The list, released by the Province, contained the names of 42 Jesuits, 17 of whom are linked to St. Louis, and 12 who had at one point been assigned to SLUH. Five of the 12 SLUH assigned Jesuits were at the school during their estimated abuse periods (based on dates of known, credible accusations). The five men are Brother Richard H. Witzofsky, SJ (deceased); John Campbell, SJ, (deceased); Dennis P. Kirchoff, SJ; George M. Pieper, SJ (deceased); and Paul C. Pilgram, SJ. The latter four were ordained priests.
According to a letter from Carruthers to alumni, the first known credible abuse instance at SLUH occurred in the 1960s and the most recent known instance of abuse occurred in the early 1990s.
Because of the gravity of the list, its implications, and possible responses, Carruthers and Gibbons addressed the faculty and staff the evening of Thursday, Dec. 6 to prepare them to address the topic with students.
Some priests, such as Campbell and Pilgram, both of whom had already been credibly accused, were not a surprise to see named. However, others listed, who were known in the SLUH community as teachers, coaches, and mentors, shocked many SLUH alumni, faculty, and staff.
The following day, Dec. 7, sophomores, juniors and seniors were addressed during the first 20 minutes of activity period while freshmen were addressed after their class Mass. Because of time restrictions and age, the freshmen were given a shorter and more generalized address.
“We wanted to address (the students) to make sure that they knew this announcement was coming,” said Gibbons. “They knew in a very general sense that it was coming, but to give them a little more detail before the names were released and so they wouldn’t be completely blindsided by this and so they would have the chance to speak to us about it and to get a better sense of the scope and the process that the Jesuits have.”
“Obviously the topic was hard to understand and comprehend,” said senior Charlie Steenberge. “The gravity of the situation is such a big deal, and you don’t expect it coming from something with so much power like the Catholic Church. We always think that we’re ‘the exception to the rule,’ when it comes to bad stuff happening, but in this case we’ve been shown that we’re no exception.”
Despite the administration’s efforts to provide students with a sense of security and clarity, some students felt they had been shortchanged by the information they were given, feeling that the address had trivialized the release of the information. One student voiced frustration that despite the August release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report SLUH administration is just now addressing its students.
“In general, I think it was way too late,” said senior Patrick Finlay. “They needed to say something way earlier because I think that if they’re going to preach that faith should be such a big part of our life, then when something happens that’s a big deal around the Catholic Church, it should be treated like a big deal and it really wasn’t. They waited to say something.”
“People need to understand how big of a deal this is. They need to understand that they are going to the same place that (28) years ago, these (abusers) were here. I think that when you actually know that, that’s pretty alarming. So most kids just hear ‘sex abuse scandal’ and they’re like ‘oh, that never even comes near me.’ Well, it was in your school (28) years ago.”
Carruthers felt it was his job to alert the students of the list before they ever saw it through the media. His main goal of addressing the student body was “awareness” and the reassurance that SLUH is a “safe place.” He also asked students to not respond to the list via social media or media agencies.
Because of a confidentiality agreement between Carruthers and the Province, administration did not address the student body until the morning that the report was publicly released. However, despite the abuse occurring before any current SLUH student was born, administration and faculty feel that they must maintain awareness, avoid cynicism, and achieve reconciliation.
“I think a bigger part of the impact for SLUH is for alumni. For these boys, none of them were born at the time when any of these guys were working here, so there’s as not as much of a direct impact on the students,” said Theology Department chair Jonathan Ott. “Certainly for alums, who knew these men and in many cases respected them, that’s a really difficult revelation to come out.”
The release of the list was published when many theology classes were discussing the Catholic Church clerical sexual-abuse scandal. Since the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August, the Theology Department and administration have been working to address the scandal and help students navigate it.
“(W)e as a Theology Department, with support from the administration, decided to address the issue of sexual abuse and the sexual abuse crisis and we spent a lot of our time working as a department to create curriculum to figure out how to change this stuff. I would say that in about half of our classes, we had already done that shortly before this list came out and about the other half our classes were actually scheduled to teach it last week, so some students might have gotten that announcement that activity period and gone to that theology class and learned more about it,” said Ott.
Gibbons encourages each person to not give up faith despite the dark news.
“To someone who is not a Catholic or someone who is really struggling with their Catholic faith because of this, I would simply say that the Church is a human institution,” said Gibbons. “It’s made up of people that are just like anyone else that knows they need God’s grace and are seeking a structure where we can gain that. To claim that (the Church is) anything other than that is not only theologically wrong, but it’s not helpful, and we do hold ourselves to a standard that says this should never happen and when it does we have to be honest about that.”
As with the response to the August report, school safety protocols are currently in review.
“There’s always ongoing commitment to improvement. Safety is not a place where you say ‘well it’s just good enough,’” said Gibbons. “In the past few years what we’ve been doing for safety at SLUH, is making changes that had never been really part of our culture. We’re going to continue to do those and same with making sure our students are safe. We will do that as well, and that will include everything from the ways we vet, and hire, and retain faculty and staff, and the ways that we train Jesuits, the ways that we even bring volunteers into the building. Every element to that will be a source of ongoing review and improvement.”
“The last thought we would have is that ‘this hasn’t happened in decades so we’re fine.’ Our thought is this is a horrific part of our past that we have to be able to own, and part of owning that is being able to own that is being able to state clearly, honestly, and impactfully, what we’re doing to make sure that we protect the most vulnerable of society,” said Gibbons.
In the spring of 2019, the Central and Southern Province is expected to release a comprehensive and detailed report of any known abuse within the Province. The non-comprehensive report released last Friday was for the Province to be transparent and proactive and to avoid having people stumble upon seemingly withheld information regarding sexual abuse in the Society. In his letter to alumni, Carruthers said SLUH would be committed to cooperating with law enforcement and any investigations that may ensue.
“Be assured that if there ever were an investigation, we and the Province will fully cooperate with law enforcement in pursuing justice regarding any credible allegation of abuse at SLUH, and we will fully cooperate with the review by Kinsale Management (the Province-hired, third party consultants),” wrote Carruthers.
“One of my great hopes is that SLU High, the Jesuits, the stakeholders of SLUH, and really the whole population of the country can use this as a process and a standard for dealing with again an endemic problem of society,” said Gibbons. “It’s high time that we make a firm line and address it. If we can be a part of that, there is a grace beneath the horror of this.”