Tuesday, October 20, 2015

More of My Story: 1993 Letter That "Went Everywhere," According to Abbot Who Accused Me of Assaulting Him by Telling My Story — A Sequel

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

In the past three days, I've posted (in three installments — here, here, and here) a letter I sent to friends and colleagues in September 1993, explaining why I had resigned my position at Belmont Abbey College after I was given a one-year terminal contract for which the college officials refused to provide a reason. This is a sequel to that letter I sent to the same friends and colleagues in February 1994 — an update to the September letter:

Since I circulated my September 29th letter, several events have occurred that deserve to be added to the chronicle of my encounter with Belmont Abbey College.

First, after my resignation in August, 1993, I applied for N.C. unemployment benefits. When I did so, the state contacted Belmont Abbey College — a usual procedure — to ask whether the college had any statement regarding my resignation.

The college's business office sent a letter saying that I had turned down a bona fide job offer. The effect of the letter (an effect the college would have surely anticipated) was to block my application for unemployment, since state law does not permit one to draw unemployment benefits when one has rejected a good-faith job offer.

The college certainly had the option not to send such a letter to the state regarding me. Why it did so is, of course, a matter of speculation. It might be that it wishes to build a case that prohibits my claiming that there had been a conflict situation, in case of future legal action on my part.  

On the other hand, many faculty at the college who know about this incident see the college's sending such a letter as an act of gratuitous vengeance, as the college's attempt to punish me even after I have resigned. I am told that, although other faculty members have received the kind of treatment I received at the college, I am the first who ever made an issue of it. Others simply disappeared, and no one knew what had happened to them. Because I have tried to fight back, faculty members think that I have earned even added hostility on the part of the college administration and monks.

At my lawyer's advice, I appealed the state's decision to deny me unemployment benefits. A hearing was held in the local office of the state unemployment commission. The chair of BAC's humanities division came to testify on my behalf, as did the chair of the business department. The humanities chair testified that in 1992-93, I had had the highest student evaluations of any humanities faculty member — something I had suspected, but not known until that time. The business chair testified that the college president had told him as late as February, 1993, that I could make a career at BAC, if I were willing to accept his withdrawal of support for a theology center.

The college sent as its witness a low-ranking employee in the business office, who had been at the college only one year. She testified that I had resigned after having been offered a contract for the 1993-94 academic year.  

The officer who heard the case was persistently confused about why I had resigned. Despite numerous attempts on the part of my lawyer and two witnesses to explain that I had not had a tenure hearing and had not been turned down for tenure, he insisted on thinking that I had been rejected for tenure and had resigned because I did not want to teach my final year after the rejection. It seemed impossible to get the officer to understand that I had never been reviewed by a jury of my peers, that my tenure-track position was being terminated without stated reason and after I had done an outstanding job, and that all this had occurred by administrative fiat. The college's witness added to the confusion by stating that she did not know whether I had or had not had a tenure hearing — a really amazing thing for her to assert, when she has to have known I had not been at the college nearly long enough even to apply for tenure.

The officer ruled in favor of the college — not surprising, in view of the fact that N.C. is a "right-to-work" state which tends to give the benefit of the doubt to employers, in conflict situations. At my lawyer's advice, I appealed this decision to the state board, and in December received word that this board upheld the local office's judgment.

The upshot is, of course, that I am without any benefits of any kind, and have no health coverage, since I cannot afford to buy that. Several faculty members at BAC came to me in the fall to offer to loan money to me, and that (with a loan from my family), has made it barely possible for me to get by this winter.

What is very hard to accept is the silence of the monastery in the face of what seems to me to be such an unjust, uncharitable action. With all their economic security, how the monks can continue to uphold a college administration that behaves as this administration continues to behave towards me — that is difficult for me to understand. Unless, of course, the monks are at the very center of what has been done to me, as I have sadly come to conclude . . . .

Ever since I resigned from the college, a group of faculty members have constantly asked about my well being, but only one monk has sought to keep in touch with me, and his intent is to leave the community. All the other monks treat both Steve Schafer and me as pariahs, and we have no idea why we have merited such treatment.

In the fall, after my resignation, Steve invited a monk to dinner at our house. This was after a year of promises on Steve's part to extend such an invitation to this monk; but no date that suited all parties had been found. The monk accepted the invitation. But the night before the dinner was to take place, he called to say that he would feel uncomfortable being with us, because of what had been done to us by the college!

(Note in 2015: this monk later left the monastery to protest what had been done to us, and after he left the monastery, he told us that he had been given orders by the abbot and sub-prior not to go to dinner at our house. A novice who left the community and whom I had taught also come to me to apologize that he had not spoken to me on the campus when I said hello to him several times. He, too, told me that the novice master, who was the sub-prior and is now the monastic abbot, forbade all novices to speak to me.)

Perhaps it would be easier to bear the sense of being unclean, if one knew precisely what it was that had made one unclean. But to be told by people who represent the Lord who ate with outcasts that one has been unjustly made unclean, yet still ought not to be eaten with, that is really difficult to understand. To recognize that one is so alien to the Christian community that one is judged unworthy of table fellowship or economic sustenance, that is dehumanizing in a very decisive way.

This treatment has made Steve and me unable to want to share eucharistic fellowship with the monks, because we feel so unwelcome that it seems to break the bread of faith with the community is to pretend that a relationship of love exists, when it does not. It is painful to celebrate eucharist with a community, when one feels that no real community is present — painful not merely because of one's sense of exclusion, but because the very symbolism of the celebration is so grossly violated that the ritual seems to be divorced from all that it intends to proclaim.

At the very least, what has happened to us makes the claim of this Benedictine community to value hospitality very problematic. This hospitality seems very conditional. It seems to require that one approach the community as a broken sinner who receives the largesse of the community with penitent thanks, and that one accept gladly the whip strokes with which the bread is doled out. I don't say all this to make mean judgments about the members of the community, to whose hearts I have no access, and whom God alone must judge. I say it to indicate what the experience of exclusion has been for me, from my standpoint.

Again, perhaps it would be easier to adopt such an attitude if we had been informed of our crime....

The spring semester, 1993, was a foreshadowing of all this for me. Before Christmas, I had been invited to give a seminar to the monastic novices, and to lector in the spring at the Sunday liturgies. In the spring, I was never asked to give the seminar, nor was I ever asked to lector. And it was not as if the monastery did not know of this "oversight," because I mentioned them to the sub-prior. All this gave me the feeling that I had overstepped some boundary line — perhaps by speaking to the press in December, 1992, about feminist interpretations of the Virgin Mary? — and that word had gone out that I was to be shunned. When I passed monks in the hallways of the college in the spring semester, 1993, I had the distinct impression that I was regarded as unclean, not to be spoken to.

In addition to blocking my application for unemployment benefits, the college has continued to pursue me vengefully in another way even after I resigned. On November 16, 1993, a former student called to tell me of a conversation he had just had with the college president.

The student had seen the president in the college library, and had asked to talk with him about what had been done to me.  The president invited him to talk outside the library.  According to the student, the president told him that

▪ I had come into his office in December, 1992, and thrown down on his desk a letter of  resignation;

▪ I had asked for a sabbatical; 

▪ On several occasions, I had called him at home after midnight to "seek his counsel";

▪ he had protected me when the bishop was upset regarding comments I had made to the press;

▪ he had gone "toe to toe" with two trustees who wanted to see me fired;

▪ I had failed to "court" the "people who run the school";
▪ I had gotten too involved in "non-academic" matters;

▪ in addition to all this, "there were questions of lifestyle."

The first three allegations are simply untrue. I never submitted any letter of resignation to anyone before my August letter of resignation. I never asked for a sabbatical. I did ask for permission to seek funding to permit me release from teaching and administrative duties in order to work for a year planning a theology center. In the two years I was at the college, I called the president at his home only one time, at about 7 P.M., because a conflict had arisen regarding the dating of the John Wilcox lecture I mention in the preceding document. I would simply never call a college president at his house for any reason unless the situation were serious enough to warrant this, and I am certainly not in the habit of calling anyone after midnight — not after 9 P.M., for that matter.

As to the allegations regarding the bishop and pressure from trustees, these are things the president categorically denied when I asked him about them. I have no idea what the statements regarding non-academic matters and my not courting the people who run the school, mean. The shot regarding lifestyle is a cheap, unprofessional, unethical one, I have to say. If this had ever been a concern, why was I not informed of it? What business does a college president have saying such a thing to a student?

The student is reliable, in my opinion. He is an adult student who did his degree while working full-time, and has always impressed me as a guileless person. He called me immediately after his conversation with the college president, and he tells me that he wrote down what the president said shortly after that.

At around the same time that this conversation occurred, the faculty met. I am told by a number of faculty members that in the meeting, the business chair expressed concern that the college president has circumvented democratic procedure by setting up committees answerable to him alone. I am told that after this faculty member spoke, the monk in the theology department (who is sub-prior and is said to be being groomed to be the next abbot)* got up and said with evident anger, "Dr. Brosnan is the president, and we ought to let him make the decisions."

About the same time, one of the people whom I had contacted to be a lecturer in a projected theology lecture series for the summer of 1993 (which did not occur, due to lack of enrollment) sent me a copy of a letter she had just received from this monk. Despite the fact that I had done the vast bulk of the work to put this lecture series together, the monk had informed me in the summer of 1993 that he wanted to see the lecture series take place in the summer of 1994, but that I was not to have anything to do with putting it together for that summer. All was to be channeled through the monastery and the department of continuing education.

I reminded the monk that I had done most of the work putting the 1993 series together, and that, when a proposal was made to revive the lecture series (which had taken place up through the late 1970s at the college), an agreement had been that the series was to be under the sponsorship of the theology department and continuing education. I understood that this was to be the case, because the interference of the abbot had caused a previous lecture series to fail. Though the series was ostensibly under the sponsorship of the theology department (and drew such nationally known theologians as Charles Curran), the monastery's attempt to assert control over it had resulted in such tensions that the series had been discontinued. I also asked the monk how the theology department could sponsor such a series again, when it had been effectively dismantled, with my receiving a terminal contract and dismissal as chair, actions he had not protested.

Despite my questions, the monk has continued to project the continuation of this lecture series for 1994. He has even contacted the speakers I had lined up for the 1993 series. It was one of these who sent me the copy of the letter from the monk. She had refused to take part in the series as an act of solidarity with me, and had written the monk to say that she understood the lecture series had, in the past, been an example of free and faithful theological discourse, and hoped they would be in future, if they are revived.

The monk replied to this letter by writing to the lecturer, saying that he took her remarks as an implicit criticism of the college, and that she ought to come and judge for herself what the "atmosphere" of the college is like.

Where does all this leave Steve Schafer and me? I have exhausted all attempts to gain any sort of justice through the legal system or academic channels. I have contacted the Assoc. of Catholic Colleges and Universities, to be told that this organization does not have a grievance procedure for those whose academic freedom is violated.

I have also written the National Catholic Educational Association, to be told that they do not normally receive such complaints, either, but that practically all their member institutions adhere to AAUP academic freedom guidelines.

I have also lodged a complaint with the Southern Assoc. of Colleges, which is now pending.** Frankly, I do not have high hopes that this body will intervene. The president's conversation with the former student in November makes me even more crucially aware of the capacity of the college administration to lie boldly about my case. If one is lied about, how can one defend oneself? I am reminded of the story told by a patristic confessor: when someone came to him to say that he had gossiped about someone else, the confessor told the penitent to throw a handful of straws into the wind and go pick all of them up. The penitent replied that this was impossible. The confessor told the penitent, "It is even so with malicious lies told about others."

In a situation in which the injustice done to us seems so glaring that we wonder why we have so few advocates (we think of parallels between what can still happen to gay people in our society and the Nazi period in Germany, when well-meaning people stood by as Jews and others were rounded up), the only recourse Steve and I feel we now have is to go more and more public with our story. We are thinking and praying about this step, and would welcome advice. In some sense, if we do tell the story more publicly, our "victory" (or justice) is bound to by a Pyrrhic one, because we will have claimed a stigma that it has been in the interest of the college and monastery to attach to us.

On the other hand, what does anyone have, except one's story? If I cannot be a theologian and tell my story, claim my story, I'm not sure I want to be a theologian anymore. To trust my story seems to me to be an act of trusting the grace that has been in my life.

As I think about this, I am more and more convinced that such "problematic" stories as ours are not primarily problematic for us, but for the church. That is, I have long ago crossed whatever bridge I had to cross in order to reconcile my "lifestyle" with being a Christian, or being a Christian theologian. And since crossing that bridge, I have seen too many signs of grace to allow me to deny that God has led me or been in my life. To deny that, I would have to deny the very foundations of my existence.

The complexities with which I live now are, I am convinced, very much superimposed ones, ones that come either from active malice on the part of those who ought to listen more, and express condemnation less, or from passive malice on the part of those who have not stretched their imaginations to imagine the human reality of the lives of those they so readily dismiss with labels. In either case, it seems to me that I have an obligation to tell the story, and let the church deal with the problems it continues to create for people such as me.

By "church," I also mean, of course, the Catholic theological establishment in North America. The kinds of questions our story raises are ones that this establishment still too often refuses to entertain. But they are questions that must be entertained, and must be heard more and more, I think, as the Catholic theological establishment in North America becomes more and more diverse. There are still too many hidden barriers to advancement for gay and lesbian lay theologians in our theological establishment, too many crippling silences. We have to sit through too many theological discussions of justice and empowerment of the marginal, in which a very strange lacuna occurs with regard to the question of injustices done to gay and lesbian persons.  

Or we have to hear all too often that the cause of gay and lesbian rights is legitimated only insofar as this (bourgeois?  self-indulgent?) cause can ride on the backs of other presumably more legitimate causes, such as the advancement of "unjustly" marginalized groups. Perhaps the question of gay and lesbian rights is a bourgeois or self-indulgent one. Perhaps gay and lesbian people ought not to press for rights with the same confidence that other groups have of receiving a hearing on the part of the churches. But how can we make such judgments if we do not permit gay and lesbian people even to speak, without fear of reductionism, stigmatization, loss of job security, etc.? Shouldn't such judgments be made after meaningful dialogue has occurred? Otherwise, what is to prevent these judgments from being covertly homophobic ones?

These are some of the questions with which Steve and I are now dealing, as we think about whether (and how) to make our story more public. If you have responses or suggestions, we would welcome them.  hanks again for lending a listening ear.

P.S. I have to append a note about something that has touched me very much, and has given me hope. Last week, a student I had taught in the Loyola Institute of Ministry, who had heard of what had happened to me, sent me $500.00 out of the blue. What made this even more touching was that I do not feel I really know this student well. I had taught her one class, and had done an independent study with her by mail after I came to Belmont. Her letter accompanying the gift says that I have given so much to her and other students, that she had long asked herself how she could give something back, and my present situation gives her the idea of a way that she can do so. In the midst of the darkness through which I am now walking, what is so meaningful about this extraordinary gift is its affirmation of me as a teacher....

Shortly after receiving this check, I got a call from the Loyola Institute for Ministry extension group in Charlotte. They, too, had heard of my plight and want to arrange a "solidarity night" in April….

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

*SACS is, quite frankly, a joke when matters of academic freedom are under consideration. It has a long history of giving free rein to church-affiliated schools to violate the academic freedom of faculty, and it has a well-documented history of actually facilitating the harassment of faculty who protest violations of their academic freedom by church-related schools. Its chief officers adamantly refuse to open up any discussion of the violation of the rights of LGBT faculty, in particular, in SACS-accredited schools, many of which are church-affiliated. If anything, these patterns have become more rather than less evident during the current tenure of President Belle Wheelan of the SACS Commission on Colleges, an African-American woman who should, one would think, understand what prejudice and discrimination are about and how they affect human beings.

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