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.

After receiving the call, Hamilton didn't announce the news to the school at large. A few days later, he left on a two-week trip to Brazil.

"Most of us knew Jack, and it was shocking to learn this. I'm trying to balance my own feelings of my history with Jack and my history," Hamilton said a month and a half later.

As an institution that has floated for years from scandal to turmoil and back, barely above financial peril all the while, there's a certain logic to hoping news that the college's founder and enduring philosophical beacon was a sexual abuser might fade quietly away. The school's recruiting strategies seem centered around an appeal that by attending the college, students will join a higher moral purpose.

Rev. John Leary, the captivating teacher with the penetrating eyes.
art credit Here
Rev. John Leary, the captivating teacher with the penetrating eyes.
The school at 777 Valencia that uses the Leary legend as a recruiting tool.
Paul Trapani
The school at 777 Valencia that uses the Leary legend as a recruiting tool.

New College offers bachelor's and master's degrees in "activism and social change," a "green MBA," and a Leary-brainchild, the "oldest public interest law school in America." It had Julia Butterfly Hill deliver a commencement speech by cellphone while up in her tree, and otherwise, in the words of the school's promotional materials, attempts to live out the vision of Jack Leary, a Socratic scholar of first order given to hours-long discussions about the nature of the truth.

In this spirit, the school is guided by the notion that "the truth shall set you free," an alumnus said during a New College recruiting presentation I attended earlier this month.

It's possible to fear it would be bad for fundraising and recruitment to contact alumni, and reveal the truth about Leary's past, inviting additional victims, if there are any, to come forward. Perhaps it would tarnish the school to write a revised New College history in which a powerful man who Gonzaga and Jesuit officials say molested boys, got away with it, and created a university that for a third of a century helped seed the San Francisco progressive mindset.

But it's also possible that during the almost 30 years Leary disciples Hamilton, Mildred Henry, and Peter Gabel have spent running the school they've lost a sense of perspective.

"The Bible says the truth shall set you free. Not 50 percent of the truth. Not 80 percent of the truth," notes Clohessy, the abuse victim's advocate. "We can be irresponsible and passive, and assume that somehow Leary was magically cured before he stepped foot in San Francisco. Or we can be prudent and responsible, and assume what history, common sense, and psychology tell us, that it's merely a matter of time before one or more victims surfaces.

"It fundamentally comes down to whether you're going to err on the side of full truth or partial truth," Clohessy added.

In that spirit, Kushner's unusual insight, that thoroughly investigating, and publicizing within the extended New College community Leary's criminal past, would be true to the best of what the man represented and actually makes a sort of elegant sense.

Leary's life in full, the heroic educator and the vile sexual predator, is the sort of impossible quandary that science, philosophy, psychology, literature, art, and academia were created to grapple with.

Surely the school can accommodate a new founding legend about a priest who skipped mysteriously from town to town enriching the intellectual lives of hundreds of youth, pausing to sexually abuse a few during at least one point along the way.


Hamilton's reaction, of bewilderment and defensiveness, is one I've become accustomed to during three weeks of telephoning alumni and former teachers who knew Leary at New College during the 1970s and giving them the bad news. Most people Leary knew seemed to have deep, fond impressions of the man, and were utterly confounded by the idea he was a child molester.

A few had heard dark rumors, but they were in the minority.

I told John Reid, a former English instructor who taught at New College during the 1970s and early '80s, about last month's revelations of the real reason why Leary left Gonzaga.

"I heard the same thing when Leary left here," Reid said. "I heard he'd had a very strange exit from Gonzaga, shrouded in mystery, in which there was some kind of malfeasance."

Tom Mack, now a professor at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, in the early 1970s started up a New College Law School at Leary's behest.

"There were rumors that he was gay, but not that he abused anybody," Mack said. "He led me to believe that if I started a law school there, he would take care of the financing. That all turned out to be bullshit. But he was just an intensely interesting guy. Here was this guy who was president of Gonzaga, and could do anything in the Jesuit system, and he chose to create this flakey idea of New College, a very liberalized notion of education, when he could have been seeking comfort in the Jesuit organization. As you're revealing, it wasn't quite like that. But that's what I thought it was at the time, and it was very appealing."

Above the subterranean seep of rumors regarding Leary's departure from Gonzaga was a surface story of a man whose gift of gab could get him pretty much anything he wanted, at least for a period of time, before things would somehow repeatedly fall apart.

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