Georgetown revokes honorary degree of former provost, priest after misconduct allegation

Washington Post

June 11, 2021

By Lauren Lumpkin

The late J. Donald Freeze has been accused by a former student of nonconsensual kissing and touching, officials said.

Georgetown University has revoked an honorary degree held by a late priest and provost after reports of sexual misconduct, school officials said Friday.

Georgetown’s board of directors moved to rescind the former official’s degree and other university-sanctioned recognitions after a former student accused J. Donald Freeze of misconduct that included nonconsensual kissing and touching, officials said.

Freeze, who died in 2006, had worked in a number of roles at Georgetown, including provost, reporting directly to two different university presidents — the Revs. Timothy Healy and Leo O’Donovan — as chief academic officer from 1979 until 1991. The university awarded Freeze an honorary degree in 1991.

After misconduct allegations were made against the priest last fall, the university convened a working group that included members of its board of directors to address the reports and work with the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus — the religious order that oversees the Jesuits and assigns clergy to serve the community of more than 19,000 students. The working group said Friday that Freeze’s behavior at the university was “troubling and unacceptable.”

“Campus ministers and members of the Society of Jesus play a unique and trusted role in our community,” officials said in a message to the Georgetown community. “We are grateful to the alumnus who came forward with his experiences and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any clergy abuse.”

Officials said the university has apologized to the survivor.

The USA East Province said in a statement that it takes seriously allegations of misconduct in ministry.

“Each Jesuit agrees to and complies with an Ethics in Ministry policy aimed at providing a safe and professional environment for those they both serve and work with at all our institutions and apostolates,” provincial spokesman Mike Gabriele said in a written statement. “The allegations against the late Fr. J. Donald Freeze at Georgetown University in the ‘80s are troubling.”

The number of Catholic clergymen accused of sexually abusing minors has soared in recent years, according to the most recent annual audit of hundreds of dioceses and church entities throughout the country. More than 4,400 allegations were made in 2019, compared with 1,451 in 2018.

Several provinces have released lists of clergy members accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults, a measure that officials in the Society of Jesus say signals a commitment to accountability and transparency.

In the case of Georgetown’s Freeze, however, the alleged abuse occurred while the survivor was an adult and studying at the university; he represents the kind of survivor who is susceptible to being overlooked as the Catholic Church deals with a sex abuse crisis that has devastated the lives of thousands of victims.

“[The allegations] have committed the province to readdress and strengthen its policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct against adults and to reinforce avenues of communications with our institutions,” Gabriele’s statement said.

The announcement from Georgetown came with plans to work with the survivor and the province to protect the community against sexual misconduct and abuse. The school also will continue to host events that build awareness of clerical sex abuse, support research into the effects of abuse and find ways of improving the screening process for candidates for the seminary, officials said in their message to the university community.

“The safety of the Georgetown community is our first priority,” university officials said. “We see these steps as the continuation but not the end of our work, and we are committed to continuing to partner with the alumnus to ensure that not only university policies but also province policies are as strong as possible in supporting survivors.”