In a stunning development for California’s oldest institution of higher learning, Santa Clara University President Rev. Kevin O’Brien has been placed on leave pending an investigation into reports of unspecified impropriety.
O’Brien, 54, who became Santa Clara University’s 29th president two years ago and presided over a Mass attended by president-elect Joe Biden in January before he was sworn in, has agreed to cooperate fully with the investigation, said a notice from John Sobrato, chair of the University Board of Trustees.
Sobrato’s note said the university was informed that the Jesuit Provincial Office “recently received accounts that Father O’Brien exhibited behaviors in adult settings, consisting primarily of conversations, which may be inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries.”
A private institution that has been ranked in the top 25 for undergraduate teaching nationwide, Santa Clara University follows the educational tenets of the Jesuits, an order of the Catholic Church that numbers more than a hundred universities around the world.
“The Board of Trustees takes these accounts seriously,” Sobrato’s notice continued. “We respect the need for a thorough investigation and support the actions being taken by the USA West Province Office. We reserve any further action on the part of the trustees until we have fully reviewed the final results of the investigation.”
O’Brien did not immediately answer his phone or respond to a request for comment.
Tracey Primrose, spokeswoman for the Jesuits West Province, which is overseeing the investigation, did not provide details of the alleged behavior beyond what was relayed in Sobrato’s notice.
“Jesuits are held to a professional code of conduct, and the Province investigates allegations that may violate or compromise established boundaries,” Primrose said. She would not elaborate.
“As with any organization,” Primrose continued, “the Jesuits West Province has confidentiality practices, which is why I cannot provide any additional information regarding this matter.”
Santa Clara University alumni and board members who received the statement in their inboxes Thursday morning expressed shock.
“I’m not sure what’s going on — I’m really surprised,” said Norman Kline, a member of the university’s Board of Fellows, a fundraising group, and a former mayor of Saratoga. O’Brien, he said, was well liked and impressed the community when he embarked on a “listening tour” after his inauguration.
“He’s terrific,” Kline said. “I think everybody liked him.”
But without specific details spelled out in the letter, speculation coursed through campus Thursday, Kline said.
“I think it could have been more open,” Kline said of the statement. “But it’s important to have some type of process where he is protected as far as his reputation is concerned and other people’s reputations are protected, too.”
Santa Clara University, established in 1851, currently enrolls more than 8,000 students; Governors Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown are among its alumni. O’Brien, who before being named president was dean of SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, has been a frequent commentator on church issues for MSNBC, CNN and the Washington Post and has written extensively about church reforms in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal.
Born in Montreal, Canada, O’Brien became an American citizen in 1988 at age 22 and earned an undergraduate degree in government that year from Georgetown University, followed by a law degree from the University of Florida.
But after exploring a career in law and politics, O’Brien accepted a job as a teacher at Cardinal Newman Catholic high school in West Palm Beach, Florida. He entered the Jesuit order in 1996 when he was 29 and was ordained in 2006.
O’Brien has been a friend of President Biden for about 15 years, having met him while he was serving for eight years at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where Joe and Jill Biden sometimes attended Mass. O’Brien also presided over Mass for Biden and his family in both 2009 and 2013 when he was sworn in as vice president….
The above comes from a March 18 story in the Mercury News.