away from kids."
The Augustinians recently filed a motion seeking to have Krankvich's lawsuit dismissed, arguing that he has not provided evidence that the Augustinians had or concealed prior knowledge of any claims of abuse against McGrath.
Lawyers for Providence have also resisted Krankvich's request to furnish any information the school might have regarding any previous claims of misconduct against any Augustinian.
In a court filing, the school attorneys said such information is "not relevant to Providence's liability for the (alleged) acts of Fr. McGrath" and that the request was "overbroad."
The order also has declined so far to release publicly a list of all its priests who have substantiated claims of abuse against them. All of the Catholic dioceses in Illinois, as well as some other Catholic orders, have released such lists.
In 2004, the order settled claims by 13 people who said they had been molested by another Augustinian priest, the Rev. John D. Murphy. The order acknowledged at the time the suit was filed that it had received an allegation against Murphy in 1981 but returned him to ministry after he received treatment. Murphy left the priesthood in 1993 after more abuse claims came to light, the order has said.
(Kim and Cherney are Chicago Tribune reporters; Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter. Daily Southtown reporter Zak Koeske contributed to this report.)
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