Former Jesuit student appeals decision dismissing sexual harassment suit

Wednesday, June 24, 1998

A former student seeking Jesuit priesthood has appealed a federal judge's decision dismissing his sexual harassment suit against two Jesuit priests and officials of three Society of Jesus provinces.


In May, Northern California U.S. District Judge Susan Illston dismissed the federal sexual harassment claim, concluding that both a religious exception to the law and the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment prevented the court from becoming involved in the dispute.


John Bollard was close to completing his study, known as “formation,” when he left the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and filed a Title VII sexual harassment suit against officials of the Society of Jesus. Bollard claimed that from 1990 until 1996, when he left, he had been sexually harassed by two Jesuit priests and that officials took no action when he reported the incidents.


Bollard's attorney, Mary Patricia Hough, said the Jesuit priests violated both types of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. First, a hostile work environment was created when the priests sent Bollard unwanted and “shocking” pornographic pictures, Hough said. Secondly, Hough said Bollard was invited to engage in sex by the priests, both of whom would be instrumental in deciding whether he would receive his “vows,” thus violating the “quid pro quo” type of sexual harassment.


In dismissing Bollard's suit, Illston said that the religious-liberty clauses, as well as a religious exception found in Title VII, prevented her from making decisions that “would put the Court in the position of second-guessing the religious aspects of the relationship between the church and its clergy.”


Hough filed an appeal Friday saying the First Amendment should not protect church officials from criminal conduct.


“We think the public's interest in having a workplace — secular or religious — free from sexual harassment far outweighs any concerns or rights that the Society may claim to have regarding the judicial intrusion,” Hough, a San Francisco attorney, said. “I don't think the First Amendment was ever intended to immunize religious persons from being punished for criminal conduct.”


The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, is a Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. The Society has 10 administrative districts in the United States. Hampton's suit names the California, Maryland and Oregon provinces. Spokespersons for all three provinces said that no Society officials would comment on the suit.


Paul Gaspari, a San Francisco attorney and lead counsel for the provinces, however, said he was confident the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would let Illston's ruling stand.


“I think the judge's decision was well-reasoned and right on point as to the First Amendment right and the ministerial exception,” Gaspari said. “This is wholly a matter of internal church affairs and the court noted that delving into those affairs would constitute a violation of the First Amendment.”


Gaspari said First Amendment rights “trump Title VII,” protections when dealing with members who voluntarily join religious orders.