Gonzaga University Grapples With Ties to Predatory Priests

Inside Higher Ed

October 6, 2021

By Elizabeth Redden

A commission recommended how administrators can respond to the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis and the university’s links to accused priests. Advocates for survivors were not impressed.

A commission at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution in Washington State, recently released a 46-page report on how the institution should move forward in response to the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The report outlines a series of recommendations the university — which has been squarely implicated in the crisis — should take in response, including developing new academic initiatives, establishing a memorial, reviewing policies related to sexual assault on campus and increasing outreach to and support for tribal communities and Native students in recognition of the fact that “in Gonzaga’s regional context, the history of Catholic sexual abuse has disproportionately harmed Native communities.”

The document also suggests ways the university can work with leadership of the sponsoring Jesuit order to address “fractures in trust.”

The report does not, however, recommend that Gonzaga apologize for its links to accused priests. Nor does it investigate those ties or call for an outside or independent investigation of them. This has led to criticism of the report by advocates for survivors of sexual abuse by priests.

“Frankly speaking, I didn’t think too much of it,” said Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “It’s good that it’s a forward-thinking report. I’m confused, though, as to how anyone could really seek to provide policy recommendations without having done any investigative work. That’s the big thing that stuck out to me. There’s no investigation into what went wrong in the past and specifically those who were culpable in helping this come about.”

Terry McKiernan, co-founder of BishopAccountability.org, a website that maintains an extensive archive of information related to the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis, characterized the report as “an evasive way of dealing with such an important issue.”

“It just seems cowardly,” he said. “It just seems like a lot of logrolling. It’s fundamentally academic busywork instead of acting like scholars and recognizing that they have a tragedy in front of them, they have a catastrophe in front of them and they have the ability to analyze it in a way that could matter for the victims, for potential future victims and for the university … If you’re not going to investigate, at least recommend that an investigation be done.”

The report’s authors noted that while some members of the university community had assumed the commission would be an investigative body charged with establishing culpability, “this was never the charge of the Commission.” ​Rather, they wrote, the commission’s charge “was to identify, discuss, and make recommendations to the president regarding a set of formal actions the University should undertake in light of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis and Gonzaga’s institutional experience of it.”

Gonzaga’s Ties to the Sexual Abuse Crisis

The immediate context for the report extends back to 2018, when Gonzaga found itself squarely facing the realities of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. In December of that year, the controlling Jesuit body for Gonzaga’s region, the Jesuits West Province, released a list of priests and religious brothers who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors since 1950. The list included about 30 individuals who had been assigned to Gonzaga at some point.

That same month, the investigative journalism outlet Reveal reported that from 1986 onward, 20 priests accused of sexual abuse had been housed in a home for retired Jesuits known as Cardinal Bea House that, while not university owned, is located in the heart of Gonzaga’s campus.

Many of these priests — including the now-deceased priest at the center of the Reveal story, Father James Poole, who lived in Bea House from 2003 to 2015 — had previously been assigned to small Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, where most of the alleged sexual abuse took place. The alleged abusers living at Bea House were subject to “safety plans” that prohibited them from interacting with students, but Poole said in a deposition that he regularly went to the university library and basketball games and that he met with a female student alone in the Bea House’s living room when she interviewed him for an assignment on Alaska.

Subsequent reporting from Reveal — the story was titled “Unrepentant” — focused on accused priests who had served on Gonzaga’s staff or faculty. A Reveal podcast reported in June 2020 that of the 27 Jesuit colleges and universities in the country, “Gonzaga has the highest number of predatory priests who worked as staff and faculty there.”

The first of the two Reveal reports combined with the Jesuits West list and other revelations about the scale of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis prompted Gonzaga president Thayne M. McCulloh to appoint the commission in April 2019. The university released the commission’s report in September, about a year after its last meeting. McCulloh attributed the delay largely to the coronavirus.

McCulloh said in an interview that the commission was created out a desire to grapple with the revelations about the sheer magnitude and systematic nature of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.

“I had faculty come to me and say, ‘This is overwhelming,’” McCulloh recalled. “We of course know about some of our own local issues, but it’s difficult to know how to proceed with integrity. And it feels like a lot of people who ought to be talking about this and ought to be looking at these issues — they aren’t. This should be an opportunity for us. We’re a Catholic university. We’re a Jesuit university. We actually have some knowledge about what systematic structures and the abuse that has occurred are about, and yet there’s much more that it feels like we can do here.”

Specific recommendations outlined in the report include establishing a fund of at least $10,000 per year for faculty research related to sexual assault in the Catholic church (McCulloh said he has allocated “a minimum of $15,000”) and creating an undergraduate course focused on social justice and the Catholic sexual abuse crisis.

The commission also recommended the establishment of a “a permanent memorial to honor all those affected by Catholic sexual abuse, including those abused by Jesuits, and specifically those abused by Jesuits who were later housed in Cardinal Bea House living on safety plans.”

The report also called for collaborative steps to be taken in partnership with the U.S. Jesuits West Province, proposing, for example, that Gonzaga’s leadership “engage in discussion with local and Province Jesuit leadership about Bea House that may reimagine it as a space for future activities and works.”

The university is now planning on launching a series of working groups focused on implementing the various recommendations.

McCulloh said Gonzaga is not planning on any separate investigatory effort, saying the issues have been covered widely across time by various media outlets.

“I think the question that is sort of raised by the question is what is it that is further to be known or discovered?” McCulloh asked. “And the [Jesuit] Province is actually in the best position to answer those types of questions” because it decided which priests to send to the university or to Bea House.

After the original Reveal report on the placement of priests at Bea House, McCulloh issued a written statement in which he said that “in the years following” bankruptcy proceedings by the regional Jesuit province in 2011, he’d “learned that there had been priests under supervised ‘safety plans’ living at the Jesuit retirement community (Bea House).” He added that it was not until 2016, when the province began relocating some of the retired Jesuits to another community, that he learned that Jesuits who had been on safety plans were among those who were moved from Bea House.

He added that he first learned of the allegations against Father Poole in the Reveal report in December 2018.

“Following the lessons learned out of the bankruptcy, I had relied upon the Province to inform us of any Jesuit whose history might pose a threat to our students or campus community,” he wrote. “I deeply regret that I was not informed of the presence of Fr. Poole, nor any other Jesuits who might pose such a danger, at Cardinal Bea House.”

McCulloh said the university now has a formal written commitment from the province that “no Jesuit with a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor is currently or will ever be knowingly assigned to Gonzaga University or the Jesuit community on its campus, nor to any Jesuit work of the Province.”

“We have a process today wherein if a Jesuit is being considered for assignment, the provincial notifies me of that through the local superior,” McCulloh said. “The local superior and I meet and we discuss the individual with a specific focus on their history and their background, including any issues that have arisen in prior assignments that they’ve had. All Jesuits go through the same process of criminal and employment background check as any other university employee, and further they are required to attest in writing as to whether or not there are any past violations that involve sexual misconduct, and they have to grant permission for the release of any records relating to the same from any previous postsecondary educational institution.”

Apology and Accountability?

Father Tom Lamanna, the rector of the Della Strada Jesuit Community at Gonzaga, declined an interview request through a spokesperson. In an op-ed published in the student newspaper, The Gonzaga Bulletin, he emphasized that the Jesuits West Province now “has a zero-tolerance policy for any form of abuse or misconduct.”

He described the commission’s report as “an important step in shedding light on something that is both tragic and shameful.”

Others questioned how much light has actually been shed.

Emily Schwing, the journalist who led Reveal’s reporting on Gonzaga, said on Twitter that the report “drastically oversimplifies who precisely who was [sic] living on campus at Cardinal Bea house for decades” and described the document as “lacking in much accountability.”

Dawson Neely, opinion editor of The Gonzaga Bulletin, argued in a recent op-ed that the report “asks more questions than it answers” and questioned why the recommendations “fall short of demanding an apology.”

Megan K. McCabe, co-chair of the commission and an assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga, said there was not “a shared consensus” among commission members about what an apology would be for.

“Is it for there being Jesuits housed in a building that is not technically part of the university but is experienced by many as on our campus?” she asked. “Is it for the abuse itself? Looking at that list of multiple harms there, we didn’t have a shared consensus of what that would look like. There also was not a shared consensus of who owed an apology specifically to whom.”

McCabe and her fellow commission co-chair both described a desire to continue telling the story of Gonzaga’s links to clergy accused of sexual abuse, a history they acknowledge was not summarized in detail in the report — largely, McCabe said, “because we perhaps erroneously assumed a shared understanding, that we were starting from the same point of having awareness of what had happened, sharing largely anger over a lot of these realities, and then saying, ‘and so what is our response?’”

Michelle Wheatley, the other commission co-chair and Gonzaga’s vice president for mission integration, said people on campus have told her “the recommendations provided a good foundation from which to start or to build in this next phase, that it gathered us together and gave some direction.”

“We heard expressions about hoping that we can continue to increase boldness as we go,” she said, “and we have also heard some hopes about how Gonzaga might be able to demonstrate leadership.”