What happened to investigations of St. Joseph High School coach? Authorities aren’t saying.

South Bend Tribune [South Bend IN]

November 2, 2021

By Christian Sheckler

After three former St. Joseph High School volleyball players accused their coach of sexual misconduct, it remains unclear this week how law enforcement or child welfare officials responded to the allegations.

In a civil lawsuit filed against Cochran last week, the former players alleged that Justin Cochran “groomed” girls with inappropriate sexual conversation and images, including sending nude pictures of himself, and that he retaliated against girls who complained about his behavior.

The lawsuit accuses the high school and the diocese of numerous violations of the 2002 Catholic charter “Safe Environment Training” to protect young people that was instituted in response to the wider Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. The former players say Cochran was well known before his promotion for Safe Environment violations and inappropriate behavior.

The former players, who filed the lawsuit anonymously as “Jane Doe” plaintiffs, also accused St. Joseph administrators and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend of failing to address Cochran’s behavior when players and parents made repeated complaints.

But Cochran has not been charged with any crimes, and authorities have not disclosed the specifics of any investigations.

Sgt. Brad Rohrscheib, a spokesman for the South Bend Police Department, said the department received a report about Cochran in June 2019. He said he had no details about the specific allegations or the outcome of the case, but that it had been forwarded to the St. Joseph County Special Victims Unit, which investigates child abuse, sex crimes and domestic violence.

Rasmus Jorgensen, a spokesman for the office of St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter, who oversees the SVU, said he could not discuss whether the office had investigated or received any police reports alleging crimes by Cochran.

June 2019 matches the timeframe in which, according to the lawsuit, parents of Cochran’s former players made a report to the Indiana Department of Child Services. But the outcome of that investigation is also unknown.

A spokesman for the DCS said state law prohibits the department from confirming the existence of a specific investigation.

Cochran, 32, did not immediately respond to a voicemail and text message seeking comment Tuesday morning.

In a written statement, Nicole Hahn, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said the diocese “cooperated fully with a Department of Child Services investigation into the circumstances.”

Hahn said the lawsuit contains “a number of substantial errors and omissions,” and that St. Joseph administrators had “reviewed and responded to allegations of inappropriate conduct brought to their attention regarding the school’s former volleyball coach.”

Cochran goes to Bremen but later resigns

Cochran spent the 2018 season as head coach of the St. Joseph varsity volleyball team before resigning at the end of that year. Before that, he was a junior varsity coach and varsity assistant coach.

After leaving St. Joseph, Cochran spent one full season as head volleyball coach at Bremen High School.

Jim White, superintendent of Bremen Community Schools, said the district found nothing disqualifying in a background check. White said Cochran disclosed the fact that he had illegally driven the St. Joseph team bus without a valid driver license.

White said he approved Cochran’s hiring after being assured he would not be driving the Bremen team bus.

Soon after Cochran’s hiring, White said, he began receiving emails from parents of Cochran’s former players at St. Joseph, alleging inappropriate behavior that mostly mirrored the allegations that later emerged in the lawsuit.

White said he did not remember hearing the allegations of nude pictures.

White said the emails from St. Joseph parents included “very troubling allegations,” but Bremen officials were not able to verify the truth of the complaints and did not receive any complaints of inappropriate behavior from Bremen parents or players.

White said he decided to monitor Cochran, noting a female assistant coach was always present at volleyball functions to his knowledge.

Cochran resigned from Bremen after the 2019-2020 season.

“I think we both felt it would be in the best interest of everyone to move on,” White said.

Lawsuits details allegations of Justin Cochran misconduct

None of the three former players suing Cochran alleged he sexually assaulted them. But the lawsuit alleges one of the plaintiffs was told that Cochran was “rumored to be having a sexual relationship” with another girl on the team.

The lawsuit cites two separate instances in which Cochran allegedly sent nude pictures and sexual messages to girls on the social media app Snapchat, on which messages automatically disappear.

And it alleges Cochran was seen rubbing a player’s shoulders and calling her “babe” while consoling her, that girls were seen lounging or lying against Cochran on the sidelines, and that he was seen smiling and nodding as a girl “twerked” in front of him.

The lawsuit also alleges Cochran inappropriately saw girls socially outside of official settings. He was once seen sitting on the same side of a booth with a girl while out for dinner, and he was known to hang out with high school girls at Notre Dame football tailgate parties, according to the suit.

Saint Joseph High School Principal John Kennedy runs in his northside neighborhood. He previously ran a mile for each of the seniors in the school. Tribune File Photo
Saint Joseph High School Principal John Kennedy runs in his northside neighborhood. He previously ran a mile for each of the seniors in the school. Tribune File Photo

The suit accuses St. Joseph Principal John Kennedy and former athletic director Deb Brown of minimizing and failing to take action on Cochran’s behavior. They failed to follow Indiana’s “mandatory reporting” law by not telling the DCS or police about suspected child abuse, the suit alleges.

In a meeting with one of the plaintiffs and her mother, Kennedy allegedly said “grooming is not a crime” and that a rumored sexual relationship between a coach and student is “not reportable, because they did not bring him proof.”

Carolyn Hahn, left, director of the CASIE Center, is seen previously with Rose Meissner, president of the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County. Photo provided / Peter Ringenberg
Carolyn Hahn, left, director of the CASIE Center, is seen previously with Rose Meissner, president of the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County. Photo provided / Peter Ringenberg

Carolyn Hahn, director of South Bend’s CASIE Center, which participates in child abuse investigations, said she could not discuss the handling of any specific case. But in general, she said, Indiana’s mandatory reporting law does not require proof for a person to report possible abuse.

“You don’t have to know, but if you suspect a child is being harmed or is in danger, you report that to the Indiana Department of Child Services,” Hahn said. “You don’t have to know for sure there’s a crime being committed.”

When The Tribune called Kennedy’s office seeking comment Monday, a receptionist referred questions to Bethany Burgun, St. Joseph’s director of mission advancement. She did not respond to a voicemail.

The plaintiffs’ parents reported Cochran’s behavior to the DCS in the late spring of 2019, after their daughters had graduated, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Brandon Tate, said he could not discuss the allegations further because of the early stage of the case.