Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cover-up at Gonzaga: Leary left after ‘69 police ultimatum

Sept. 9, 2006 Updated Sat., Sept. 9, 2006 at 6:09 p.m.

A photograph of the Very Reverand John Leary, S.J. appeared in the 1967-68 Gonzaga year book
A photograph of the Very Reverand John Leary, S.J. appeared in the 1967-68 Gonzaga year book "Spires". (Photo Gonzaga / The Spokesman Review)
John Stucke and Benjamin Shors The Spokesman-Review
In 1969, amid fresh allegations that the president of Gonzaga University had sexually abused young boys, the university, the Spokane Police Department and Jesuit hierarchy orchestrated a stunning cover-up that preserved the reputation of the institution and a man revered as a leader in Spokane. Spokane police ordered the Rev. John P. Leary to leave town within 24 hours or face arrest in April 1969. It was an offer that Leary’s superiors at the time accepted. “I can only surmise that fear of scandal and of harm to Gonzaga University gripped those Jesuits, and led them to accept the offer of civil authorities,” the Rev. John D. Whitney, the Jesuits’ current provincial superior based in Portland, revealed Friday. “Fear, however, is not an adequate excuse and is not consistent with our faith and calling.” Jesuit leaders created an “artificial scenario” in which they stated Leary had resigned for health reasons during a trip to the East Coast. Gonzaga officials perpetuated the story of Leary’s “illness,” even as the priest moved from one Western university to another in the years that followed. Leary died in 1993. On Friday Gonzaga issued a statement calling the reports “deeply distressing,” though Whitney said rumors of Leary’s actions churned in university and Catholic circles for four decades. Gonzaga President Robert Spitzer did not return a phone call seeking comment. In the statement, however, he said the university regretted its actions and sought to assure the community that it has made changes to the way it reports and investigates inappropriate sexual behavior. Added Whitney of the Jesuit order, “We’re not like this anymore.” Though Whitney declined in an interview to detail Leary’s actions, he called them abusive. “Leary was a bad guy,” he said. The Jesuit order has settled with two of Leary’s victims and is bracing for more victims to come forward, Whitney said. One victim was paid about $300,000; a second was paid a lower amount, though still a six-figure sum. Two more claims against Leary were filed as part of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane. One accuses Leary of sexually abusing a teenager in 1965. The victim, a Gonzaga student, was befriended by Leary and asked to drive the president to a speaking engagement one weekend night, according to the victim’s attorney, Doug Spruance. When he parked the car, Leary made an aggressive pass. The student was able to fend off Leary’s attempts at sex, though he was still subjected to abuse, Spruance said. ‘They offered an apple’ According to minutes from a meeting of Leary and his provincial superiors, Spokane police offered to allow Leary to skirt arrest for sexual assault if he immediately left the city. “My image is they offered the apple and we took it,” Whitney said. “There was no excuse for it. It was the wrong thing to do. “I wish we would have said, ‘Arrest him.’.” Spokane police said Friday that they had no knowledge of the incident. “I can’t respond to it because I just don’t know anything about it,” said Cpl. Tom Lee, the department’s spokesman. “It wouldn’t be fair to judge the actions of my coworkers 40 years ago.” In 1969, the Spokane Police Department was headed by E.W. “Bill” Parsons, who later served as a county commissioner. Parsons died in 1989. In an interview Friday, former assistant chief Wayne Hendren, who succeeded Parsons in 1970, said he remembered Leary but was unaware of any police contact with the priest. “Let me tell you, if he had a reason to be arrested, I would have arrested him,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just transferring trouble somewhere else.” Former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett said he knew of Leary’s actions but the victim’s family didn’t want to press charges. Brockett, whose 1961 law school diploma is signed by Leary, said he was a deputy prosecutor in the mid-1960s when he heard about an abuse allegation against Leary. He was startled when Leary abrupty resigned in 1969, though he said he later pieced together the truth. Frank Conklin, the longtime law school dean at Gonzaga, said he knew specifics of Leary’s case but can’t discuss them now because he was the university’s corporate counsel at the time. Today Conklin represents men who have sued the Catholic Diocese of Spokane for sexual abuse. An ethics instructor In April 1969, Gonzaga’s academic vice president, the Rev. David M. Clarke, and the Rev. Van Christoph, rector of the campus’ Jesuit House, reported Leary’s “illness” to The Spokesman-Review, stating he suffered from exhaustion. Whitney said the rector was aware of Leary’s true situation. One month later, W. Price Laughlin, chair of Gonzaga’s governing board, announced Leary’s resignation, praising him as “an able and articulate leader.” In a resignation letter, Leary, who taught courses on ethics and logic even as he served as president, said he was resigning “for reasons of health.” “There is no best time to leave a place and the people you love,” Leary wrote. “Separation is hard and I feel it that way.” The cover-up regarding Leary emerged in recent weeks as Jesuit officials searched archives for documents related to a separate sexual abuse lawsuit against Jesuit priest Michael Toulouse, who taught philosophy at Seattle University and had a role as priest and spiritual counselor there. He died in 1976. Toulouse also lived in Spokane. There’s at least one sexual abuse claim leveled against him in the diocese bankruptcy involving a boy at Gonzaga Prep in 1947. The Jesuit order, called the Society of Jesus, has paid more than $7.5 million to settle scores of sex abuse claims across Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Alaska. Much more will likely be paid, acknowledged Whitney. Pending are 23 claims against the Jesuits that were mistakenly filed in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the Catholic Diocese. These include allegations filed by nine Omak women who allege they were sexually abused by a Jesuit priest, according to their attorney, John Allison. Spruance represents a woman who alleges she was repeatedly abused by a Jesuit priest in the 1950s beginning when she was 5 years old. The claims are expected to be disallowed in the diocese bankruptcy because the clergy involved were not diocesan priests, but members of the Jesuit order. If that happens, they’ll be forwarded to the Jesuits for action. Founder of New College Born in Spokane and raised in Burke, Idaho, the charismatic and intellectual Leary joined the faculty at Gonzaga in 1955, where he taught philosophy and served as dean of the school of education. Leary became Gonzaga’s 21st president in 1961, a position he held until his departure in 1969. Four months after resigning, Leary accepted a position as a philosophy professor at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. He left a year later and accepted a position as vice president of university relations at the University of Santa Clara. Leary moved again the following year, serving as the founder and first president of New College of California in Sausalito, Calif. In the college’s history, posted on its Web site, “Jack” Leary is said to have resigned from Gonzaga because of “his dissatisfaction with the current American model of undergraduate education.” Leary borrowed money - including some from the Jesuits - to start the university, according to newspaper reports at the time. “Father Leary for me was one of the best hands-on, involved presidents who took a true interest in the students’ well-being,” said Steven “Kush” Kushner, the college’s historian and a professor of anthropology. “There was never any notion of abuse.” In 1978, Leary left New College and joined the Jesuit research group, which worked to improve “academic excellence and Christian leadership” at Jesuit high schools. Despite the threat of arrest, Leary apparently returned to Spokane numerous times in the 1970s. Several of those trips - to speak publicly, to officiate at a funeral, even to celebrate his birthday - were publicized in Spokane’s daily newspapers. In 1980, Leary established Old College in Reno, Nev., with a focus “not on careers but on the breadth and depth of man’s knowledge,” according to a newspaper article from Aug. 23, 1980. The following year, Leary founded the first law school in Nevada, which later closed. Until his death in 1993, at age 74, Leary was widely revered, editing two books on the Jesuits and writing a third. Rumors of the abuse had long trailed Leary. “I heard rumors, but I don’t recall that we ever had any reports on Leary,” said James Haynes, a former police sergeant who became deputy chief in the mid-1970s. “If there were, I was not aware of it at the time.”
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.