At one seminary, a screaming headline in the morning newspaper sounded the alarm; in another, troubling rumors and a grievance quietly filed by church officials triggered the warning. Though circumstances differed greatly, the causes were similar. Each seminary’s president was accused of sexual behavior that could jeopardize his job and undermine the school’s reputation.

The first case centered on the Reverend Patrick H. O’Neill, who has led South Florida Center for Theological Studies for seven years. The second concerned the Reverend Donald W. McCullough, who had occupied the presidency of San Francisco Theological Seminary since 1994.

Like dozens of other ethical cases in academic settings in recent years, these charges sorely tested both personal and institutional integrity. As would be expected, some school officials and trustees have received high marks for their handling of these crises; others have not. Often when the hammer blow of suspected scandal falls, those in charge are caught flat-footed. Reports of sexual misconduct may be leaked to the press far in advance of any legal action. Shocked officials and trustees scramble to balance the rights of the accused and the interests of the school. Instinctively they draw the wagons in a circle, fending off unnecessary ugliness and damaging publicity while checking the veracity of the claim. Openness may be seen as the enemy of fair play rather than a component of it.

While these incidents are far from common in theological schools, they emerge often enough to give boards of trustees pause. What should be done in such an emergency? 

The two instances introduced here represent cases in which boards endeavored to choose strategies carefully and thoughtfully in an effort to be fair. Whether the decisions were wise is open to question. 

The seminaries themselves differ greatly: South Florida is new, founded in 1986; SFTS began more than a century earlier, in 1871. South Florida enrolls a mulligan stew of religious identities, ethnic groups, and languages from Miami’s rich mixture; SFTS remains staunchly, traditionally mainline Presbyterian. South Florida is planted in an office building in the heart of the city; SFTS sits on a splendid perch at the foot of a mountain in the posh Marin County town of San Anselmo. 

A Shocking Headline
On Wednesday morning, July 12, readers of the Miami Herald awoke to the shocking headline, “Priest Arrested on Sex Charge.” The accused was South Florida’s president, Patrick O’Neill, a well-known Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Miami. The article described the graphic report of Miami police officer Albert Guerra, who was taking part in a prostitution sting operation. Guerra claimed O’Neill had, on the morning of July 5, driven up in his 1998 Mercedes and offered him $100 to engage in a sexual act, following which solicitation O’Neill was arrested. The arrest was followed by seizure of O’Neill’s automobile

From the outset, O’Neill maintained his total innocence, indicating that he had been entrapped and falsely accused.

Within a week, the trustees moved to quell the storm. Gregory McGowan, the chair, was in South Africa negotiating a merger on behalf of Franklin-Templeton, one of the largest money management firms in the country. From that remove, he called a teleconference board meeting; every member responded, giving O’Neill a 100 percent vote of confidence. 

“It was so remarkable,” said McGowan, “that there was no difference of opinion. There was nothing even approaching dissent. They kept wanting to make our statement of support for him stronger and stronger.” Their protest to the Miami Herald produced an apology from the publisher for the tone of the article.

Even more striking, perhaps, is that neither McGowan nor other members of the board asked O’Neill for his version of the incident before the meeting. They trusted him implicitly. By August, the priest had agreed to attend a court-ordered two-hour AIDS prevention program in exchange for dismissal of the charge. He insisted that he could have won a court trial but decided against such a public spectacle.

Meanwhile, his job as president of the seminary was never in doubt, according to board members. The option of suspending him pending the outcome of the charge was never considered. Neither was his standing at the archdiocese imperiled. He remained head of Jubilee 2000, a campaign to bring Catholics back to church, and director of various charities. 

The outcome was swift, aided by a board that showed unusual solidarity. Comparable support came from students. Everyone, it seemed, loved O’Neill, appreciated his work, and took him at his word. Contributing principally to this unanimity, it seemed, were O’Neill’s favorable reputation (providing him a storehouse of credibility) and his flat-out rejection of the claims made by the police and the newspaper. 

O’Neill likes to say that he believes he is the world’s only Roman Catholic priest who is president of a Protestant ecumenical seminary. More significantly, perhaps, he may be the only clergyman in South Florida with the network of powerful connections to help keep the seminary afloat. His community activism is integral to how he sees his role at South Florida. “I’ve got to be out there all the time,” he said. “I’m not the president of Princeton who can come in every morning and ask for sherry and cappuccino and just watch the coffers of the endowment fill up.” South Florida’s endowment of less than $1 million keeps the seminary scrambling for operating funds. 

He was born wealthy himself, and associates say he mingles comfortably with the rich and mighty. When Gianni Versace, the famed fashion designer, was murdered, O’Neill, who had known him, delivered the homily. But he also takes his personal ministry to street people and puts little stock in material possessions. Trustees say he accepts no salary for his seminary work. Among his other responsibilities is running New Hope Charities, a foundation bankrolled by the Fanjul sugar fortune. New Hope put up the $1,000 necessary to retrieve O’Neill’s confiscated Mercedes.

The priest is a walking fountain of good will and charm who has captivated a broad cross-section of Miamians. McGowan, one of three Catholics on the nineteen-member board, recalled the time that O’Neill visited his acutely sick child at 4:30 in the morning. “He’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.” McGowan said.

“He has high esteem all over,” said the Reverend Melvin Schoonover, founding president and former dean of the seminary. “His record is of good works, compassion, and coming to people’s aid. He’s just outstanding. We have pretty conservative students, and I thought a few would be exercised over this. No way. All of them rallied behind Father Pat.” 

If such popularity disposed the board to grant him a measure of immunity and the benefit of the doubt, intense distrust of both the Miami police and the Miami Herald also weighed heavily. “If people start off saying we don’t believe a word of it,” Schoonover said, “then it’s hard for enemies to make much ground.” Many people in the area assume police corruption is behind various entrapment schemes aimed at skimming fees for retrieving impounded cars, he added.

O’Neill believes he came through the ordeal with a clean bill of health because those he works with, including the board, know him as someone who isn’t hiding anything. “Everybody has a bad hair day every so often,” he said, “but the bottom line is whether they know you as a person or not.”

Rumors from San Diego
In California, Donald McCullough’s case took several years to surface. Before taking on the seminary presidency in 1994, he had been pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church near San Diego. A graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, his roots were solidly evangelical. Seminary trustees chose him, in fact, partly to help shed some of the school’s liberal edge by making it more “centrist.” He was expected to attract more students sympathetic to the conservative side of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

McCullough bore the marks of success. In his fourteen years at Solana Beach, the congregation grew from 567 to 2,000. His concern for details extended to manners and ordinary courtesy, leading to him to write Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another (1996). “For most of us,” he wrote there, “character is shaped one small brick at a time.” He was on the editorial board of the leading evangelical publication Christianity Today and was well known in denominational circles. He made an impression: His build was sleek, eyes piercing, hair silver and swept back, manner energetic, style engaging.

At SFTS, McCullough raised more than $11.5 million—exceeding expectations—to rebuild two crowning architectural glories of the seminary that had been rendered unusable by the 1989 earthquake. Before they could be dedicated, however, unsettling rumors began among Presbyterian ministers and seminary trustees. The gist was that McCullough had had sexual relations with two members of his Solana Beach staff. The gravity of the implications motivated board leaders to meet with McCullough in the summer of 1999. He reportedly confessed to the affairs, one with the church secretary, who is now his wife, and another with the church’s associate pastor.

Soon a formal complaint of sexual improprieties was filed by Mary Elva Smith, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Diego where the Solana Beach church is located, to the Presbytery of San Francisco, which includes the seminary. No criminal allegations were ever entered; the case remains under Presbyterian authority. Presbyterian law allows third parties to present charges, as happened; neither woman named as a victim instigated the case against McCullough. The Reverend Betsy Massie, stated clerk of the San Francisco Presbytery, was responsible for deciding whether the charges warranted a trial to determine McCullough’s fitness for ordination.

The matter of McCullough’s fitness to serve as seminary president was up to the board. At its fall meeting, the board took no action on the knowledge about the affairs that the board leadership had learned from McCullough. By December, the presbytery investigation was underway. The board sent a brief message to that effect to the faculty, the first official notice the faculty had received that anything might be amiss. They received no further information until March when the presbytery resolved to try McCullough before its permanent judicial commission.

Sources say that the board retained solid support for McCullough, confident that he would never be brought to trial and could therefore weather the storm. No move to remove him even on a temporary basis ever gained steam.

McCullough himself offered to resign at least half a dozen times during the fall, as the investigation was in progress, sources said, but the board would hear none of it. This initial ignoring of the potential impact of the problem fostered a climate of false assurance and secrecy that prevailed until the story finally broke to the public the following May. Efforts to reach McCullough for his account of these events were unsuccessful. 

A Church Trial Begins
The three-day church trial at the end of April was in open court, though few but presbytery insiders knew about it. The seminary faculty, several of whom felt left out of a process they believed could have a dramatic effect on their lives, sent three observers. The trustees sent one of their own. From this delegate, the trustees heard an account that differed from the version McCullough had told them in certain key respects. The main difference was that McCullough had said he had committed adultery in serial fashion; the trial testimony indicated he had conducted two affairs simultaneously while married to a third woman (his first wife, divorced in 1998).

The trial undercut the trustees’ faith that McCullough could continue as SFTS president. Support for McCullough had not been unanimous, but dissenters lacked the strength to oust him. At this point, the board asked faculty members to make their views known. The overwhelming sentiment was that McCullough should go. On May 1 the board received the president’s resignation. Some at SFTS believe the board was forced to exact the resignation immediately because the scandal was due to be exposed in the next day’s Marin Independent Journal. Students were told in chapel the next day. Many had heard nothing of the charges or the proceedings. Predictably, they were shocked and dismayed, though on-scene reports indicated they were more upset with the news operations that delivered the shock than with McCullough himself.

Four days later, the Presbyterian judicial commission delivered its verdict: McCullough was found guilty of two counts of sexual impropriety, having used his office to secure sexual favors. He was sentenced to a rehabilitation program that will allow him to regain his ordination.

The trustees lavished praise on McCullough even as they dumped him. They accepted the resignation, they said, with “deep regret” and “with great appreciation for his six years of exemplary service to SFTS.” The parting had been mutual, they said, with both sides agreeing that McCullough could no longer function effectively. It came across as a pragmatic move rather than a moral one. The board never formally disapproved of his actions or called for repentance. At least one board member has resigned over the board’s handling of the scandal.

From the start of the McCullough crisis, Edward Marley, Jr., the board chair clamped a tight lid of secrecy over the whole matter. Faculty were told not to discuss the problem during the investigation. Marley hired a consultant to advise the board; damage control has consisted largely of access control. Trustees won’t speak about the matter; they refer inquiries to Marley who won’t speak about the matter. Faculty and students know of the strategic silence, and if they speak, it is with reluctance.

The aftermath of the trial and McCullough’s departure is evident in the continuing anxiety, distress, and fear that permeate conversations that even skirt the issue. At a school where much appears to be prospering, the scandal appears to be largely unresolved, under wraps. The official word, from Marley on down, is that the crisis was handled efficiently and it’s time to move on to issues like choosing the next president.

Recently, the board invited students to identify traits they would like to see in the next president. Several suggested that it be someone who knows how to exercise ministerial power appropriately, an obvious reference to what they perceived as McCullough’s failing. Others said it was time for a woman. Another recommendation was for someone who would work collegially rather than hierarchically—an implicit endorsement of power sharing and openness that many have found wanting. 

Some students and faculty contended that secrecy and confidentiality may have been necessary to protect McCullough’s presumed innocence during the investigation and trial but weren’t sure whether the board, having ascertained the facts from McCullough, should have allowed the case to go that far without removing him from the presidency. 

A defensive, fearful atmosphere lingers. Sources retreat. Walt Davis, a retired sociology of religion professor, for example, was one of the three faculty members at the trial. “I will be happy to meet with you,” he replied to my request for an interview. “I wish our board had had a resource like your article prior to this event.” The night before the scheduled meeting, however, he abruptly canceled it, explaining that his wife thought it a bad idea. 

Marley, a retired Houston lawyer, has kept distant from the media, communicating, as in the case of this article, only through third parties after conferring with the consultant (whose name Marley declined to supply). The filtered voice can sound clumsy and convoluted. In reply to several requests for an interview, for example, he forwarded this message through the president’s secretary at SFTS. “First let me thank you for offering us the opportunity to provide some input on how we managed communication during our recent challenges. After giving it considerable thought, we have decided not to avail ourselves of your kind offer. The reason is that while there was a successful outcome to our challenges, we would prefer to continue moving ahead rather than revisiting the past.”

Moving ahead has entailed fixing broken bridges. SFTS is a community out of sorts with itself. Tellingly, perhaps, there is no lounge or common space where faculty, staff, students, trustees, and visitors can gather informally. The trustees have vowed to mend fences with faculty. The board was pleased with the quality of the incoming class. And this fall they dedicated the refurbished buildings. Marley appears upbeat. In the Spring issue of the seminary publication Chimes, he exulted: “Many on the San Francisco Theological Seminary campus agree that this has been the best spring semester in years.” Listing a string of accomplishments, including the success of the capital campaign, he acknowledged McCullough’s departure as if he were eulogizing a celebrated graduate. “We are dealing with pain, disappointment, and real grief over the loss of an inspired and very talented leader.”

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