e-mail us
Dean’s resignation stirs Catholic University debate

NCR Staff

The dean of the School of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, noted biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Collins, resigned May 21 under contested circumstances.

Collins says he was forced out because of his stand on a sexual harassment claim brought by an office worker against a faculty member, while the university says Collins had lost his colleagues’ confidence as a manager. Others believe the resignation is related to ongoing debate over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 papal document calling for greater control over Catholic colleges by church authorities (NCR, May 25).

Both Collins and the university agree that the resignation followed statements by administrators to Collins to the effect that if he did not step down he could be fired.

The School of Religious Studies encompasses five departments: Theology, Church History, Canon Law, Biblical Studies and Religious Education. Collins was midway through his second four-year term as dean.

The new president of Catholic University, Vincentian Fr. David O’Connell, has a reputation as a conservative on most church issues. Collins is seen as moderate-to-liberal; he signed a document dissenting from Humanae Vitae in 1968 and also signed the 1989 “Cologne Declaration” calling for greater academic freedom and more local control over the appointment of bishops. In his biblical scholarship, he has argued that the New Testament may support a more flexible position on divorce and remarriage.

Collins, 64, said one “rumor on campus” was that O’Connell wanted him to leave because he was “too liberal on Ex Corde.” While Collins said he did not exclude that possibility, he said the basic reason he was pressured to resign is the sexual harassment complaint, which he believes the university failed to pursue seriously.

Collins said that since both the worker and the faculty member were in his school, he had a responsibility to press the case. Speaking to NCR by phone, he said that both his resignation and the worker’s complaint may end up in civil litigation.

A May 26 statement from the public affairs office at Catholic University asserts that Collins had lost the confidence of his faculty, as measured by the results of a standard performance appraisal, and this was the reason officials pressured him to step down.

The statement also says the harassment complaint was investigated by the university’s equal opportunity officer, who “concluded that no harassment or other violation of equal opportunity policies had occurred,” and that after the worker filed a federal complaint, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission likewise found no violation.

Collins says neither probe was serious, asserting that key witnesses were not approached.

Current and former faculty members contacted by NCR -- who emphasized they could not judge the merits of the sexual harassment charge -- confirmed that complaints about Collins’ management style had circulated in the School of Religious Studies for years. In that light, they said, news of his departure was no surprise.

“It is my belief the resignation had nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of sexual harassment,” said Oblate Fr. David Power, a member of the theology department.

Collins acknowledged that some faculty did not approve of his leadership but insisted these complaints were only a “pretext” for the action against him.

“The bottom line is the church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person,” Collins said. “Someone’s rights were being violated, and it’s an issue of justice. It goes to the heart of the Catholic identity of this university.”

Both the worker who brought the complaint and the faculty member who was its object remain in their positions at Catholic University.

The worker plans to file suit. Kenneth Robinson, the Washington-based lawyer representing the worker, said, “We’re going to sue Catholic University for the outrageous way these legitimate allegations were handled.” Robinson said the lawsuit will be filed in federal district court before July 1.

Collins, a priest of the Providence, R.I., diocese, said he was also considering a lawsuit but does not plan to make a “quick decision.”

University sources say an interim dean will be appointed soon, followed by a search for a permanent replacement. O’Connell will make the appointment.

Collins is well-known in the field of biblical studies. His resignation affects only his status as dean; he remains a tenured member of the faculty, and will be on sabbatical until the 2000-’01 school year.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999