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The Double Life of John Leary 

The New College founder is promoted as a visionary. The college should openly admit the Jesuit priest was a pedophile.

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
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"I sometimes think that if the time ever comes when I lose all sexual desire, I'll probably be nothing but a blob or stone. I will have lost my pizzazz."

— Jack Leary, answering the question of whether he had ever been tempted to form a romantic relationship. From the book Jebbie: A Life of John P. Leary, S.J.

In 1965, an 18-year-old freshman at the Jesuit Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., learned he'd landed a plum assignment.

The boy was from a Washington family of committed Catholics. He was considering a vocation in the priesthood. And he'd been given the task of chauffeuring to and from a speaking engagement Gonzaga President John Leary, a luminary intellect and personality in a Jesuit order glimmering with charismatic, brilliant priests.

Leary was the polymath philosopher and ordained priest with penetrating eyes who'd been Gonzaga debate coach to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Tom Foley. Leary was the pedagogical visionary who went on to found the experimental university New College of California in San Francisco. He was a mesmerizing raconteur who combined the common touch of a coal-miner's son with an urbane vocabulary, boundless curiosity, and a mischievous wit that caused many students decades hence to remember their hours talking with Leary as the highlight of their lives.

The idea was that the Gonzaga student would drive Rev. Leary to a town across the state where the university president was speaking. They'd rent separate hotel rooms, spend the night, and drive back to the university. According to the boy's now late-middle-aged recollections, he fell asleep in his own bed. Leary stripped naked, got on top of the sleeping boy, and tried to penetrate him. Leary wasn't extremely violent, but he was forceful, persistent, and the boy had to fight Leary off. Eventually, Leary relented and made up an excuse for his behavior.

The next day Leary persisted, this time talking about sexual matters, embarrassing the young man. The few hours' drive home was excruciating, he recalls, according to Doug Spruance, a Washington state attorney representing the former student in possible litigation over the alleged attack. Because of the nature of the case, Spruance did not name his client, nor make him available to interview.

The young man became depressed. His grades plummeted. He dropped out, and remained bitter during the next 40 years that he'd been unable to complete his college education.

The teenager wasn't Leary's only attempted conquest that year, according to an attorney representing a client in a Washington state sexual abuse lawsuit expected to be filed in November. Also in 1965, Leary spotted a young adolescent boy of around 12, who lived in the neighborhood near Gonzaga University, riding his bicycle by the school. Leary lured the boy into his office and molested him. University officials found out about it somehow and called a meeting with the boy. They asked if Leary had done anything inappropriate. He explained what happened, said attorney Michael Pfau, who is representing the alleged victim in the planned lawsuit.

According to Pfau, the officials said, "Don't tell your parents; we'll take care of it."

And take care of it they apparently did, orchestrating a stunning cover-up that allowed Leary to expand his pedagogical legend despite allegations that he'd abused several boys. He left Spokane, and Gonzaga in 1969 at the private insistence of the Spokane police. The university said he left for "health reasons."

Leary went on to found New College of California in Sausalito in 1972. He later moved New College to San Francisco, where, during the next 34 years, the school evolved into Bay Area academia's left-wing social conscience.

Officials from the Jesuit order and Gonzaga said that while responding earlier this year to requests for documents connected to a priest-abuse lawsuit not involving Leary, they found files detailing a 1969 agreement among the university, the order, and Spokane police under which Leary wouldn't face charges of molesting victims if he left town within 24 hours.

The announcement of the 1969 cover-up by the Jesuits, the police, and the university spawned articles in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the Seattle Times, the New York Times, and the International Herald Tribune.

But in San Francisco, and at New College, where Leary's legend has been used as a core recruiting and fundraising tool, and where, prior to the September announcement, officials were preparing to name a refurbished classroom the "Father John Leary Room," there's been silence.

"What, if anything, is the college doing to reach out to people who may have been hurt by him?" asked David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "In our experience, the practice of the Catholic hierarchy is to sit by the phone and pray it doesn't ring. For a university, we think the morally responsible approach is to send letters to alumni, and former staff, and really aggressively be proactive."

The answer for New College, which is not affiliated with any church, is that the school has no plans to alert the former students to whom Leary had access. There are no specific plans to alter recruiting materials, which currently state, falsely, that Leary left Gonzaga because he was inspired by passion to create an educational experiment such as New College. There has been no effort to address the issue beyond private conversations between the handful of remaining college officials appointed by Leary during the 1970s.

In talking with New College President Martin Hamilton, who was hired by Leary as an instructor in 1977, and who later invited Leary to preside over his wedding, I got the sense that news of Leary's secret criminal life had stunned him into inaction.

"I haven't put out anything because I haven't felt ... ," Hamilton said, failing to complete his thought, then moving on to another: "I'm revealing to you the deep angst this has caused me."

The news of Leary's criminal past, Hamilton noted, revealed that New College of California exists thanks to an extraordinary irony.

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Matt Smith

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