Loyola move was quick but not painless
University president's removal 'a hell of
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
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
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,
All of that would be sometime in the future though, if ever.
For the present, it was clear that because he was no longer
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
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
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,
"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."
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,"
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
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
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
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
Statement on Resignation of Loyola President