Protecting a Punished Professor

When most of Saint Vincent College’s tenured faculty members voted last year to criticize President James Towey’s management of the Benedictine college, most professors were so nervous about retribution that few were willing to discuss their concerns in public. The Rev. Mark Gruber was an exception, and he may be paying a price for that outspokenness now.

The Benedictine monk and professor of anthropology has been stripped of his teaching duties and barred from the college and from all interaction with students, punished amid accusations of sexual misconduct that were initiated last summer by Towey and the archabbot at the affiliated Saint Vincent Seminary. Towey and Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki called state police to Saint Vincent last summer to investigate charges that Father Mark had downloaded child pornography onto a campus computer — allegations that the police deemed to be unfounded, because they found no images on the computer of men under the age of 18, and because the computer was in a common area and many people had access to it.

But Saint Vincent officials punished Father Mark in September, reportedly after concluding that he had violated church law by viewing online images of nude men on the college computer.

The actions against Father Mark have drawn the attention of the American Association of University Professors, which in a letter warns that the actions against the monk may violate his rights under the college’s faculty handbook and urges the college and the archabbey to “rescind [the] actions that bear on [his] professorial status.”

Officials at Saint Vincent and at the archabbey did not respond to requests for comment. But a college spokesman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which reported on the situation Friday, that the actions taken by the archabbey are outside the control of Saint Vincent administrators, and Archabbot Nowicki told the newspaper that “because Father Mark’s conduct potentially involves the violation of church law, the matter has been referred” to the Vatican.

Father Mark, who was on sabbatical before the recent events unfolded, could not be reached for comment, and his lawyer did not return a message seeking a response about the case.

But the story told by various documents in the case — notably a report filed by Pennsylvania State Police in August — suggest an aggressive attempt by Saint Vincent officials to discover wrongdoing by Father Mark. He vocally criticized Towey — and, by extension, Archabbot Nowicki, with whom Towey is closely allied — last year. “The tenured faculty took the lead, fortunately, but there are a lot of other people who share their views, and who are tired of the overriding of collegial discourse, the discounting of the consensus way of decision making, and what I see as the obfuscation of our Catholic mission,” he told Inside Higher Ed last year. Towey has announced that he plans to leave Saint Vincent at the end of the current academic year.

The report filed by State Trooper Glenn Bard said that he and another officer were called to the Saint Vincent campus on July 23 and met by Towey, Archabbot Nowicki, and two other officials. Towey told the officers that Saint Vincent administrators “had reason to believe that [Gruber] was utilizing a college computer to view child pornography.” Saint Vincent officials provided the officers with a list of Web sites that they asserted Father Mark had visited, and gave the officers permission to seize the computer, which was situated in a common area outside Father Mark’s office at the college.

The police report said that the monk declined to directly answer whether he had used the campus computer system to look at child pornography. “I don’t think that is a relevant question,” Father Mark told the officers.

Bard’s review of the materials on the computer, he wrote in the police report, found “images, videos and links to nude young men, but none could be identified as under the age of 18 years of age,” as would have been required to charge him under the state’s “sexual abuse of children” statute. Bard wrote that an e-mail analysis also revealed that “the computer system was being used by more than just Gruber. I found several e-mail accounts on the computer system that appeared to belong to other students, or faculty members.”

After Bard shared his findings with prosecutors, they agreed that “no prosecution should be sought” against Father Mark, he wrote.

When Bard told Towey and others on August 4 that the “full investigation” had failed to find evidence of a crime, the Saint Vincent officials asked him to investigate further “to determine who was looking at pornography,” the officer wrote. Because that was not a crime, Bard said, he told them that “no further analysis would be completed.” He filed the report on August 30, concluding: “Due to lack of evidence that a crime has occurred, this investigation to be closed.”

But Saint Vincent officials did not let the situation rest there. According to the AAUP’s October 23 letter to Towey, Archabbot Nowicki wrote letters to Father Mark on August 19 and September 8 “notifying him that his faculties for priestly ministry had been revoked and his assignment to teach in the college withdrawn, and that he was barred from the campus and from all further contact with students. These actions have had the effect of summarily suspending Professor Gruber from his tenured faculty position,” wrote B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the AAUP.

The Tribune-Review article quoted a Saint Vincent spokesman, Don Orlando, as saying that Father Mark had gained access to the pornographic sites. “Because of the graphic nature of the pornographic Web sites repeatedly visited, it is a matter of grave concern vis-a-vis church law,” the newspaper quoted Orlando as saying. He did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment.

In those and other statements, Saint Vincent officials appear to assert that the Benedictine abbey’s punishment of Father Mark under church law trumps any rules or guidelines that might protect him as a tenured professor. And indeed, Saint Vincent’s faculty policies — which generally align with those recommended by the AAUP — include an exemption from due process and other standards for monks and priests who are found not to be in good standing with church law, AAUP officials acknowledge.
But that “Benedictine Dismissal for Cause,” the AAUP wrote, “does not appear to apply in the case of Professor Gruber,” since he remains a Benedictine monk at the Saint Vincent Archabbey.


Protecting a Punished Professor
Inside Higher Ed
November 30, 2009
Doug Lederman