Mater Dei High names new president in the wake of hazing scandal

Los Angeles Times

January 7, 2022

By Hannah Fry, Connor Sheets, Laura J. Nelson

A longtime educator with experience overseeing high school athletic programs will take the helm of Mater Dei High School amid ongoing controversy over an alleged hazing scandal involving its storied football program.

Michael Brennan will start at the Orange County private school on Feb. 1, Diocese of Orange officials said Friday. He has been president of St. Anthony High School in Long Beach since last year.

The news comes less than a week after the abrupt resignation of the school’s former president, Father Walter E. Jenkins, who started at Mater Dei in July. Officials have said Jenkins is expected to return to South Bend, Ind., to “take on a new assignment” with his religious order, the Congregation of Holy Cross.

His departure followed weeks of controversy for Mater Dei’s powerhouse football program and head coach Bruce Rollinson. A lawsuit filed in late November by the family of a former football player accused Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange of trying to cover up a brutal locker-room altercation that left the player with a traumatic brain injury.

School officials have said Jenkins was not fired and that there is no connection between the litigation and his departure. They have declined to provide additional information about why he is leaving the program after less than a year on the job. Jenkins could not be reached for comment.

After news of the lawsuit broke, Jenkins hired a Sacramento-based law firm to conduct an investigation into safety protocols at the school and its athletics programs. Brennan will oversee the review, which is scheduled to begin this semester, according to the diocese.

Brennan said in a prepared statement that he’s “dedicated to ensuring that the campus has a safe, productive and educational environment based upon Mater Dei’s core values of Honor, Glory and Love.”

“I am excited to return to Orange County and thrilled at the opportunity and promise of leading Mater Dei, one of our nation’s preeminent Catholic schools,” Brennan said. “Catholic education has always been pivotal in providing society with devout, ethical leaders and citizens of tomorrow.”

Prior to joining St. Anthony, Brennan spent nearly 15 years as principal of Servite High School in Anaheim. He was the president of the Trinity League, the high school athletic conference that includes Mater Dei, for roughly a decade. He also served as the chairperson for CIF Southern Section Orange County League Placement.

But some questioned the hiring, saying Brennan’s resume and longtime involvement with high school athletics show that the diocese is prioritizing sports over accountability.

“If they really wanted change, they’d have brought someone in from the outside, a champion for child safety and transparency,” said Joelle Casteix, a Mater Dei graduate and spokeswoman for the California chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange are telling us that they’re sticking with the status quo.”

School officials who have worked with Brennan said he is a highly qualified professional. When he departed Servite in January 2021, he was hailed as “a champion of high school athletics” in a news release.

Servite football coach Troy Thomas said Brennan is “a great man.”

“Whenever there was a problem or something happened in the football program, he’d come down and talk to me and advise me,” Thomas said. “He handled situations the best he could.”

Brennan’s arrival comes amid more calls for scrutiny of Mater Dei. A New Jersey leader of SNAP recently filed three complaints with the government and church officials over a November allegation of hazing between members of Mater Dei’s football team. The complaints, filed this week, are an attempt to ensure that organizations other than the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange investigate the reported hazing.

The lawsuit that spurred those complaints, filed Nov. 23, alleged that the football player’s injuries stemmed from a bout of “Bodies,” in which two players punch each other between the shoulders and the waist until one gives up. The student agreed to square off against a player who was 50 pounds heavier in an “effort to fit in and show he was tough enough,” according to the complaint.

The locker-room injury occurred in February and, in December, the football team won its third state championship in five years.

Brennan will be Mater Dei’s fourth president in two years. In January 2020, longtime President Patrick Murphy left for a job as president of business operations for the Arizona Coyotes, a National Hockey League team in Phoenix. He was replaced by Father Steve Sallot, who served as interim president until Jenkins arrived in July 2021.

Brennan was identified as a possible candidate for the role when the diocese was searching for a replacement for Murphy, a process that took months.

“Michael Brennan … was a strong and vetted candidate in the search process conducted by the Diocese of Orange less than one year ago,” Tracey Kincaid, spokesperson for the diocese, said in an email. “His skills and experience capably fit the needs of Mater Dei today.”

Staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.