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Loyola move was quick but not painless

University president's removal 'a hell of a shock'

Sunday October 12, 2003
By Bruce Nolan - Times -Picayune

Bernie Knoth was not eating.

At one level he seemed the same man Temple Brown had come to like and admire during his years as a member of the board of trustees at Loyola University. There had always been an air of companionability about Knoth, an invitation to call him Bernie instead of Father Knoth, a certain urbane wit, intelligence and vivacity entirely appropriate to a university president who must work with many constituencies.

In the comfortable setting of the President's Dining Room in Loyola's Danna Center that Sept. 30 afternoon, Knoth sketched his plans for the coming year for Brown, who had left the board but was still an honorary trustee; Brown's wife, Penny; and two other couples.

Brown thought he sounded enthusiastic.

"I must say I didn't catch it, but my wife did," Brown said later. "She told me later she thought there was something wrong. He'd just picked at his food, and she thought he looked distracted."

Indeed, Knoth was likely forcing himself through the motions.

His guests didn't suspect his eight-year presidency of Loyola University was ticking down to an abrupt end.

And while he and his guests chatted over lunch that Tuesday, behind the scenes a tiny handful of people, none of them on the unsuspecting Loyola campus, were working through their own shock and arranging for a new president to succeed Knoth, who knew he soon would step down over an allegation of sexual abuse deep in his past. Beginning of the end

From Loyola's perspective, the beginning of the end had come late the previous week.

On Sept. 25, Knoth was summoned to Chicago by his religious superior in the Society of Jesus to hear the findings of a discreet internal investigation that had been quietly unwinding there for some time.

Unbeknownst to anyone at Loyola, Knoth had been accused of sexually abusing a student in 1986 while he was principal of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis.

The details of that accusation remain cloaked in confidentiality.

A few days later, in announcing the outcome of an inquiry, the Rev. James Gschwend, the Jesuit charged with running the inquiry, would say only that the accusation had surfaced "in the last few months."

He would not say whether it involved one student or more than one, whether the accusation involved one or more acts, or what the nature of the offense was.

What he did say was that Knoth had denied it, that the complaint had been carefully investigated and that both Knoth and the accuser, or a representative, had been heard on the matter.

In the end, Gschwend said, Knoth's religious superior, the Rev. Richard Baumann, and a panel of five laypeople, two priests and a nun had concluded there was reason to believe the complaint was true.

Such a finding is preliminary in nature, roughly analogous to a grand jury indictment, Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki, a canon lawyer who was not involved in the case, said in an interview last week. Its purpose is to get an accused priest out of ministry quickly because not doing so might mean spreading damage to more victims while a more deliberative process unfolds, its supporters have said.

"It's more a threshold question as opposed to a finding of guilt or innocence. It's a finding that there's enough evidence for the process to go forward," Paprocki said.

Yet it was not a judgment made lightly in Knoth's case, for severe consequences would flow from it automatically.

First among them was that Knoth would be relieved of his ministry as a priest until, if he chose, he could go to a church court and seek vindication through a formal judicial process.

In the Catholic church, such trials are not open, but they are similar to secular courts in that both sides present evidence to a panel of judges.

Canon law courts do not deal in "guilty" versus "not guilty," but "proved" rather than "not proved," Paprocki said.

If Knoth sought a trial and the case was deemed to be "not proved," he could resume his priestly duties -- performing the sacraments, for example -- although his assignment would be completely within the power of his religious superior, Paprocki said.

All of that would be sometime in the future though, if ever.

For the present, it was clear that because he was no longer a

Jesuit priest in good standing, Knoth was precluded by the university charter from remaining as president, an office he had held for eight productive years.

A new Loyola

By several measures, Loyola under Knoth was humming.

Arriving in 1995, he finished building a $20 million state-of-the-art library planned under his predecessor, the Rev. James Carter. Beyond that, he quickly transformed the look of the small Uptown campus.

Knoth launched a $50 million capital campaign, built a new residence hall, began renovating another, built a new parking garage that complemented the rest of the architecture, and poured money into improving the appearance of the campus.

Below the surface, he established eight endowed chairs and 39 endowed professorships. The university was becoming more selective year by year, with freshmen arriving with steadily higher SAT scores.

And there was more coming. Even as Knoth headed back from Chicago, Loyola was in the silent phase of a $30 million capital campaign, quietly pitching itself to the biggest potential donors to finance the next stage of growth.

To be sure, there were troubles -- some of them over Loyola's very soul.

Along with many other Catholic universities, Loyola is embroiled in debate over whether its quest for excellence is leading it to ape secular universities at the cost of its founding Catholic values. Not a few influential conservative Catholics have been disturbed by Loyola's intellectual course under Knoth, as with Carter before him. But no one could doubt that Loyola was changing.

"I thought he was a visionary. But he was one of those who could bring plans to fruition," Brown said. "A lot of people have vision but can't implement it."

Back in New Orleans on Sept. 26, though, Knoth approached the Rev. Tom Stahel, a fellow Jesuit, a Loyola trustee and the liaison between Loyola and the local head of the order, the Rev. Fred Kammer.

He told Stahel of the finding against him.

Stahel was stunned, he said in an interview last week. Because Knoth remained a member of the Chicago province of Jesuits -- in effect on loan to the New Orleans-based Southern province -- Stahel had not known about the inquiry back in Chicago, he said.

"We spoke after he got back. I spoke to him as a brother Jesuit. I told him I'd help him in whatever way I could. Let's just say he was very sad and, obviously, in a case like that, upset," Stahel said.

Indeed, some time in this period Knoth decided tht his immediate future required a break not only with Loyola, but with the religious community that became a family to him for 37 years. He would take a leave of absence from the Jesuits.

"That tells me something," said Vernon Gregson, a Loyola faculty member who was a Jesuit for 21 years. "This is not to be expected. . . . I'd say his relations with the Jesuits are very strained."

Acting quickly

The next Monday, Donna Fraiche, a health-care lawyer who heads Loyola's board of trustees, checked her e-mail in her Poydras Street office and found a one-line message from Knoth asking for an immediate meeting.

"I knew it was serious by the tone of the e-mail," she said.

Fraiche called Knoth and arranged to see him immediately at her St. Charles Avenue home.

During a midmorning one-on-one meeting, Knoth told her what had happened.

Fraiche, Stahel and all the other trustees who would soon come to grips with the news faced the same unassailable reality: Baumann's decision in Chicago was beyond their control. Their job was simply to respond to its consequences.

And while Fraiche at that time knew next to nothing about how the Catholic church processes sex abuse complaints involving minors, she knew immediately what it meant for Loyola: It would need a new president, and quickly.

"Our goal had to be the stability of the institution," she said. "The organization needs to move forward. It's a good institution; it's in good shape. But this is the time in the academic year we focus on next year -- on the budget, on recruiting and so forth. And Bernie recognized that we needed to get an acting president on board as soon as possible."

She and Stahel met soon after, and over the next few days the circle of leadership who knew what was about to happen expanded only slightly.

She and Stahel knew. She brought in Jerome Reso, the trustee board's vice chairman, and Al Dittmann, Loyola's general counsel.

In short order, the Rev. William Byron's name surfaced as a candidate to serve as acting president, Fraiche said.

A resident of Baltimore, Byron had impeccable credentials as the former president of Catholic University and the University of Scranton. He had been a dean at Loyola from 1973-75. He also had just become a Loyola trustee.

But at 76, Byron had reason to believe he had finished his share of heavy administrative lifting. He had recently retired as a pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C., and was about to savor a scholarly retirement.

"My first concern was how can I get this man to leave his current position in Maryland, where he's doing a book, and drop everything and come," Fraiche said.

In an odd way, his age was a plus.

He would be the perfect choice as Fraiche saw it: the right man to stabilize Loyola over the short term while the board looked at younger prospects for president.

Within days, as Stahel and Fraiche remember it, Kammer called his counterpart in the Jesuits' Maryland province and asked permission to approach Byron about the job.

That done, someone -- Stahel was not sure who -- approached Byron. "Father Byron asked for some time to consider the matter in prayer. Sometime in the next 48 to 72 hours he called back to say he'd take the job," Stahel said.

The flow of information, meanwhile, remained highly compartmentalized.

On Sunday, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes was informed of the pending change.

Late Monday morning, Kristine Lelong, the director of Loyola's university relations department, was brought into the circle to craft the announcements that would follow the next day -- the day the full board of 33 members was being summoned to an extraordinary meeting at Fraiche's office. The information was still tightly held. But finally, a tiny leak.

Monday, at 9:26 a.m., someone using an AOL e-mail address sent The Times-Picayune a one-sentence note: "Father Knoth (Pres. Loyola New Orleans) to resign amid accusations of sexual misconduct."

There was no more.

Replies seeking further contact were returned as undeliverable.

Nobody saw it coming, board member Arthur Q. Davis recalled later.

Tuesday about 9 a.m., with almost all trustees present in person or by telephone hookup, Fraiche convened the meeting in the 24th floor conference room of her firm, Locke, Liddell and Sapp.

To a dumbfounded board, she announced the Chicago findings, and the necessity of accepting Knoth's resignation and appointing an interim president, preferably Byron.

Nobody had been briefed, Davis said. They were all left to absorb it at once.

"It was a hell of a shock," Davis said.

But apart from that, the meeting was relatively straight

forward, he said.

"I wouldn't want to characterize it much," Stahel said. "Suffice it to say there were serious questions from serious people, people who have a lot of experience and know how to size something up when there's not a lot of time."

Knoth was not there. He was on campus performing his last official act: briefing a handful of vice presidents on what was about to happen.

That done, he left quietly for some destination still known only to his closest confidants. He left behind a farewell statement in a packet prepared by Lelong.

Soon afterward, the university's top deans were notified in person, and at 12:49 p.m., Lelong pressed a button that triggered a series of mass e-mails announcing the news to the campus and the world.

Image-conscious especially during a dark hour for the university, officials started it with a forward-looking headline: "Acting President Named."

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