Group questions Fairfield University’s choice to hire priest accused of inappropriate behavior

Connecticut Post [Bridgeport CT]

December 22, 2022

By Daniel Tepfer

An abuse survivors organization is questioning Fairfield University officials for their decision to appoint as head of a new Bridgeport campus a Catholic priest who resigned his previous post for engaging in behavior “inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries.”

SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is urging the university to explain why it has appointed Rev. Kevin O’Brien as vice-provost and executive director of the Fairfield Bellarmine campus planned to open at the old St. Ambrose property on Boston Avenue.

“We urge the university to explain why they appointed Fr. O’Brien to the leadership team in light of the accusations made in California,” the organization stated in a press release. “We wonder about the wisdom of the decision to place Fr. O’Brien at a school for ‘underserved students’ when he was unable to maintain appropriate boundaries at Santa Clara.”

O’Brien resigned in May 2021 from his role as president of Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., after an investigation concluded that he had “engaged in behaviors, consisting primarily of conversations, during a series of informal dinners with Jesuit graduate students that were inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries, according to a statement issued at the time by John M. Sobrato, chairman of the board of trustees for the university.

The statement added that the USA West Province “also advised the board that alcohol was involved, and that no inappropriate behavior was found in any settings outside of these dinners. The board of trustees takes this situation very seriously and fully supports those who came forward to provide their accounts.”

Sobrato also wrote that O’Brien, who delivered the homily at the inauguration Mass for President Joe Biden, would enroll in a “four- to six-month therapeutic outpatient program, which he has now begun, to address related personal issues, including alcohol and stress counseling.”

“The complaints at Santa Clara were apparently serious enough to result in his ‘resignation’ from the prestigious Catholic university. And yet, despite those accusations, he was given a new job 3,000 miles away and again with authority over young and vulnerable adults,” stated the SNAP release.

O’Brien could not be reached for comment.

But Jennifer Anderson, Fairfield University’s vice president of marketing and communications, said O’Brien had been deemed “suited for priestly ministry” following his resignation by an “independent review board.”

“Fr. O’Brien resigned from his position at Santa Clara following an investigation by the USA West Province into matters related to a conversation within the Jesuit community about Jesuit life,” Anderson said in a statement. “An independent review board of the USA East Province subsequently reviewed the case thoroughly and concluded that Fr. O’Brien is suited for priestly ministry, and so was cleared and qualified to serve at Fairfield University.”

Anderson also said, “Fairfield University has strictly enforced employment policies and practices in place that require all employees conduct their roles in keeping with the highest ethical and professional standards.”

Fairfield Bellarmine is a two-year college directed at low-income, first-generation students in the community. It is slated to open with up to 100 students for the 2023-24 academic year.

The campus has been controversial in Bridgeport because of the locations chosen, with residents both the North End where it was first proposed and those in the new neighborhood complaining about potential traffic and parking issues it could bring to the area.

The university and diocese are also facing a lawsuit by former city employee, John Ricci, who argued the campus would impact his property values.

Still, university officials forged ahead with a groundbreaking for the new campus last month. And this month, Fairfield University announced a $1 million gift for the program from alumnus Kevin Conlisk and his wife, Mary Beth.

Conlisk is the former principal and CFO of Alinabal Holdings, a global company with operations in Milford and Kensington and served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 2004 to 2016.

Written By Daniel Tepfer

Daniel Tepfer has been reporting on legal issues and covering criminal cases for many years.