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Shawn Vestal: GU report raises important question about Jesuit scandal, then skips an answer

The Cardinal Bea House on the campus of Gonzaga University has been the home of more than 24 retired Jesuit priests who were credibly accused of abusing children.   (Associated Press)

On Page 29 of the report issued by a commission at Gonzaga University charged with delving into the role of the university in the long-standing, but now ended, practice of sending retired Jesuit priests accused of sexual abuse to live at GU, there is an important question: “WHO KNEW WHAT WHEN?”

Some words follow that question – many, many words – but nothing like an answer. It surely does not plumb, even the tiniest bit, the degree to which GU President Thayne McCulloh or other university leaders were aware that the Society of Jesus had been putting sexual abusers out to pasture at GU since the 1970s.

The question of McCulloh’s knowledge, in particular, was raised by some faculty members when the news about the retired Jesuits blew up nationally in 2018. Several were deeply disappointed in his failure to prevent the practice or address it more specifically with the campus at large. Some said they simply did not believe that he had not known about it, as he insisted.

One former professor, a longtime friend and colleague of McCulloh’s, said publicly that she recalled McCulloh telling her in 2016, following a “Frontline” documentary about sex abuse by Jesuits, that some of them were living right then at the Cardinal Bea House, a Jesuit-owned facility on campus.

She said, in particular, that she recalled McCulloh telling her that an especially notorious priest, James Poole, a serial abuser with more than 20 victims, was there then.

McCulloh said he did not remember that conversation, and insisted that he was never made aware of any Jesuits with “safety plans” – the status assigned to those credibly accused of abusing children – being moved to GU as it was happening.

“I had relied upon the Province to inform us of any Jesuit whose history might pose a threat to our students or campus community,” his statement said. “I deeply regret that I was not informed of the presence of Fr. Poole, nor any other Jesuits who might pose such a danger, at Cardinal Bea House.”

He elaborated, in a later interview, that he had learned in 2011 that some men on safety plans had been moved to campus in years past, but he believed the practice had ended. He said he discovered in 2016, as the last of those Jesuits was being moved away from campus, that the practice had continued during his presidency.

Whether it’s important to keep beating this horse is a valid question. It’s also valid to point out that this commission was not tasked with an investigative effort that would produce detailed answers or assign responsibility.

Still, the commission chose to raise that question. And it’s a good question. And – given that the Catholic child-rape scandal has been defined at every turn by organizational secrecy, flummery and dishonesty – the commission’s answer to the question is interesting and important.

Here it is, more or less: Some people knew some things, and they knew different amounts of the things that they knew, and it will be important in the future for the university to … something something something.

To quote directly: “Some were more aware than others of the history of sexual abuse in the Province and the sending of credibly accused men to Bea House. This variation in awareness, combined with a desire for greater institutional transparency and communication, led to a key takeaway: Gonzaga must become more intentional in owning and sharing the University’s story as well as navigating its relationship with the Society of Jesus.”

Even for a report by an academic committee, a genre frequently marked by clarity-smothering prose, this is a distinguished bit of nothingness. After all, the commission claimed to have discovered “a deep desire among the community to confront the causes and effects of sexual abuse, and to name more boldly both personal and shared complicity in systemic failure.”

So you might have been forgiven for expecting a wee bit of bold naming.

The fact that retired Jesuits who had been credibly accused of sexual assault had lived on campus had been known, at least in some quarters, for many years. News articles in The Spokesman-Review going back as far as 2005 mentioned the practice in reports on some abusers.

An investigative report in December 2018 by the radio program and podcast “Reveal” reported on the practice, including a deep look at Poole’s abusive activities in Native communities in Alaska, and brought a flood of attention to GU.

It was a great embarrassment to the university and McCulloh, though it simply could not have come as a surprise to anyone paying close attention. McCulloh eventually formed the commission and tasked it with meeting regularly and producing a series of recommendations.

The 44-page report was delivered last week, offering many suggestions for future actions, including hosting campus events to examine abuse in boarding schools, creating a “robust” web site as part of ongoing commission efforts, funding faculty research and undergraduate courses about social justice and the Catholic sex-abuse crisis, establishing an on-campus memorial and hosting an annual “ritual of lament” to acknowledge the “various failings of the community.”

It may be that this one section of this one report, at this late stage of things, is much more molehill than mountain. And yet it’s hard to shake the sense that on this question, the report fails its own standards to be bold and transparent and confrontational.

Such vagueness and indirection has been a constant hallmark of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, which has seen failure upon failure by leaders of the church and its affiliated institutions to speak clearly and directly about what happened. The abuse was minimized, covered up, unnamed. Abusers were shuffled around, reassigned, protected.

Mistakes, as they say, were made.

Most of those who helped sustain this silence were not directly responsible for the abuse. Some, like GU in the matter of the retired abusers, stood at some distance from the crimes themselves. But all found themselves called upon to weigh a clear moral duty against self-protection, and so often, clear moral duty didn’t stand a chance.

When you state it simply and directly, there’s not much ambiguity or nuance involved, nothing that requires 50 pages or a research grant to parse. Men credibly accused of molesting and raping children were sent to live on the GU campus, and people – some people, at least, in varying amounts – knew about it.

The GU commission asked the right question. It just didn’t answer it.

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