National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1991
This week's front page

Church in Crisis

Notre Dame’s Burtchaell to resign, sources say

by Pat Windsor
NCR Staff

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Holy Cross Father James Tunstead Burtchaell, a prominent theologian at the University of Notre Dame, has agreed to resign from his tenured teaching position following an investigation into charges he had engaged in sexual misconduct while counseling male students.

Burtchaell, former university provost and theology department chairman, is currently on sabbatical at Princeton University under a Lilly Endowment grant. Contacted by NCR on three occasions, he refused to comment on either the allegations or his status at Notre Dame except to say he has not resigned.

According to university sources, including members of the Holy Cross order, Burtchaell is still on faculty but has agreed to submit his resignation in December, perhaps as early as this week. The resignation is said to be effective at the end of this academic year.

Sources said Burtchaell agreed to resign last spring after the university investigated the allegations of several students who claimed Burtchaell had made sexual advances toward them in counseling or in spiritual-advising situations. In some cases, sexual contact as alleged to have occurred between Burtchaell and the students, sources said.

NCR has spoken with two former Notre Dame students who said Burtchaell made sexual advances on them while in counseling.

While the precise details of events that led to Burtchaell’s resignation agreement are known to only a few members of the Notre Dame administration, NCR, through interviews with sources connected to the university, both inside and outside the Holy Cross order, has learned of the general course of events. Sources say that during the 1989-90 academic, several students, independent of one another, confided to a priest in the theology department that they had been sexually harassed or abused by Burtchaell.

The faculty member subsequently approached the then-chairman of the theology department, Father Richard McBrien, who then approached the university provost, Timothy O’Meara. O’Meara, sources said, decided to investigate and during the course of the investigation more allegations of sexual misconduct directed at Burtchaell were made.

The provost, sources said, met with Burtchaell several times during the 1990-1991 school year, and those meetings led to an agreement between Burtchaell and the university.

The precise terms of the agreement -- possibly known only to O’Meara, Notre Dame President Holy Cross Father Edward Malloy and Burtchaell -- are not known. However, sources with knowledge of the agreement said the university agreed to allow Burtchaell to extend last year’s off-campus sabbatical for a year, provided he send a letter of resignation by December 1991 to the head of the university’s theology department. Neither the current Notre Dame theology department chairman, Larry Cunningham, nor former department chairman, McBrien, would comment on the matter.

As part of the agreement, according to sources, the university said it would not speak about the resignation until December. O’Meara has repeatedly declined interview requests by NCR.

Associate Provost Roger Schmitz told NCR, “I know nothing about it. If it is known here, it’s known only between Father Burtchaell and the provost, and I doubt if either one of them will offer a comment one way or another.”

University president Holy Cross Father Malloy also declined to comment. In an Oct. 18 letter responding to an NCR request for an interview, he wrote: “National Catholic Reporter representatives have been in touch with the provost’s office of the University of Notre Dame concerning the matter about which you wrote me in your letter dated October 11, 1991. Confidentiality governs the interactions of faculty members and that office.”

Burtchaell’s Holy Cross order also declined repeated requests for interviews on the Burtchaell case. Holy Cross Provincial Father Carl Ebey said in an Oct. 9 letter than any response “might compromise the confidentiality that normally governs the relationship between a religious and his religious superior.”

The order, meanwhile, issued an “interim policy” on sexual abuse, outlined in an Oct. 29 letter by Holy Cross provincial Ebey to order members. The letter describes a policy “based on procedures I have been following up to now and which many of you have asked about.”

The document makes no specific reference to the Burtchaell case but appears to allude to it, stating that “sexual abuse may occur not only between minors and adults but between two adults. This type of abuse, although not publicized as much in the papers, also occurs in our society, and we must have procedures in place for dealing with such activity.” Ebey added that the same procedures used for sexual abuse of minors will be applied to sexual abuse of adults except for “the reporting of the case to appropriate governmental agencies.”

Burtchaell’s career

Burtchaell’s career at Notre Dame has spanned more than a quarter of a century. A 1956 Notre Dame graduate, he returned to the university as a theology professor in 1966. He became theology department chairman in 1968.

An NCR profile of Burtchaell written by Jesuit Father Raymond Schroth and published in August, 1989 was headlined, “Father Ivysoul.” It described Burtchaell as an essential part of the Notre Dame fabric: “...he entered Holy Ivy U as a freshman, joined the HIFs (Holy Ivy Fathers), got his degree, then returned to Ivy U., where, for the rest of his life, he will live in a student dorm, say a popular Mass, burn his light late, teach generations of students the same courses, counsel them through courtships, bless their marriages, welcome these children to Ivy, teach them the same courses and maybe even write some books--till his engine grinds to a halt and he joins his predecessors in the Ivy Father’s graveyard on the edge of the campus underneath the pines.”

In 1970, Burtchaell became the university provost, working with President Theodore Hesburgh. Burtchaell appeared in line for president. But in 1977, for reasons never made public, he was asked to step down from the provost’s office and return to teaching.

At that point, Burtchaell also left the Catholic Theological Society of America, the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association and emerged, as the NCR profile described it, “as one of the most eloquent writers against abortion.”

He authored the Christopher-award winning Rachel Weeping: the Case Against Abortion (1982), and has been an articulate voice in the antiabortion movement since.

Burtchaell’s writings have appeared in NCR’s pages. He has written about such subjects as sexuality, marriage, natural law and the Vatican’s 1988 fidelity oath.

Friends and foes alike describe Burtchaell as brilliant. He has critics, however, who say he has an arrogant streak and can be intimidating. Said one former colleague, “He had made a lot of enemies. He’s the kind of man you could admire because he has a great mind and he has lots of flare for all kinds of things. Yet at the same time he has a streak of arrogance.”

Burtchaell, however, has supporters who would take issue with such a characterization. He has a large following among students.

Burtchaell, who until his sabbatical lived in an apartment in the back of a student dorm, has gained a reputation for his innovative counseling style. A Notre Dame public-relations department biographical sketch says of Burtchaell: “He is also notably popular as a counselor to Notre Dame students.”

University atmosphere

The Burtchaell resignation comes in the midst of wider university controversy concerning gay students. About 175 faculty members recently signed a letter in the campus newspaper, The Observer, urging Notre Dame to become “a safer place for those in it who are addressing questions about their sexual orientations.” Gays, lesbians and bisexuals on campus “should not have to fear harassment, the impositions of self-hatred, infringements of intellectual liberty, the loss of employment, physical violence, or sexual abuse,” the letter stated.

A former Burtchaell colleague, with knowledge of the case, said he wondered whether the university’s refusal to recognize a gay student group on campus and the Burtchaell case might be linked.

“We wonder whether the university isn’t starting to stop all mention of homosexuality pro or con. Because if...people start to share and to reminisce, this (Burtchaell) case in particular is going to rise first in everybody’s mind,” he said.

University’s action

The university’s official response regarding the Burtchaell case has gotten a mixture of criticism and praise from sources within the university. Some applaud the university for taking action and ensuring that Burtchaell will not return; some criticize the agreement -- especially the decision to allow Burtchaell to remain on the faculty during this academic year.

The university appears to be making every effort to conceal the Burtchaell matter. For example, in an advertisement in the Oct. 23 issue of The Christian Century, Burtchaell is listed on the faculty for summer and fall of 1992.

A 1991 university faculty handbook refers to sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

Under the heading of “consensual relationships,” the policy states: “Because of the unique relationships between students and faculty members, with the faculty member serving as educator, counselor, and evaluator, and the possibility of abuse of this relationship, the university views it as unacceptable (including all those who teach at the university, graduate students with teaching responsibilities, and other instructional personnel) to engage in amorous relations with students enrolled in their classes or subject to their supervision, even when both parties appear to have consented to the relationships.

“In keeping with this philosophy of the university, if charges of sexual harassment are made, it shall not be a defense to allege that the relationship was consensual.”

The Holy Cross order

Several sources said Notre Dame has been more aggressive in disciplining Burtchaell than has the Holy Cross order. Some faculty members told NCR they are troubled that the Holy Cross order has not forced Burtchaell to take a lower public profile, including putting aside his public writing and speaking.

In recent months, Burtchaell has published articles in several Catholic publications, including NCR and America magazine. Additionally, Burtchaell is scheduled to give a keynote speech in June before the Jesuits’ New York province conference. Burtchaell is to address the subject of “Ministry in an American Context.”

Sources said some form of counseling is routine in priest sex-abuse cases. NCR could not confirm what steps -- if any -- the Holy Cross fathers or the university had taken to assist Burtchaell to respond to alleged victims or to assure against possible further victimization.

One source supportive of the order said he has “great respect” for the Holy Cross Fathers. But, he continued, “What’s more important for me is the church and the mission that we have. I think that the more we deal as openly as possible with such issues with respect for all concerned, the better we are.”

For years, he said, dioceses and religious orders routinely swept problems such as chemical dependency under the rug. “Now that’s being dealt with in a much better way,” he said. “And I think we need to deal with all issues like that.”

In his Oct. 29 letter to members, Provincial Ebey said the “interim policy” he outline for handling sexual-abuse cases is based largely on policies in place in the Chicago archdiocese and the Phoenix diocese.

He reemphasized that members of the order should not discuss such cases. “Our policy will continue to be that we do not discuss individual cases or identify the names of any victim or accused religious, and all members of the province need to be mindful of their own responsibility for preserving such confidence,” he said.

The letter states that if a member of the order becomes aware of sexual abuse by a member of the congregation, “it is your duty to report it to the appropriate authorities, including the provincial or district superior, so that we might act in a responsible manner.”

The letter outlines the steps to be taken in cases of priest sexual abuse, such as hearing both sides of the story, removing the accused from his assignment pending the investigation’s findings and sending the religious for appropriate psychological testing, consulting with a canon lawyer to discuss the appropriate canonical sanctions and appointing an advisory panel to advise he provincial.

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