SOUTH BEND (IN)
The Guardian [London, England]
July 3, 2023
By Stephanie Kirchgaessner
Then a professor at Notre Dame, the supreme court justice was on a board that selected Jon Balsbaugh to head the Trinity Schools
A senior administrator of Christian private schools closely linked to People of Praise, conservative supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett’s controversial faith group, abruptly resigned from his post earlier this year following complaints that allegations of teacher misconduct had been mishandled.
Jon Balsbaugh, an influential figure within the Christian education movement, was appointed president of Trinity Schools in February 2017, after being selected by a board of trustees that included Barrett, who was a professor at Notre Dame at the time.
Trinity is closely affiliated with People of Praise, the covenanted Christian charismatic community that has counted Barrett as a lifelong member. Her role as a trustee of Trinity from July 2015 to March 2017 is controversial in part because she served at a time when the school – which has campuses in Virginia, Minnesota and Indiana – had discriminatory policies in place that, in effect, barred children of same-sex parents from attending the schools.
For a group of people who consider themselves “survivors” of the Christian sect – some have even called it a cult – Balsbaugh’s tenure as president of Trinity, which came to an abrupt end in April, was emblematic of deeper problems within People of Praise, including an alleged culture of sweeping serious allegations of abuse against minors by some members of the faith group under the rug.
The Guardian reported in October 2020 – after Barrett’s nomination to serve on the supreme court, but before the Senate narrowly voted to confirm her – that People of Praise had hired the law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to conduct an “independent investigation” into sexual abuse claims on behalf of the religious group.
The firm’s report was never released publicly or to any of the alleged victims.
Interviews with former teachers and Trinity students, and published emails and online discussion groups, show that Balsbaugh had become aware of an incident in February in which a male teacher at Trinity’s River Ridge, Minnesota, campus had shared two poems he had written with a female student.
In one poem, which was seen by the Guardian, but is not being published to protect the student’s privacy, the teacher alluded to the female student’s lips and face and the age difference between himself and the student.
Kate Ives and Genevieve Mesa, two mothers of River Ridge students, were stunned and scared when they learned about the incident. In an email to Trinity parents, they described how they had been told, just hours after administrators became aware of the incident and hastily investigated it, that the teacher would be returning to school the next day because there were “no safety concerns” and because the school knew the “character” of the teacher.
“We were shocked at how quickly and quietly the school’s investigation was conducted and completed within a few hours on that Monday and so we raised concerns. Trinity assured us several times that day and evening that they did everything possible and were confident in their decision to welcome [the teacher] back into the school,” they wrote.
Ives and Mesa’s email was first published by the Roys Report, a Christian media outlet.
One of the mothers then contacted Robin Maynard, a Lathrop GPM lawyer who is listed on People of Praise’s website as a person to contact to help facilitate independent reporting and investigation of incidents of sexual misconduct or abuse of a child.
In a reversal, the teacher was then terminated from his post a few days later.
At the time – 17 February – Balsbaugh sent an email to parents explaining that the teacher had engaged in “inappropriate communication with a student that was not consistent with the expectations that Trinity Schools has for its teachers”. He added, however, that the teacher’s communication was “not overtly sexual in nature”.
“The questions which we are asking ourselves now is why weren’t proper measures taken immediately by the school to protect our children?” Ives and Mesa wrote in their 8 March letter. In a separate email to Trinity’s board of trustees, the two mothers called for Balsbaugh to be fired.
Concern about Balsbaugh’s response was rooted in a worrying history at Trinity, in which a woman named Katie Logan, who had grown up inside the People of Praise, described how she had been sexually assaulted two decades earlier – when she was 17 years old – by a Trinity teacher. The incident was the subject of a 2021 report in the Washington Post.
Logan had reported the alleged 2001 assault to a dean at the Minnesota school five years after it happened. But the teacher ultimately remained in place until 2011, before moving to another Christian school. The Washington Post reported that one person involved in the matter said Balsbaugh had been told about the alleged assault in 2009, when he was headmaster of the school. Balsbaugh later told police he did not learn of Logan’s complaint until 2011, after the teacher had left River Ridge. Balsbaugh also told police he believed – wrongly – that Logan had been 18 at the time of the alleged assault, which he referred to as an “inappropriate advance”.
Balsbaugh also told the Post he wished he could go back in time and handle the Logan complaint differently and that “the final responsibility for protecting students and restoring trust rests with me”.
Logan said she was “incredibly relieved” that Balsbaugh had resigned from Trinity, and hoped the new administration of the school would do more victim advocacy.
“I never had direct contact with Jon Balsbaugh, but I always found it curious that he could not [figure out] my age [at the time of the assault],” she said.
Balsbaugh did not respond to the Guardian’s questions or request for comment.
Before his resignation, there were signs of growing tensions between People of Praise and Trinity, including the sudden 31 January resignation of the head of River Ridge’s Trinity campus, Beth Schmitz. In an email to members of People of Praise, which was seen by the Guardian, Schmitz said she was resigning because she had “observed and experienced Trinity leadership’s rejection of the community’s vision for education as well as the community’s good order”. She also said she disagreed with Trinity’s “new direction” and could no longer recommend it or promote it as a “work of People of Praise”. Schmitz did not respond to several interview requests.
Former teachers and Trinity students have also alleged that Balsbaugh sometimes acted in a bullying way during his tenure at Trinity, which began when he started teaching at the River Ridge campus in 1997. He became a member of People of Praise in 2006, a requirement to become president of Trinity Schools.
In one case, a former student said, attempts to get the school to provide mental health resources were largely brushed off, with students being told they should seek support from their families. Balsbaugh also seemed to favor interactions with male colleagues.
Balsbaugh has become influential in Christian education. He serves on the board of the company that makes the Classic Learning Test, an alternative to the SAT which is traditionally used by private schools and home schooling families, and is said to focus on the “centrality of the western tradition”. It has also recently been embraced as an alternative to the traditional SAT by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.
In a statement, People of Praise commended Trinity for being part of a “growing renewal of classical, Christian education” but said it was a legally separate entity governed by a separate board than Trinity and could therefore not comment an any of Trinity Schools’ employment matters.
“People of Praise has full confidence in the present leadership of Trinity Schools and in their work to ensure that the educational mission of the schools flourishes well into the future,” it said.
Justice Barrett’s chambers did not respond to a request for comment.
Got a tip on this story? Email Stephanie.Kirchgaessner@theguardian.com