Originally posted June 12, 2018

Inaccuracies, False Information and Omissions Discredit Key Claims in The Spectator’s Retrospective on Sexual Misconduct

On June 7, 2018, The Spectator, the student newspaper of Seattle University, published a lengthy editorial and retrospective under the headline, “Seattle University’s Systemic Support of Sexual Abuse.” The editorial atop the article stated, “This week’s feature story is about Seattle University President Father Stephen Sundborg and his connection to the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church” and “the systematic concealment of the molestation, abuse and rape of women and children.”

An ongoing review has uncovered significant inaccuracies, false claims and omissions of relevant facts and context in the reporting that deprive readers of important facts and information for understanding the truth.

What was reported (opening paragraph):

“In 2006, Seattle University released a public statement on child sex abuse after settling two independent cases out of court, both of which accused the university and President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., of knowingly protecting and relocating priests who were sexually abusing children and adults.”

The Facts

False.

Neither Seattle University nor Father Sundborg were a party to either of the two lawsuits or cases upon which this claim is made. One lawsuit centered on a report of child sexual abuse from 1968 involving Michael Toulouse, S.J. The other was a report of child sexual abuse in California from 1956 involving Englebert Axer, S.J. Toulouse died in 1976 and Axer in 1989. Fr. Sundborg could not have been involved in “knowingly protecting and relocating” either of these priests. Furthermore, the lawsuits did not accuse the university and Fr. Sundborg of doing so. The dates are relevant information that should have been included in the reporting to help readers have relevant information and context.

The Spectator updated the original version online and issued a correction stating the university and Fr. Sundborg were not parties to the lawsuits. This opening paragraph in the story was also removed in its entirety from the article. The correction did not clarify that the lawsuits made no accusations against Fr. Sundborg and the university. Since lawsuits can and do make accusations against people who may not be party to the lawsuits, this could still leave readers with the impression that they did. It is an important point that should have been included in the correction. The code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists states that journalists should “acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

What was reported (third paragraph):

“Despite the university’s history regarding sexual assault, Seattle U no longer has an explicit and codified policy regarding child sex abuse.”

The Facts

False.

Seattle University’s policy on child sex abuse is listed on its website under Policy Statement on Reporting Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect at https://www.seattleu.edu/policies/. The policy has been in place for many years.

Again, The Spectator removed this paragraph in its entirety from the original article and issued a correction. The correction, however, imprecisely reads “a previous edition of the story stated that Seattle University has removed its child sex abuse policy from its website.”

What was reported:

“The lawsuits that began in late 2005 named Sundborg, who some survivors alleged that he, while provincial of the province, was responsible for helping conceal Jesuits that engaged in sexual misconduct.”

The Facts

Misleading, omits relevant facts.

Fr. Sundborg was Provincial of the Oregon Province Society of Jesus from September 26, 1990 to July 31, 1996.

Fr. Sundborg was named as a defendant in one lawsuit involving Henry Hargreaves, S.J. The lawsuit was filed in 2009. The victim alleged that Fr. Sundborg, as Provincial of the Oregon Province Society of Jesus, knew or should have known about Hargreaves’ abuse. No evidence was ever produced to show Fr. Sundborg knew about this abuse prior to the lawsuit being filed and Fr. Sundborg denied the allegations. The legal claims against Fr. Sundborg were dismissed by the court. There was no mention of the dismissal against Fr. Sundborg in The Spectator article.

Fr. Sundborg offered a deposition in a lawsuit in Alaska involving James Poole, S.J. The lawsuit was filed in 2005 and Fr. Sundborg was not a party to the lawsuit. The victim sued the Oregon Province Society of Jesus alleging that Father Poole sexually abused her from 1975 to 1977, well before Fr. Sundborg was provincial of the Oregon Province.

No evidence was produced that Fr. Sundborg received any reports about Fr. Poole and child sex abuse when he was provincial, only allegations he knew or should have known. Fr. Sundborg testified that during his time as provincial he became aware that Fr. Poole had been sexually involved with adult women, a breach of his vows and a misuse of his position. Fr. Sundborg sent Fr. Poole for evaluation by a professional forensic psychologist, sent him to a treatment center, had him re-evaluated by the forensic psychologist and assigned him to a relapse prevention coordinator. Only after taking these steps did Fr. Sundborg place Fr. Poole back in the ministry as a hospital chaplain in Tacoma. Fr. Poole remained in that ministry until 2003 under strict supervision and no complaints were ever made involving his ministry in Tacoma where he was assigned by Fr. Sundborg.

In a public statement as well as under oath in the 2005 Poole case (and reiterated following the 2009 Hargreaves lawsuit), Fr. Sundborg has stated that he had no knowledge of any child sex abuse.

In a message to the Seattle University community in December 2005 relating to the Poole allegations, Fr. Sundborg stated, “I received no report of abuse of minors by James Poole. Had I received accusations of abuse of minors, I would have alerted law enforcement authorities in order to protect the young.”

What was reported:

“Some university affiliates who have been accused of sexual assault and abuse were appointed to the upper-administration at Seattle U.

“In the late-90s, the university hired Father Tony Harris, S.J. Harris spent the majority of his time at Seattle U as the Vice President for Ministry and Mission. According to lawsuits, Harris was among three priests who made repeated homosexual advances to a young seminary student.”

The Facts

Misleading, relevant facts and context missing.

Tony Harris, S.J., is the one example of “some university affiliates” cited in the article. In 1997, the plaintiff, a former Jesuit, filed a civil lawsuit against Father Harris, two other Jesuits and three Jesuit provinces after he was dismissed from the Society of Jesus. The specific allegations against Fr. Harris involved the sending of about a dozen sexually explicit, adult-themed greeting cards to the plaintiff, who alleged it amounted to sexual harassment. There is no allegation in the lawsuit that Fr. Harris acted improperly toward minors or that he engaged in “sexual assault and abuse.” Fr. Harris apologized for sending the cards. The former Jesuit who brought the lawsuit alleged the harassment took place between 1990 and 1996 when he was in his mid-20s. The lawsuit was settled in 2000 without any admission of wrongdoing.