Victim advocates demand detail about allegations against Santa Clara University’s president

The Mercury News [San Jose CA]

March 19, 2021

By John Woolfolk

The school’s president, a friend of President Biden, has been placed on leave

Victim advocates Friday called on Santa Clara University to release more details of the allegations of impropriety against Santa Clara University President Rev. Kevin O’Brien, who was placed on leave Thursday pending an investigation.

The Catholic university’s board Thursday said only that it was informed that the Jesuit Provincial Office “recently received accounts that Father O’Brien exhibited behaviors in adult settings, consisting primarily of conversations, which may be inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries.”

Tracey Primrose, spokeswoman for the Jesuits West Province, which along with the university is overseeing the investigation, said Thursday that confidentiality practices prevent her from saying more, including whether the allegations involved sex abuse.

But that lack of information, while intended to protect O’Brien during the inquiry, was also fueling speculation. SNAP, the Survivors Network, said Friday the university should be more transparent regarding the allegations to encourage others who may have experienced similar misconduct to come forward.

“While we appreciate that action has been taken by the Santa Clara board of trustees, we think that the vague statement released by the university does no favors to either the university community or the alleged victims,” SNAP said in a statement.

O’Brien, 54, a longtime friend of President Joe Biden who celebrated Mass for him in Washington D.C. before his January swearing-in, was named the university’s 29th president two years ago. He has been a frequent commentator on church issues for MSNBC, CNN and the Washington Post and has written extensively about church reforms in the wake of the church’s priest sex-abuse scandal.

SNAP noted O’Brien isn’t the first high-ranking Jesuit official to be accused of misconduct. Others include Bishop Gordon Bennet, who resigned as the Bishop of Mandeville, Jamaica, and Fr. Gordon Leary, who was the President of Gonzaga University and abruptly left the state after being accused of abuse.

The Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers founded half a millennium ago by Ignatius Loyola. With 16,000-plus priests, brothers, scholastics and novices worldwide, it is the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church.

SNAP leader Dan McNevin noted that Pope Francis is a Jesuit and said O’Brien is one of the most prominent and powerful Jesuit clerics in the country.

“Powerful men in powerful positions can use those positions to harm others, and so we believe that officials at SCU owe greater transparency to their community,” SNAP said. “University officials should be clearer about the nature of the alleged misconduct so that they can be more targeted in outreach to possible victims and witnesses and so others who may have experienced similar misconduct will be encouraged that their claims will be taken seriously.”

The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked for decades by the scandal of priests across the U.S. and around the world sexually preying upon children and covering up the abuse.

The church has made strides to confront the problem. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, known as the Dallas Charter, declaring zero tolerance for sex abuse of children and removal from ministry of priests with substantiated accusations.

But revelations of past abuse and the extent of coverups continue to haunt the church. In 2018 a grand jury report in Pennsylvania found 300 priests were accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children in six dioceses but were moved from one parish to another in order to avoid scrutiny. It inspired similar investigations in other states including California that are ongoing.

Many Catholic dioceses, including San Jose and Oakland, have published lists of priests under their jurisdiction deemed credibly accused of child abuse, many of which involved decades-old allegations against long-dead clerics. Those listed were generally well known to victim advocates, who accused dioceses of leaving off others suspected of abuse.

SNAP Executive Director Zach Hiner said O’Brien was not on any advocate’s radar.

“I’m just as mystified as you as to what the allegations are,” he said.