The Chicago Tribune has uncovered court documents that show that Willow Creek Community Church paid more than $3.25 million to settle lawsuits after a church volunteer sexually abused two developmentally disabled children at the church. The incidents happened several years ago, but the second settlement was paid this year.
Robert Sobczak Jr., the former volunteer, is currently in prison.
According to the report, the two victims’ families “claim Sobczak abused one of the boys repeatedly, and that the church should have acted on warning signs before he molested his second victim.”
The church settled with one of the families for $1.5 million and another $1.75 million, though, in court documents, it “has denied and continues to deny all material allegations of negligence and damages in this case.”
Sobczak was a volunteer at Willow Creek’s Special Friends program. Prosecutors say that on separate occasions, he took the young boys to an area of the church away from the view of others and sexually abused them individually. The church had a rule which said that two adults should be with a child at all times, but Sobczak ignored it. The lawsuits also claim that some church officials had previously raised the issue that they “did not have the financial resources to establish a safe and proper program.” The lawsuits also claim that at one point, a church worker thought that Sobczak should be removed as a volunteer for the program because he seemed “emotionally unhealthy,” but ultimately, he remained on.
After one of the boys told his mother about the abuse, the church reported it to police and suspended Sobczak. They cooperated with the police in their investigation. They also say that he first underwent a background check before becoming a volunteer.
The church issued a statement to The Tribune, explaining, “Since these incidents occurred, we have worked with law enforcement and security experts to learn how this happened and how we can ensure it never happens again.” The measures include redesigning the program’s room so no areas are hidden from view and a new electronic ID badge system.
The settlements were paid to the families before the church’s founder, Bill Hybels, retired (a few months before he had initially planned), following unrelated allegations of sexual of misconduct by several women at the church.