Woman Claims Former Jesuit Priest, Zen Instructor, Repeatedly Raped Her As a Child at Loyola University
By Jim Mustian
September 2, 2016
A decade after his death, a beloved and eccentric Jesuit priest who taught Zen at Loyola University has been accused of repeatedly raping a young girl on campus more than 30 years ago, allegations that prompted church officials to begin paying the woman's medical bills after she came forward last year.
A new lawsuit claims the Rev. Benjamin L. Wren, known affectionately to many as "Zen Ben Wren," sexually assaulted the girl dozens of times beginning in 1978 – when she was just 5 years old – and coerced her silence by warning that her family would be sent to hell if she revealed their "special secret."
Doctors attributed the woman's delay in reporting the abuse to "repressed memory, shame, embarrassment and fear," according to the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. The woman is identified in the lawsuit by the pseudonym Jane Doe.
The lawsuit seeks damages from Loyola, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, claiming the defendants "had superior knowledge about the risk that Father Wren posed to Jane Doe as a minor child" and failed to report the abuse to the authorities.
Spokeswomen for all three institutions declined to comment on the allegations Friday, citing the litigation and what the archdiocese described as an ongoing investigation. A Loyola spokeswoman, Patricia Murret, said the university remains "committed to the safety of every person who is on our campus."
"While the alleged events are claimed to have occurred more than 30 years ago regarding a former, deceased professor, we take this and all matters of safety with the utmost concern," Murret said.
Wren's widow, Patricia, said that she was "outraged" by the allegations, and that "the whole community of New Orleans" would share her shock. A former student of Wren's, the couple married in 1996 after Wren left the priesthood.
"He was the most honorable person I know," she added.
The allegations follow years of scandal within the Catholic Church, which has been roiled by cases of sexual abuse among its clergy around the world. The controversy last hit close to home for Loyola in 2003, when Bernard Knoth, then a Jesuit priest, abruptly resigned as president of the university amid claims that he sexually abused one or more minors in 1986 when he was president of a prep school in Indianapolis.
It remained unclear Friday whether Wren, who died of lung cancer in 2006, had been accused of abusing other victims during his 35 years at Loyola. But the lawsuit alleges that church and university officials were not surprised by the woman's claims when she raised them last year, and that the officials had amassed "an extensive personnel file on Father Wren that reinforced" the woman's contentions.
"It appears that there was an initial attempt by the Church to make it right for this young woman, even before she contacted a lawyer," said the woman's lawyer, John H. Denenea Jr. "When the Church’s lawyers got involved, the process became manipulated to avoid their true responsibility."
Wren taught some of the most popular courses on campus during his tenure at Loyola, including Zen classes that reportedly drew commuters from as far away as Pensacola, Fla., to Loyola's fifth-floor zendo in Marquette Hall. He founded a ministry called the "Community of John," performing masses and preaching a Buddhist-Christian doctrine before leaving the priesthood in 1996 to marry. He believed in a deeper understanding of life and, according to his 1999 book, "Zen Among the Magnolias," promoted a "merging" of asceticism and aesthetics.
"Mr. Wren was fascinated his entire life by Eastern philosophy, which he believed could be successfully integrated into Catholic spirituality, despite some reservations from the Vatican," The Times-Picayune reported upon Wren's death.
The lawsuit alleges that Wren first encountered Jane Doe in 1978, and that the 5-year-old had been "an impressionable child" who from an early age "developed great admiration, trust, reverence and respect for the Catholic Church, and its priests and agents, including Father Wren." The girl would spend about 10 weeks a year living with her grandmother, who worked at Loyola as an assistant in the records department.
Wren befriended Jane Doe and enlisted her as his helper, the lawsuit says, entrusting her with "simple tasks such as passing out books and missalettes" and running errands on campus. The lawsuit claims the priest frequently "would take Jane Doe to a private location on campus, where he and she were alone."
The abuse "began slowly, with light touching and caressing of Jane Doe by Father Wren," the lawsuit says, but soon escalated to include the priest "forcing Jane Doe to perform oral sex on him." Eventually, by the time the girl had turned 9 or 10, the lawsuit says, the abuse entailed "forcible sexual intercourse." All together, the woman claims she was sexually assaulted approximately 8 to 10 times a year between 1978 and 1985.
"Father Wren would instruct Jane Doe to clean up in the bathroom before she returned to her grandmother," the lawsuit says. "Jane Doe was convinced that if someone found out about she and Father Wren, that she would die and go to hell as Father Wren had warned her."
Beyond the physical injuries she received at the time, the lawsuit says, the woman continues to suffer from "severe and permanent emotional distress," anxiety, nightmares and crying spells. "At her darkest periods," the lawsuit says, "Jane Doe attempted suicide and was admitted for critical in-patient psychiatric care."
The lawsuit says that Jane Doe contacted Loyola administrators in the fall of 2015 "in an attempt to resolve her suffering and anguish" through reparations. It says she was directed to the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, and that, about a year ago, she received an apology from the Rev. John F. Armstrong, who also "offered reparation in the form of the payment of her medical bills, guarantees of her medical bills for treatment and offers to pay for her additional medical bills."
"At no time did the defendants ever reject Jane Doe's claims of abuse," the lawsuit says, "nor did they ever reject her assertions that she was sexually abused by Father Wren."
Armstrong could not be reached for comment Friday. A spokeswoman for the Jesuits said the province was "only just learning about the developments related to the late Benjamin Wren, and so it is too soon to comment on them."
The woman attempted to solve the matter with the church, the lawsuit says, whose attorneys "attempted to extend and delay the filing of this matter" beyond the legal period of prescription.
In a statement, Denenea, the plaintiff's attorney, spoke of a "real disconnect" between the church's intentions and public statements and the legal pleadings filed by its attorneys, who he said "will deny each and every allegation made by the victim."
"This practice of re-victimizing those that have suffered using aggressive litigation tactics may be expected by large corporations and Big Tobacco, but this is the Catholic Church, whose own charter and orders are committed to the healing and the emotional well-being of the victim," Denenea added. "One can only pray that the Church sets a higher standard for itself than to continue to re-victimize sexual abuse survivors."