CHICAGO – Willow Creek Community Church agreed to pay more than $3 million to settle lawsuits over the sexual abuse of two developmentally disabled boys by a church volunteer, court records show.
The second and largest of the settlements, for $1.75 million, was made in February, before the Chicago Tribune revealed unrelated claims that the evangelical megachurch’s founder, the Rev. Bill Hybels, engaged in inappropriate conduct with women, eventually leading to his early retirement and, this month, the resignation of the church’s two leading pastors and its entire board of elders.
The influential South Barrington church also agreed last year to pay $1.5 million to another victim of former volunteer Robert Sobczak Jr.
Sobczak, now 24, is serving a 7-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2014 to sexually abusing an 8-year-old boy with special needs at the church and an older boy who was not connected to Willow Creek. In 2013, Sobczak pleaded guilty to sexually abusing another disabled boy, around age 9, at the church, and initially received probation in that case.
The civil lawsuits filed against the church by the families of the two younger boys, identified by the pseudonyms Jack Roe and John Doe, claim Sobczak abused one of the boys repeatedly, and that the church should have acted on warning signs before he molested his second victim.
Willow Creek did not directly address questions about the settlements, but issued a written statement calling the experience “heartbreaking.”
“Since these incidents occurred,” the statement read, “we have worked with law enforcement and security experts to learn how this happened and how we can ensure it never happens again.”
Despite the church agreeing to the financial payouts, the John Doe settlement says Willow Creek “has denied and continues to deny all material allegations of negligence and damages in this case.”
Sobczak’s case had no apparent direct connection with Hybels, who stepped down from the helm of the church in April, 6 months ahead of schedule, amid claims of inappropriate behavior with women, including employees.
Sobczak was a volunteer “buddy” for Willow Creek’s Special Friends program for children with intellectual or developmental disabilities or other special needs.
According to Cook County prosecutors, Sobczak separately took the two boys to an isolated area of the church and molested them.
Church policy called for there to be at least two adult volunteers with any single child at all times, but Sobczak repeatedly broke that rule, the lawsuits alleged.
Attorneys for the family of Jack Roe wrote that he was 8 years old when Sobczak molested him in February 2013. That day, the boy told his mother, who told church officials, who contacted police, which triggered the criminal investigation and the first sexual abuse charge against Sobczak. The lawsuits alleged that Sobczak abused John Doe multiple times prior to that.
Based on statements from church workers as part of the court proceedings, one of the lawsuits alleged that officials had previously raised concerns that the ministry “was understaffed, not trained properly, and did not have the financial resources to establish a safe and proper program.”
In January 2013, the suit alleged, a church worker had raised concerns that Sobczak was “emotionally unhealthy” and should be removed from the program, but that he remained with the program and abused a second boy after that. As a result, the suit stated, the second victim suffered great mental and emotional harm, and was undergoing therapy.
Church officials previously said Sobczak had undergone a rigorous background check before he began to volunteer and was immediately suspended when the allegations arose.
Attorneys involved in the civil cases said they could not discuss them because of confidentiality agreements required as part of the settlements.
The church stated that members continue to pray for the families of the two children, and “hope for healing.”
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