Fresh off its announcement that two deceased professors and priests had abused minors, Seattle University last week had to respond to a different sort of sex-related controversy. Its officials found themselves defending a five-year-old decision to hire a vice president whom they knew had been accused of sexually harassing a fellow seminarian in the 1990s.
A Friday Seattle Post-Intelligencer article tied a high-profile sexual harassment case, which had earlier landed on CBS’ 60 Minutes, to the 2001 hire of Seattle’s vice president for mission and ministry. The newspaper reported that the Rev. Tony Harris had been one of three priests accused of sexually harassing John Bollard, a former seminary student at Berkeley’s Jesuit School of Theology. Bollard accused Harris of sending him pornographic cards.
The civil suit was settled in 2000, and the university was fully aware of Father Harris’s past when it hired him the next year, Barbara Nombalais, a university spokeswoman, said.
"The university was aware of the case, knew Father Harris and was confident this was an isolated incident that had been dealt with and that it would not enter into his duties or responsibilities at Seattle University, all of which he has performed well," she said.
Nombalais added that Father Harris was not in a supervisory capacity over Bollard and has since publicly apologized and acknowledged his "error in judgment." She said that "there was never a finding, determination or admission that Father Harris had engaged in unlawful sexual harassment." The university has since been given no reason to regret its hiring decision, she said.
Father Harris did not return messages seeking comment Friday and Monday.
The revelation that Seattle had hired Father Harris despite the sexual harassment allegations levied against him raises a question in light of the university’s struggle with ghosts of suspected child sex abuse cases: Where should a university draw the line when hiring employees? What past indiscretions are deal breakers, which are not, and what is an acceptable threshold of risk in the process?
Last week, Seattle released a statement expressing its "zero tolerance" policy toward child sexual abuse. The university pledged to disclose the name of any priest believed to have sexually abused children, and said two priests and former faculty members are believed to be culpable.
University officials argue, and an independent expert agrees, that allegations of sexual harassment among adults and child sexual abuse cannot and should not be conflated, and that different standards should be applied to those accused of harassment as opposed to abuse. Ann H. Franke, who, as president of Wise Results, advises educational institutions on risk management in employment issues, said "zero tolerance" policies make sense only in regards to especially severe crimes, including child molestation. She said that normally in cases of past sexual harassment allegations, university hiring teams should confront candidates with the information, listen to their responses and trust their own judgment in making hiring decisions.
"I am in general not a fan of zero tolerance policies when they’re applied to things like harassment and incivility," said Franke, "lines that we may cross over in our own lives for one reason or another."
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