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The Double Life of John Leary 

The New College founder is promoted as a visionary. The college should openly admit the Jesuit priest was a pedophile.

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
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"If [Gonzaga] had done what they did now, then," and announced in 1969 Leary's history of allegations of sexual assaults on boys, "Jack wouldn't have started New College," Hamilton said.

We're now occupying the era of Mark Foley, during which the Republican Party is conducting an investigation to find out who knew about a congressman's predatory behavior toward young pages, having already tracked down and notified generations of former pages who may have had contact with Foley. It's an era in which schools such as Boston College High School, where priest instructors faced charges of sexual abuse, three years ago notified parents, students, and 11,000 alumni announcing a help-line for abuse victims who hadn't yet come forward. This type of reaction is now considered protocol in cases of institutions whose officials engaged in sexual abuse. At Gonzaga, in conjunction with the announcement of the 1969 cover-up, the school sent letters to 55,000 alumni, and issued statements urging additional victims to come forward.

"That's not what I'm doing," Hamilton told me. "Nobody's ever contacted me [about possible sexual abuse while Leary was at New College in the 1970s] and I haven't decided to write to alumni to say anything about Jack. I don't find that's a necessary obligation on my part. I don't know why there's an assumption that's an obligation on my part. If there's anybody who's been hurt, I'd be happy to talk to them," Hamilton said.

"I'm certainly sensitive about the issue of priest abuse of children. Anybody who's Catholic or a human being at this time is," he added. "But I don't see that it affects New College."

When it comes to owning up to the abusive sexual past of one of their leaders, the Republican Party and New College of California don't seem to be on the same, well, page.

And that's too bad, because a real analysis and accounting of Leary's role as a pedagogical Johnny Appleseed could be interesting as well as instructional. He spent the '70s and '80s launching, or attempting to launch, cutting-edge programs of study in San Francisco, Reno, New York, and Santa Barbara with great fanfare, before leaving each place suddenly for reasons never fully explained. Investigating it can only make New College a more intellectually honest, and fascinating, place.

Leary's seemingly incompatible dual lives pose the kind of intellectual puzzle that, were the topic anything other than his own criminal sexual history, the Socratic-minded Jesuit would have attacked with relish.

"There's nobody who more reveres Father Leary than I do," said New College's official historian and archivist, Steven "Kush" Kushner. "He was tenacious about getting into matters. He was Socratic in his way of trying to get to the bottom of things. I think Father Leary would urge a kind of investigation according to what I've learned from him.

"He, for me, is the quintessential Jesuit intellect. Truly, he was a commanding intellect. And I don't think he would let go of such a matter or let it lie like it is," added Kushner, who was hired by Leary in 1976 as a faculty member.


During the first week of September, just as he was preparing for a trip to South America, Hamilton received a phone call from the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order in the Pacific Northwest. Hamilton has been a New College administrator since 1978, when a "collaborative leadership" team of Hamilton, Mildred Henry, and Peter Gabel took over to run the avant-garde college occupying the former site of an orphanage on Valencia Street in the Mission.

"Thirty years ago, Jack Leary set out to create a college that would embody his ideals of teaching and learning," according to promotional materials on the school's Web site. "Jack, a Jesuit priest and teacher of philosophy, had recently resigned as president of Gonzaga University in Washington state because of his dissatisfaction with the current American model of undergraduate education. He wanted to start over. And so New College of California began as a handful of students and teachers meeting in Jack's Sausalito living room."

Hamilton's caller had phoned to warn him that Gonzaga and the Jesuits would announce the next day that New College's founding myth was false.

"Leary was a bad guy," the Spokane Spokesman Review quoted John Whitney, the Jesuit's provincial superior based in Portland, as saying, after the Jesuits and Gonzaga University issued separate public statements on Sept. 8 describing the 1969 cover-up.

The Jesuit order has settled with two of Leary's victims for a total of about $400,000, according to the order. Gonzaga University sent statements to school alumni who were students while Leary was at the school, and braced for more victims to come forward, stating that,"today we desire not self-protection but the protection, especially, of those who are most vulnerable."

After receiving the call, Hamilton didn't announce the news to the school at large. A few days later, he left on a two-week trip to Brazil.

"Most of us knew Jack, and it was shocking to learn this. I'm trying to balance my own feelings of my history with Jack and my history," Hamilton said a month and a half later.

As an institution that has floated for years from scandal to turmoil and back, barely above financial peril all the while, there's a certain logic to hoping news that the college's founder and enduring philosophical beacon was a sexual abuser might fade quietly away. The school's recruiting strategies seem centered around an appeal that by attending the college, students will join a higher moral purpose.

New College offers bachelor's and master's degrees in "activism and social change," a "green MBA," and a Leary-brainchild, the "oldest public interest law school in America." It had Julia Butterfly Hill deliver a commencement speech by cellphone while up in her tree, and otherwise, in the words of the school's promotional materials, attempts to live out the vision of Jack Leary, a Socratic scholar of first order given to hours-long discussions about the nature of the truth.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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