Jesuits: Fallen Santa Clara University president’s behaviors did ‘not involve sexual abuse.’ So what was it?

The Mercury News [San Jose CA]

May 14, 2021

By Julia Prodis Sulek

Questions still swirl over the Rev. Kevin O’Brien did to resign

From the Rev. Kevin O’Brien’s leave two months ago to his stunning resignation this week as Santa Clara University president, school officials informed the campus community in formal letters that were somber and serious — and utterly lacking in explanation.

With little information except that O’Brien’s fall from grace involved “primarily conversations” with Jesuit grad students, confusion and conspiracy theories are coursing through the Catholic campus, leaving people to either sympathize with or vilify the 54-year-old Jesuit priest who was widely admired on campus.

“A lot of people think this guy’s career has been destroyed, and we don’t know why,” SCU Faculty Senate President Leslie Gray said Thursday. “Does it mean something political, something sexual? Nobody knows anything about what’s happened, and that’s frustrating.”

Late Thursday afternoon, responding to an inquiry from the Bay Area News Group, the Jesuit organization that investigated O’Brien would only say: “The complaints brought forward about Fr. O’Brien do not involve sexual abuse.”

For a religious organization still coming to terms with its shameful history covering up decades of sex abuse by priests — and amid its repeated promises to become more transparent — the secrecy surrounding the exact reasons for O’Brien’s leave and subsequent resignation are disturbing to many.

Thursday’s email on the nature of the complaints against O’Brien from the Jesuits West Province provided a measure of relief but still left many questions swirling. “This is just so problematic,” Gray said. “But what is it, right?”

The Faculty Senate on Thursday called for a meeting with Board of Trustees Chairman John M. Sobrato and interim President Lisa Kloppenberg to discuss O’Brien’s resignation and other thorny issues at the 169-year-old university built around the historic Mission founded in 1777. Organizers of SNAP, an advocacy group supporting victims of priest sex abuse, called the limited information “alarming” and demanded an expanded investigation.

Reverend Kevin O’Brien, S.J. addresses members of the university community after being robed during his installation ceremony as the 29th President of Santa Clara University. O’Brien succeeds Michael Engh, S.J. who served from 2009 to 2019. (Photo by Don Feria for the Mercury News)
Reverend Kevin O’Brien, S.J. addresses members of the university community after being robed during his installation ceremony as the 29th President of Santa Clara University. O’Brien succeeds Michael Engh, S.J. who served from 2009 to 2019. (Photo by Don Feria for the Mercury News)

In announcing O’Brien’s resignation Wednesday, Sobrato said in a carefully worded letter that an external investigation conducted by the Jesuits’ USA West Conference concluded that O’Brien had engaged in behaviors at informal dinners with students on the path to priesthood that involved drinking and mostly conversations that were “inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries.” O’Brien was given the opportunity to remain on leave while completing a four- to six-month therapeutic outpatient treatment program for alcohol and stress management, Sobrato wrote, but tendered his resignation on Sunday instead.

O’Brien also sent his own letter to the campus community Wednesday, explaining that his Jesuit Provincial, Scott Santarosa, had expressed “concerns about my well-being” in March based on “accounts of my behavior over the past year in certain social settings with adults that did not meet the highest standards of decorum expected of me as a Jesuit.”

He ended his letter with advice to students, saying “no matter the success or positions you achieve in life, everyone needs help at times, and it is OK to ask for help when you need it, and to allow others to care for you.”

For some students wandering Thursday around campus, which was still mostly in remote learning because of the pandemic, the official explanations behind the priest’s departure were enough.

“It would be nice to know a little more, but what he wrote to us was genuine,” said freshman Jack Shoop, 18. “It’s not our place. He’s definitely going through something.”

Norelisa Nascimento, also a freshman, said that in some ways, university officials revealed too much.

“If you’re doing something like Alcoholics Anonymous, it should be anonymous,” she said. “I think it’s a bit invasive, and my friends thought they exposed him too much.”

At the same time, she added, “we’re still wondering, what could he have said, what could he have done to have caused this scandal?”

The looming questions run the gamut: If the investigation didn’t involve sexual abuse, might it still have involved sexual overtures of some sort? If the conversations with the grad students involved controversial positions on Catholic dogma, for instance, would such transgressions be cause enough to end the career of an otherwise admired leader? Could this have been a vendetta against O’Brien by those who disagreed with his handling of campus issues? And if his behavior was “primarily” conversations, what was the rest of it?

The Jesuits West one-sentence email Thursday that the complaints did not involve sexual abuse didn’t satisfy some skeptics.

“I’m not sure that for me it would alleviate my concerns entirely,” Melanie Sakoda, SNAP survivor support coordinator, said Thursday afternoon. If O’Brien said or did something inappropriate, “I’m wondering if it wasn’t sexual, why don’t they just say what it was? Release some of the statements of what he was saying that got these men upset. I don’t have enough trust in the church. They’re not being open about what happened.”

Broader investigations should be undertaken at O’Brien’s previous posts, SNAP says, including Georgetown and Fordham universities and Jesuit Theological Union in Berkeley.

“Any adult or teen in any religious setting could be vulnerable if an influential clergyman chose to exercise his extraordinary power,” they wrote.

Attempts to reach O’Brien through the university’s media office and at the Jesuit residence on campus were not successful Thursday.

O’Brien’s departure comes just months after he presided over a Mass at President Biden’s inauguration. He has considered Joe and Jill Biden friends since his years at Georgetown University.

His tenure as president of Santa Clara University lasted just a brief two years, but his outgoing nature and his outreach to students — he often remembered many of their names — and his positions on racial justice endeared him to many on campus. Gray from the Faculty Senate said the majority of people she runs into are more sympathetic to him than not and are giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“I just feel it could be so many things,” she said, “and it’s not really fair to Kevin O’Brien.”