Saturday, October 17, 2015

More of My Story: 1993 Letter That "Went Everywhere," According to Abbot Who Accused Me of Assaulting Him by Telling My Story (1)

Mary Oliver, “The Chance to Love Everything,” in Dream Work (NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), p. 9. 

Since I've compiled a set of links here that point readers back to postings I've made about the shattering of my career as a lay Catholic theologian, and that of my husband Steve, by Belmont Abbey College and the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early 1990s, and since some of you have expressed an interest in learning more of that story, I've decided to share with you a document that tells in detail precisely what happened to me at Belmont Abbey College. This is a letter I sent on 29 September 1993 to friends and colleagues in many places, telling them that I had resigned my position at the college after I had received a one-year terminal contract that the college's officials refused to explain.

It was this letter that the abbot of Belmont Abbey, which owns Belmont Abbey College, meant when he screamed at Steve in a meeting after I resigned, telling Steve that I had tried to assault him by refusing to come to tell him I was resigning my position as chair of the theology department — though I had repeatedly asked to see the abbot to tell him I was considering resigning due to the stone wall I had met when I asked for the reason for my termination, and he refused to see me. In that meeting, the abbot shouted to Steve, flailing his hands in the air, that I had sent out a letter with details of what had been done to me at the college, and that the letter had gone everywhere.

Because the letter is long, I'm going to cut it into several pieces and post it on subsequent days. This may well be a bore to many of you. I'm posting it now because 1) I've never shared it on this blog, 2) some of you have asked about our story, 3) I think stories like this need to be documented, since many LGBT employees of Catholic institutions have been and continue to be treated this way, and 4) nothing the synod says about mercy means a hill of beans until such stories are engaged and the harm done by Catholic institutions to LGBT people mended. So here's the letter, first installment:

Dear —: 

I hope you will forgive me for sending a letter to you that is actually a round-robin letter that I'm sending to a number of friends. The news it brings is something I want to get to friends in various places, and at the present time, it doesn't seem possible to write a long letter to each of you. I hope, however, to append a note to each letter.

The news is that, on August 19, I resigned from the faculty of Belmont Abbey College. Some of you know bits and pieces of the story leading up to this action. For those who don't, I'll try to sketch the bare bones of it, with apologies to those who have heard the story, and apologies for telling what is a rather sordid tale in such detail. But without some detail, I'm not sure my decision to resign would make sense.  

In February, 1993, when I had my annual review with the college dean, he told me that I had performed at a level far above the norm in each area measuring job performance at the college. I was the most published member of the faculty, in fact.  

In addition to the book and goodly number of articles I had published before coming to Belmont Abbey, in the two years that I was at the college, I published 6 articles in major journals and a chapter in a book, and my book Singing in a Strange Land appeared in print. I also had two offers to publish my dissertation, and tentative offers from a publisher to publish another manuscript when I finish it. In 1992, I sent an essay to a national essay contest sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Purdue University. My essay was one of six chosen for presentation at a conference sponsored by the Center.

In the past two semesters, every student in three classes has rated my teaching as 5—the top rating students may use in rating professors at BAC. One of these classes was an adult class of more than 20 students. To receive such ratings at BAC is unusual.  

In my first year at the college, I was also elected by a secret ballot of the entire faculty to the college's most significant committee, and this despite the fact that the dean had told me in that year I had alienated the "most important" faculty members of the college because I was purportedly too outspoken in expressing views that were "not part of the Belmont Abbey fit." I have also done extensive community service while at BAC.

In the same interview in which the dean praised me for my performance in 1992-93, he informed me that he intended to recommend that I receive a one-year terminal contract for the academic year 1993-94. When I asked him why, in light of the review he had just given me, he stated that he was not obliged to give a reason: the college could terminate tenure-track faculty at its good pleasure, if it wished to do so, without giving any reason.

On March 30 (which happened to be my 43rd birthday), the college president called me in to affirm that he would abide by the dean's recommendation. In this meeting, he stated that there was a reason for the terminal contract, that he had been advised by the American Council on Education not to disclose it, and that it was legal for him to act in this way, though he felt "ethically conflicted" about doing so.  

In this meeting, the president also accused me of "courting the opposition of conservative Catholic pressure groups in Charlotte." At the same time, he denied that he had been pressured to terminate my position. He later denied as well that he had made the statement about conservative Catholic pressure groups (and, as I shall note later in this letter, he also denied having made several other statements he made in this meeting). At my lawyer's request (I consulted a lawyer after I had been informed I would get a terminal contract), however, I had left the president's office and gone immediately to my own to write down a transcript of all that had been said in the meeting. I do not have to rely on memory to show that the president made the remarks he made in the March 30 meeting: I wrote down what he said while it was fresh in my mind.

I presume the charge of courting conservative Catholic opposition has to do in part with Catholics United for the Faith, which has a very active chapter in Charlotte, and which the bishop of Charlotte (now the archbishop of Atlanta) defended last year in an interview in the Charlotte Observer. The CUF organization has the sympathy of some of the "most important" members of the Belmont Abbey faculty, and at least one monk belongs to it (others defend it).   

How I courted the opposition of this group or other conservative Catholics is beyond me to explain. Should any theologian who publishes or speaks publicly about theological or ethical issues fear doing so, because public theological statements will always run the risk of attracting the negative attention of such groups? Is it not the responsibility of theologians to speak publicly in a culture in which public discourse contributes to cultural development, and in which the religious right has strong access to the media?  

In telling me I courted conservative opposition, the college president may have been referring to a letter I wrote the Charlotte paper during the 1992 presidential campaign. My letter was a response to an article in which a woman (Mrs. H.) who is a Belmont Abbey graduate (and whose husband is the college lawyer and also an alumnus) had been interviewed regarding family values. She had insisted that the Catholic church teaches that a mother ought to be at home with her children (as she is with hers) and that poverty should be no hindrance to this, because God always provides for those who do God's will.

I wrote to say that Catholic teaching about family also emphasizes the harm done to families through poverty, unemployment, etc., and that one ought not to gloss over such realities with a spirituality that prescinds from the material realm. I thought it important to say these things, because Mrs. H., as well as other local Catholics associated with her in the anti-abortion movement, was attempting to disseminate a particular understanding of Catholic teaching about family during the presidential campaign, in order to convince voters that "good Catholics" could only vote for Bush. I thought the Catholic position on family values deserved a more nuanced treatment, and that, as a theologian, I could contribute something to the discussion by writing a letter to the newspaper.

Mrs. H. wrote a response that was published in the newspaper, along with a response by a priest who shares an office with her husband. This priest is a former president of the college and a board member, and (along with another college board member in the same office) has sought for some time now to turn the college into an even more conservative Catholic college than it already is. Though my letter had said nothing to elicit such criticisms, Mrs. H. and Fr. B. accused me of being anti-marriage, pro-abortion, and a socialist. Mrs. H. has written the paper recently to praise Jesse Helms for exemplifying Catholic values, particularly in his opposition to abortion.  

Not long after these letters appeared, a monk at Belmont Abbey preached a Sunday sermon in which he said that Catholics hold that spirituality is more important than material concerns (a clear reference to my letter), and that "true Catholics" would make abortion the issue on which they cast their votes in the presidential election. He went on to tell students at the college that when they studied theology in classes at BAC, they ought to read their textbooks "on their knees."

Because I was disturbed by the reference to the theology department, I called to ask to speak with the abbot. He did not return my call. The sub-prior (who is a half-time faculty member in the theology department)* called to say that the theology department had been attacked by monks in their sermons for years now, and that the incident was not worth worrying about. 

This series of events may be what the president was referring to when he stated that I had courted the opposition of conservative Catholic groups in the Charlotte area.

After the dean informed me that I would receive a one-year terminal contract, I sought legal counsel. When I did so, I found that, unless the college's own by-laws state otherwise, it is legal for a university in North Carolina to terminate tenure track faculty in the absence of job-related cause without stating a reason. I also contacted the ACLU, who told me that they had no basis for challenging the college's action, and the AAUP, who said that their guidelines for academic freedom instruct colleges to provide either verbal or written reasons (whichever the employee requests) in cases when tenure track is terminated without job-related cause.

At my lawyer's advice, I also appealed to Belmont Abbey's Professional Affairs committee — the only court of appeals the faculty has in cases such as mine. When I did so, I found that the dean had instructed the committee chair not to allow my case to be heard, because the reasons for my dismissal were "non-academic," and had said that in any case the committee had no prerogative to hear such cases. I pointed out that the college handbook does indeed give the committee the right to hear such cases, and that the dean's statement about the purported reason for my termination was, to say the least, prejudicial. The committee then let me bring my case before it.

At the committee hearing, the monastic member of the committee (who is also a board member and a former president of the college) came to the meeting prepared to put me on trial. He stated that the administration had probably given me the terminal contract because I had "been a pain" to the dean and president, and that they did not want to hurt my feelings by telling me so! He also cited things I had purportedly said in conversation with the dean, and a letter I had written the dean, which is in my file and which the committee member had read without my permission, as indicators that I "did not belong" at Belmont Abbey College.** 

In response to this, I noted that at Belmont Abbey I had been subjected to harassment I had never encountered in any of the eight institutions in which I had taught previously as a graduate student or full-time faculty member — e.g., students in my classes at BAC told me they had been interrogated by other faculty members about what I taught in my classes (and in particular about whether I taught a "political christology"), and a chapter of my book on ethics had appeared mysteriously on the desks of selected faculty members with purported errors in the text marked in red. I said that it was rather difficult to have a sense of "belonging" in such a context. The committee member responded that I was overreacting to what were public comments on my theology equivalent to negative reviews of books in journals!

The same monastic member of the committee also noted several times that I had failed to heed advice given me by the monk who taught half-time in the department, and in this way had ignored the wishes of the monastic community regarding the department. This seemed rather strange to me on three counts. First, since the abbot had refused to see me to discuss anything regarding the department, I was acutely aware that there were no open channels of communication between the theology department and the monastery. How could I be held accountable for not having received monastic signals, when these signals were given in such a murky way?

In the second place, why ought the theology department to be considered some sort of monastic possession? Few of the monks have more than the most rudimentary theological education. Yet, since I was the first lay chair of the department, there seemed to be some sense on the part of the monastery that it was losing control of what had belonged to it. Attempts were clearly being made to assert that control in covert ways, ways that circumvented dialogic interaction between the theology department and the monastic community, and that thus assured a unilateral control of the monastery over the department, without any public acknowledgment of that control — an unhealthy arrangement, to say the least, one calculated to protect the covert abuse of power.

Third, why ought the chair of a department to do what a part-time member of his/her department tells him/her to do? I always took into consideration the advice of the monastic member of the department, as I have done with the advice of any faculty member in the two departments I have chaired. I did not, however, receive this advice as if it constrained me to act only as I was told to act.

An example — one that illustrates the deep underlying tensions with regard to the theology department and the monastic community — was the department's choice to select a new text for its introductory course, which had been redesigned at the end of the first year I was at the college. When this decision was made, I wrote away for some ten possible texts and made these available to all department members. After we had reviewed the texts, we met in the summer to select a new text. The monastic member of the department wanted a text that I considered too abstruse for our students, who are generally not very well prepared for college and minimally theologically literate. The text was also, I should note, a decidedly conservative presentation of Catholic belief.

After reviewing all the texts I had ordered, the two us in the department who were full-time members voted for Hill, Knitter, and Madge's Faith, Religion, and Theology, which seemed to be a very apt choice for our students, and which highlights the peace and justice dimensions of religious belief. But once the text began to be used, both the half-time monastic member of the department and a monk who taught the introductory course alone began to complain about the "lack of theological content" in the text. I suggested that if there was concern about this, all instructors in the course (which I was myself teaching, without the reservations of the two monks and with a satisfying response on the part of students) could augment the Hill, Knitter, and Madge text with Monika Hellwig's What Are the Theologians Saying?, which had just been republished. I also gave the monastic member of the department a copy of a press release showing that the Hill, Knitter, and Madge text had been voted by the Catholic Press Association the outstanding educational book of 1991. He was eager to bring this back to the monastery — an act that indicated to me that his reservations about the text were intended to channel to me general monastic disdain for the textbook. 

All this seems to underlie the charge of the monastic member of the Professional Affairs committee that I had failed to listen to the monk in the theology department. Yet even with the attempt of the monastic member of the Professional Affairs committee to prejudice, on the administration's behalf, what should have been a court of appeals from an administrative decision, the committee voted unanimously to have the college administration give me a reason for the termination of my tenure track.

Some days after the committee meeting, the committee chair and I met with the president. In that meeting, he informed me that he had given me the reason for the terminal contract on March 30 (!), and he denied having told me that he had been instructed by ACE not to disclose the reason!! The reason he claimed to have given me on March 30 was that I had "verbally resigned" in a conversation with the dean. I most certainly never did any such thing.

On March 30, the college president had stated that I had "initiated the process" of receiving a terminal contract by "verbally resigning." As he said this, however, he added that there was a reason for the terminal contract, and ACE had advised him not to disclose it.

The claim that I had verbally resigned was curious, in and of itself. In response to baffling roadblocks I had experienced in the 1992-93 academic year when I proposed to begin planning an adult theological education center at the college (about which more below), I had expressed misgivings about remaining at the college. The president had then asked me to tell him what I wished to do, and I had written a letter telling him that I had just received my student evaluations from the fall semester, they were glowing, and I felt I was making a valuable contribution to the college.  

Around this time, a highly respected faculty member who had been brought into the discussion by the administration asked the president what he ought to advise me regarding my future at the college. He tells me that the president told him that he could not support a theological education center for "confidential political reasons" (as the president had also informed me), but that if I wished to make a career at Belmont Abbey, I could do so.

As my lawyer has noted, this chain of events makes the claim that I had earned a terminal contract by verbally resigning simply ridiculous.

The next installment (i.e., the continuation) of this letter is here. The final installment is here.

*This is Placid Solari, now the abbot of Belmont Abbey.

**A member of the committee later told me that the dean had actually handed my personnel file to a member of the committee to circulate among other members of the committee prior to the committee hearing, an action that is ethically inappropriate and probably not even legal.

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