Kavanaugh Furor Kindles Debate on Catholic High-school Culture

By Joan Frawley Desmond
National Catholic Register
October 5, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh’s alma mater, Georgetown Preparatory School, founded by the Society of Jesus in 1789, is at the eye of the storm. (Georgetown Prep Facebook page)

The start of the 2018-2019 academic year has proved to be more challenging than expected for the Washington metro area’s Catholic school community, as the furor over Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh stirs media scrutiny and internal debates about institutional culture.

Kavanaugh’s alma mater, Georgetown Preparatory School, founded by the Society of Jesus in 1789, is at the eye of the storm, though other Catholic high schools have also faced intense scrutiny, along with a flood of concerns from parents, students and alumni.

More than 30 years after Kavanaugh’s graduation, “the elite, privileged high school world that Judge Kavanaugh inhabited is the focus of international attention,” stated an Oct. 3 New York Times article, one of many news stories that sought to provide additional context for Ford’s allegations.

Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep yearbook has fueled criticism of the all-boys’ school and what some describe as a hard-drinking “bro” culture. To make matters worse, two of his Georgetown Prep classmates were questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after President Donald Trump ordered a supplemental inquiry into Ford’s allegations.

Jesuit Father James Van Dyke, Georgetown Prep’s president, acknowledged that his institution was facing a “challenging time” in a Sept. 21 letter posted on the school’s website.

“It is a time for us to continue to evaluate our school culture ... and to think deeply and long about what it means to be ‘men for others,’ what the vaunted Prep ‘brotherhood’ is really about,” wrote Father Van Dyke.

He sought to reassure parents, alumni and the general public that his administration was working to inculcate “a healthy understanding of masculinity, in contrast to many of the cultural models and caricatures that they see.”

During Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he embraced his alma mater’s mission of “forming men of conscience, competence, courage and compassion; men of faith and men for others.” He said it had inspired him to take up charitable and civic work as an adult and a father of two daughters, and initial news reports bolstered his reputation as an honorable and generous public servant.

But in the wake of Ford’s allegations, a new media narrative reframed Kavanaugh’s record in a negative light, echoing the #MeToo movement’s criticism of “toxic masculinity” as a leading cause of sexual violence against women.

‘Profound Institutional Failure’

As Georgetown Prep’s institutional culture became the centerpiece of this politicized narrative, Father Van Dyke offered a more extended, and often anguished, reflection on the issues that brought the school into the public eye.

“We have spent the last weeks listening with grave concern to reports of Prep yearbooks that reflect the worst of adolescent instincts and excess,” he wrote in an Oct. 3 column for America, the Jesuit news outlet.

“Although some items have been misconstrued, others contain language and ‘inside jokes’ demeaning to others. Make no mistake: This is the result of a profound institutional failure — the failure of our institution.”

He also used his column to highlight the school’s ongoing efforts to address student misconduct and create an environment that challenges prevailing and often destructive cultural norms.

“The problems of abuse of alcohol and drugs, sexual assault and misconduct, and emotional and physical violence toward others are all too real,” he noted, while referencing the more recent problems of “pornography and sexualization, the culture of consumerism and affluence, the culture of hedonism.”

Critics suggest that these issues arise from “the ‘toxic masculinity’ encouraged by single-sex education,” Father Van Dyke said.

“Having served as the principal of a coeducational Jesuit school, I can assure anyone that the issues we face in all-boys education are not limited to single-sex schools.”

The more fundamental problem, he concluded, was a near pervasive “lack of respect for persons.”

Georgetown Prep’s struggle to defend its legacy shows that the damage wreaked by the polarized debate over Ford’s allegations has moved well beyond Capitol Hill, and the broadsides against an all-male Catholic school may signal an ideological agenda.

“The coverage of Brett Kavanaugh’s past has also put a whiff of anti-Catholicism in the air,” said Dan Henninger in an Oct. 3 column for The Wall Street Journal opinion page, highlighting “the constant invocations of ‘Georgetown Prep,’ suggesting not subtly that this all-boys school … was an abusers’ breeding ground. To invoke a legal term, this is a slander, and many at this point resent it.”

The Teenage Social Scene

On the other hand, Georgetown Prep’s struggles also point to a separate issue that has little to do with partisan politics. This unprecedented moment is resonating with Americans, at least in part, because Ford’s account of an alcohol-fueled sexual assault has tapped into deep concerns about an out-of-control teenage social scene.

At present, headlines assailing the elitist culture of Georgetown Prep and similar schools have made administrators leery of speaking with the press, and so they declined to comment for this story. Parents and teachers who spoke with the Register generally asked that they not be named, partly for the same reason, but also because they wanted to be offer a candid response to the Register’s questions.

Most suggested that local school communities were “split” on whether Ford’s specific allegations were credible. But the bare-bones account — a teenage girl navigating a social gathering that featured boys and alcohol — resonated with every parent.

“You don’t know how badly things can go until you are in the thick of it,” said one mother whose third daughter just graduated from Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, Maryland, founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart.

She said that school families deal with the same issues, at least in the affluent neighborhoods of suburban Maryland.

“I spoke with people whose children go to public schools, and they say it is no different, maybe worse. It is not fair to say it only happens at Prep; it is everywhere.”

Heavy drinking, centered around high-school proms and similar activities, has become a major issue for local schools, and many provide programs that highlight the dangers of substance abuse.

But when one graduate of a boys’ school was asked to describe the level of adult control over off-campus socializing, he replied, “Very little.”

And he suggested that some students at elite schools felt more “empowered” by a sense of “no consequences,” because they actually were more protected than less-privileged students, who equally might get in trouble or be hurt but could not depend on their parents to bail them out.

One mother recalled the challenge of holding a Sweet 16 party, while attempting to restrict alcohol use.

Her family was told to hire security guards to monitor the guests’ behavior at the outside venue. Parents “combed the bathrooms for alcohol, and kids were directed to leave all their bags in one place,” said the mother, whose daughters attended Georgetown Visitation, a girls’ school in Washington, D.C.

Her last daughter just graduated from high school, and over the years, she tried to ”impress upon my daughters that they must maintain control and insist that the boys behave.

“Unless there is a sexual predator who has come after you, you bear responsibility as to what happens to you. It isn’t all the boys’ fault.”

Mixed Messages

However, many parents don’t agree on the need to supervise teenagers, regulate alcohol use or hew to Church teaching on premarital sex. And that means students get mixed messages, and schools struggle to enforce common standards.

“There was always an empty house or a parent willing to provide alcohol or to ‘look the other way,’” recalled one parent, who said her son’s faith was fortified at Georgetown Prep, although his social life defied careful supervision.

“My child once arrived at a party to this begrudging greeting from a parent: ‘Oh, I guess your mom will be calling any minute to see if I’m here!’ I could picture the eye-rolling,” she told the Register.

“Some weekends I wanted to shout, ‘Please be on my team!’”

Now, this unprecedented moment has introduced a fresh source of anxiety.

“What is consent, and when drinking happens, how does that change the idea of consent?” asked one mother, who teaches at a girls’ school.

“The Catholic Church teaches that sex is something that should be experienced within the sacrament of marriage, but my girls needed more information before going off and encountering boys and drinking.”

She also has a son and worries that a bad decision could derail his future.

“Boys need to understand that drinking and harassing women is a choice,” she told the Register.

“Going along with the flow is not acceptable.”

Encouraging Safe Behavior

Meanwhile, girls’ high schools view Ford’s testimony as both an opportunity for reaching out to students who experienced sexual assault and to encourage safe, responsible behavior in the future.

“Recent political events have prompted countless women — including several of our alumnae — to share painful stories and memories of sexual assault,” said Dan Kerns, head of school at Visitation, as he offered prayers and expressed respect for their decision to speak out.

He stressed that sexual assault had become increasingly commonplace, and alcohol consumption was a major factor.

“According to National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates, 25% of American women have been sexually assaulted in adolescence or adulthood, and 18% have been raped,” he said.

He noted that the NIH also found that “one-half of all sexual-assault victims report that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the assault.”

“Let me be clear: Alcohol consumption does not make assault the victim’s fault, but we know it does place young women at a far greater risk,” said Kerns.

Visitation, like many other Catholic high schools, offers “programs on … consent, healthy relationships and self-advocacy,” he said.

Finally, Kerns addressed the students’ parents, urging them to sit down with their daughters and discuss “uncomfortable issues.”

Families should improve supervision, “by chaperoning parties, confirming students’ plans with other parents, and ensuring that alcohol is not served at any student gatherings.”

Some parents in Catholic school communities say they already follow these guidelines, but wish the administration and faculty would forge a more compelling, faith-filled environment that could build on their own efforts to foster self-restraint and respect for others.

“Even if the sexual revolution looks different for boys than girls, it isn’t enough for Catholic educators to arm girls with lectures about consent,” said Margaret McCarthy, a professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the mother of three children who attended Catholic schools.

“The Catholic approach is that we educate our children to know the deepest meaning of sex, tied to a lifelong marriage open to children.

“Consent is not the whole story. Even if you consent to something, if it goes against your humanity, it will lead to deep sadness and unhappiness.”

With that truth in mind, she framed the sexual revolution as a powerful, if unexamined, force that has left devastation in its wake and produced a reckoning with the #MeToo movement.

Catholic schools, she said, need to equip students with a different vision of life and not encourage them to accommodate such practices.

In closing, McCarthy recalled a conversation she and her husband had with a son during his high-school days.

“We could tell he was tempted” by the heavy-partying scene, “and he asked us, ‘What’s wrong with letting off steam?’

“My husband said, ‘You are playing with dynamite. You can’t let off steam without hurting yourself and others.’”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor. Her two sons attended Georgetown Prep.

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