Updated 01/15/14 – 1:30 p.m.
SKOKIE, Ill. (CBS) — A former Maine West High School soccer coach has been acquitted of misdemeanor battery charges, related to alleged hazing rituals committed by his players, shortly after a judge dismissed a charge of failing to report the hazing.
Defense attorney Thomas Breen said, despite being found not guilty, Michael Divincenzo’s reputation has been tarnished beyond repair by false allegations.
“Even after an acquittal, it is almost impossible to get your reputation back, and Coach Divo had a wonderful reputation in the community – a wonderful one. There’s all sorts of great things that he did for that community,” Breen said.
CBS 2’s Chris Martinez reports Cook County prosecutors had accused Divincenzo of not only covering up hazing rituals in which older players allegedly sexually assaulted younger players, but that he actually encouraged it.
However, defense attorneys insisted Divincenzo never knew any details about his team’s hazing practices, and said prosecutors failed to prove he knew anything about it.
Cook County Judge Jeffrey Warnick put Divincenzo’s trial on hold last month, after defense attorneys asked him to dismiss a count of failure to report the hazing. Warnick did so Wednesday morning, but Divincenzo still faced two misdemeanor counts of battery.
Shortly after Warnick dismissed the other charge, the trial resumed, and defense attorneys rested their case.
After brief closing arguments from both sides, Warnick took only a few minutes before acquitting Divincenzo of the remaining battery charges.
Divincenzo struggled to contain his emotion as he left the courthouse on Wednesday, after being cleared of all criminal charges.
“I’m just very grateful for my lawyers, and my family, and my friends,” Divincenzo said, choking back tears. “It’s been very hard, and I just really appreciate I have such great people behind me. Thank you.”
Divincenzo still faces a civil trial over the hazing incidents, though that trial date has not yet been set.
“This not-guilty verdict is a slap in the face of the five young people who bravely came forward to tell the stories of their own sexual and physical assaults at the hands of other students while supposedly under the supervision of Coach Michael Divincenzo,” said Antonio Romanucci, who is the lead attorney in the civil case.
“But regardless of the miscarriage of justice we witnessed in court today, the victims of these despicable acts will have their opportunity to see justice done via the civil lawsuit.”
Defense attorneys blasted the decision to prosecute Divincenzo in the first place, saying coaches should not be held responsible for player conduct they are not aware of.
“Without a doubt, this prosecution created a chilling effect. As we stated in our opening statements, and during the course of the trial, to hold a coach, administrator, or teacher responsible for conduct that occurs outside of their presence, and among students, my understanding is much of the education community in this state has watched this case very closely,” defense attorney Todd Pugh said.
Several soccer players have accused teammates of sexually assaulting them during hazing rituals.
The former coach has insisted his players never told him the details about hazing rituals on their team, but prosecutors contended he knew about it, and actually encouraged it.
Breen said, when Divincenzo did find out what was going on, he disciplined the players responsible. Breen said Divincenzo was made into a scapegoat for the hazing incidents, after several former players sued Maine West, the principal, the school board, and several coaches.
“The heart and soul of this complaint, I believe, goes back to a pecuniary interest that attorneys and others have, and that’s really unfortunate when somebody like he gets thrown under the bus under these circumstances,” he said.
Divincenzo said he has no idea yet whether he’ll go back to teaching and coaching. He initially fought to keep his job after the school board sought to fire him and another coach, but later gave up that fight, and agreed to leave his position as teacher and coach.