Life behind closed academic doors

Semester after semester, I tell my students at the Washington Journalism Center that some of the hardest news stories to cover -- period -- are personnel disputes inside private colleges and universities. The simple fact of the matter is that the administrations on these campuses do not have to talk about the proceedings in these cases and, often, they cannot talk about the facts of these cases because of valid legal concerns about privacy. In many cases, academic doors are closed for a reason.

But these stories often break out into the open anyway, because students hear gossip on campus or popular faculty members suddenly resign or simply vanish. And then there are the cases that get linked to alleged violations of laws -- laws in heaven or on earth (or both). As you would imagine, these stories are especially complex on traditional religious campuses.

This brings me to a recent story by veteran scribe Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It's one of those worst-case-scenario cases that I'm talking about. Here's the top of the story:

As Vatican officials consider whether a popular Benedictine monk may return to ministry after pornography was found on his computer, some students at St. Vincent College are rallying to support him, arguing that the case against him is flawed.

On Wednesday, 73 of them went to class in T-shirts printed with the question, "Where is Fr. Mark Gruber?" Beneath that was a quotation from the Rule of St. Benedict, which said a monk has true humility "if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay -- even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up, but hold out ..."

The back said, "Priest. Professor. Friend. Due process?"

"There has been an extreme injustice done to a very good man," said Michael Cartier, 22, a senior philosophy major.

Father Gruber, 53, was removed from his post as an anthropology professor and banned from all ministry and contact with students in July. Campus computer technicians had found pornography on his computer as they searched for the source of an e-mail criticizing the college administration.

OK, you can see the layers of the story forming.

Rodgers is about to report some of the details of the monk's alleged activities. One key detail is important to the police, but probably not that important to the Vatican. The story notes that "there was no evidence that any of the 'nude young men' in the pictures were minors."

There are other complicating factors.

It turns out that Father Gruber is known as a man who is a technophobe and knows almost nothing about computers. Students have to help him with his emails. To further complicate matters, his only computer sits in a room that is frequently used by other people and students are claiming that the porn may have been downloaded by someone else.

At the same time, the allegations are being investigated in the shadow of ultra-strict laws about sexual conduct adopted by the Catholic church in the wake of decades of clergy sexual-abuse scandals, with the vast majority of the cases involving sex with young males. Thus:

... (C)iting higher standards in the church, the archabbot and Bishop Lawrence Brandt of the Diocese of Greensburg revoked Father Gruber's faculties. They sent the canonical case against him to Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees accusations that clergy have sexually abused minors. ...

But students aren't the only ones to raise questions about why Father Gruber's case went to the Vatican office that deals with child sexual abuse when the police report found no evidence of it. Nicholas Cafardi, a civil and canon lawyer on the faculty of the Duquesne University law school and an expert on the church's process of handling sex abuse cases, doubts Rome will uphold the charge. He isn't involved in Father Gruber's case.

The referral to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "is puzzling," he said. Although that office can remove priests for other serious reasons, "to date, viewing non-child pornography has not been considered such a case."

So the standoff continues. At one point, Rodgers notes that the college's leadership is certain -- due to analysis of the "manner and sequence in which Father Gruber's computer was used" -- that the monk had viewed the pornographic materials.

This hints that the administration has other private materials that it does not want to discuss. Frankly, as a professor who has observed some campus discipline cases close up, I was stunned that anyone was willing to be quoted on the record discussing any of the evidence.

As I said, these are hard, hard stories to write. Rodgers has done everything possible -- short of reporting rumors, which no one should do -- to get the facts on this one. It's not a nice Lenten story, but someone had to write it.

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