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AAUP denounces Meinrad officials

NCR Staff

The American Association of University Professors has denounced the administration of St. Meinrad School of Theology, St. Meinrad, Ind., charging the school violated its adopted principles of academic freedom and its own faculty constitution.

The denunciation stems from the firing in May 1995 of a tenured theology professor, Mercy Sr. Carmel McEnroy, without due process, according to the AAUP.

The association's findings, set forth in a 6,000-word article in the July-August issue of Academe, accuse Archbishop Daniel Mark Buechlein of Indianapolis of playing a major behind-the-scenes role in McEnroy's dismissal for "public dissent" from church teaching on women's ordination.

St. Meinrad dismissed the report in a prepared statement as "not worthy of an association of professional academics," and Buechlein rejected the claim that he manipulated events as "outright fabrication." His 1,000-word rebuttal is also published in the latest issue of Academe.

The school's administrators, who describe the firing as a "church matter" outside the boundaries of academic freedom, had refused to cooperate in the association's investigation in February that led to the report, or to comment on a draft of the report.

McEnroy, fired for signing an open letter to Pope John Paul II calling for continued discussion on women's ordination, is fighting her dismissal with a suit filed in federal court on May 22. She says she had been promoted and praised for her work throughout her 14 years of teaching at the Catholic seminary.

McEnroy was fired by president-rector Benedictine Fr. Eugene Hensell, whom she describes as previously a supporter of her work, acting under a directive of Benedictine Archabbot Timothy Sweeney and following a visit by a team of bishops under the auspices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, investigators for the academic association concluded that "the crisis could have been created only by Archbishop Buechlein." The report accused him of orchestrating events behind the scenes while in a position to withdraw many students "with the likelihood that his actions would severely damage the reputation of the school and result in further loss of students."

The report described the firing process as "a subterfuge" designed "to minimize the school's legal liability" in the matter by calling it a church matter.

Buechlein, a member of the Benedictine order that operates St. Meinrad and a former president-rector of the school, said the "conspiracy theory" was "the stuff of melodrama" and potentially libelous.

Jonathan Knight, the organization's associate secretary, said the report could lead to formal censure of the school at a national meeting next June. Meanwhile, he said, its role would be to work toward a resolution of the case.

The organization, devoted to preserving academic freedom, has 44,000 members and a current list of about 50 colleges and universities under censure for violations.

The association played a major role in developing the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure -- principles adopted by St. Meinrad when Buechlein was president and published in its faculty handbook.

No warning

According to the report, McEnroy was dismissed with neither warning nor due process after her signature appeared among hundreds on the open letter, sponsored by the Women's Ordination Conference and published in NCR Nov. 4, 1994. The letter was a response to the pope's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which stated that the church's ban on women priests was to be held definitively and was not open to debate.

McEnroy said signing the letter, without reference to her St. Meinrad affiliation, was within her rights as a citizen under principles of academic freedom.

The AAUP committee concurred. Her dismissal, according to the report, was an act of injustice that had both undercut the school's published philosophy supporting academic freedom and seriously undermined morale at the school.

After McEnroy was fired, another tenured professor, St. Louis Sr. Bridget Clare McKeever, resigned. The result, according to the association's report: "At the start of the 1994-95 academic year there were two women in full-time teaching positions at the St. Meinrad School of Theology. By the end of the year there were none."

McKeever told AAUP investigators: "When Carmel's professional life and ministry was so obviously used as a bargaining chip between ecclesiastical power brokers, I realized my ethical boundaries were being stretched beyond their limits. I had no option but to resign."

Buechlein served as president-rector of St. Meinrad from 1972 to 1987 before becoming bishop of Memphis and then, in 1992, as archbishop of Indianapolis, overseeing a territory that includes the seminary.

Among his first acts as archbishop, Buechlein scheduled a formal visit to St. Meinrad and, according to the AAUP report, complained to president-rector Hensell that the faculty had a reputation for graduating students who questioned authority and openly supported female priests. In March 1995, two months before McEnroy was fired, a team from the NCCB headed by Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., spent several days at the school.

According to the academic association's report, "the administration insisted in its correspondence and public statements that the dismissal was not an academic matter at all: It was a church matter," and thus the provisions for due process in the school's adopted statement of principles and in its faculty constitution "did not apply."

Regarding the effect on morale at St. Meinrad, the report said, "Goodwill among faculty members has been diluted by fear and distrust, for what are academic freedom, tenure, and due process if they can simply be brushed aside" at the discretion of a local bishop or a school's administration? "If faculty pride in St. Meinrad has suffered a setback, the reason is evident, since few if any of the faculty could have imagined that their ecclesiastical and administrative superiors would commit such an injustice."

The committee expressed dismay at these effects, saying St. Meinrad "appears to have been, for many years, a happy and congenial place, moderate in its outlook, farsighted in its administration and varied in its faculty composition. ... The dismissal of Professor McEnroy, and particularly the way in which the dismissal was effected, violated not only the regulations, but also the very spirit of the school."

Internal church matter

Hensell resigned from his post in February, saying it was "a mark of a good leader" to know when to move on. In a telephone interview July 31, he said he resigned "for personal reasons" and not to protest McEnroy's firing. Regarding the AAUP report, he said, "I did not talk to them, but I didn't think they understood what our position has been, that it is an internal church matter that really doesn't concern them."

St. Meinrad's officials said in their prepared statement that the report "questions the motives and integrity of a number of church leaders in a manner that is unfounded and defamatory. And the church's position, when discussed at all, is treated with derision." The statement also cited "factual errors" but said officials had decided against making corrections in the draft because they did not want to acknowledge that the association "has jurisdiction over this church decision."

McEnroy said she considered the report "well done."

In his published rebuttal, Buechlein expressed "shock and amazement" that it "falsely accuses" him of subterfuge and rejected the AAUP's finding that he had handpicked Curtiss, a staunch conservative, to lead the visiting bishops. The committee's findings, he wrote, consist of "outrageous claims" based on "the conjecture, hearsay and outright fabrication of one or more angry faculty members."

St. Meinrad officials involved with the case "would never allow themselves or the Benedictine community at St. Meinrad to be manipulated behind the scenes by a Machiavellian archbishop," he wrote.

Buechlein said he had no hand in McEnroy's dismissal, although, he said, he has had "concerns about the content of some of Dr. McEnroy's teaching." He said he had communicated his concerns directly to her during his tenure as president-rector, a contention that McEnroy says is "a lie."

Never heard concerns

McEnroy said she had been unaware until reading Buechlein's published rebuttal that he had concerns about her teaching. "He says that in the mid-1980s he communicated his concerns directly to me, informing me that he would dismiss me if I ever taught or assumed a public position contrary to the teaching of the church or the pope," she said. "That is a lie. If he had concerns, he never communicated such concerns to me.

"He never talked to me about my teaching, so anything he knew about it was hearsay," she added.

According to the report, Buechlein not only hired McEnroy as assistant professor in 1981. He reappointed her for a seven-year term in 1983, writing, "You have become a valuable member of our faculty and have won the genuine respect of our students."

B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP, said Buechlein's apparent role in McEnroy's dismissal is a cause for serious concern because the tradition in higher education is that colleges and universities are autonomous institutions.

"To the extent that seminaries are part of the church, the argument could be made by ecclesiastical and seminary officials that the seminary had an obligation to deal with what it considered to be public dissent in the way its rules provide. The concern we had in this particular case was that the seminary in its handbook incorporated the 1940 principles of academic freedom and gave every indication it wished to be viewed as an academic institution not apart from other academic institutions. From our perspective, the argument that these are matters that come under ecclesiastical authority is troubling and not persuasive."

The list of institutions under AAUP censure includes The Catholic University of America in Washington, where Fr. Charles Curran, moral theologian, came under fire from the Vatican for his teaching on sexual ethics. Curran was ousted in 1987 from Catholic University's theology department, which is chartered by the Vatican. He now teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996