Catholic University Accused of Not Properly Investigating Sexual Misconduct Complaints

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Whitney Bryan/Oklahoma Watch

Although St. Gregory's University in Shawnee has closed, St. Gregory's Abbey remains active on adjacent grounds, with the abbey church shown here, a monastery and other facilities.

A Catholic priest is accused of sexual misconduct on the campus of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee and former students and faculty have questioned whether officials at the now-shuttered college failed to properly investigate complaints.

Two women have filed a lawsuit against the university, which closed and filed bankruptcy in December, and St. Gregory’s Abbey, where the priest resides.

The university investigated complaints of sexual misconduct involving the Rev. Nicholas Ast, and he was cleared of wrongdoing, according to an attorney for the abbey and the former university board president. No criminal charges have been filed.

The women, Dana Bucko and Cara Judd, allege in the lawsuit the university and the abbey were indifferent to their complaints and failed to properly investigate the allegations.

“This case arises from defendants’ deliberately indifferent response to events of priest-on-student sexual assault and subsequent harassment,” the lawsuit states. “Investigation indicates these cases are but a handful of many in what has been a history and extensive history and conscious disregard by defendants.”

Final Stages for St. Gregory University

One former professor told Oklahoma Watch in a series of emails that when he was at the school, numerous women individually came to him over several years with concerns about sexual misconduct they had experienced or witnessed.

He said he alerted administrators several times and board members once. When no action was taken, he began warning students and criticized administrators, the professor, Sean Connolly, said. He said he was fired for those actions, with the university citing “unprofessional conduct.”

 The abbey and university, through court records and responses to questions, deny that there was a pattern of sexual abuse on campus or that Ast engaged in sexual misconduct. The university alleges the students who sued didn’t follow proper reporting procedures and caused or contributed to the alleged abuse through their own negligence.

“Defendant university denies every allegation,” attorneys for St. Gregory’s said in court filings. The school also “denies the existence of a sexually hostile environment at the university and any failure to investigate.”

An attorney representing the abbey said he doesn’t believe the allegations in the lawsuit have any merit. The university’s attorney, Malinda Matlock, did not answer  emailed questions about the lawsuit and said she was not in a position to address Connolly’s dismissal.

In interviews with Oklahoma Watch, Bucko and Judd described actions such as unwanted hugging and touching. Each said they had disturbing encounters during confessions with Ast; they said they felt that he steered them into explicit conversations about boyfriends and dating relationships that aroused the priest.

Both women say they were shaken by their experience and have sought counseling since leaving the university. Judd said she confided in a roommate at St. Gregory’s only after a panic attack that sent her to the emergency room.

In 2015, her senior year, Judd said she reported Ast to university authorities, including the Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, who oversees the abbey. Judd said the abbot brushed her off and encouraged her not to file a police report and to allow the university to handle the investigation internally.

Voice messages left recently for Ast and Stasyszen were returned by John Tucker, a Tulsa attorney representing the abbey in the lawsuit, which was filed in August in Pottawatomie County District Court. Tucker did not respond to a follow-up email asking specifically about what Stasyszen told Judd.

Ast was vice president for mission and identity and university chaplain at St. Gregory’s until 2015; he also taught history and theology at one time. He is currently director of oblates for the abbey (oblates are lay people associated with the monastery).

Ast was well-liked, some students said. An online biography says that he was chosen Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year by students several times.

Dallas attorney Taylor Jack, who represents Judd and Bucko, argues in court documents that when someone did come forward to report misconduct, the university and abbey took the word of the priest over the word of students.

The university’s board of directors knew about the investigation and the outcome, but weren’t told the names of the people involved, said the Rev. Don Wolf, former board president. He said he later became aware the accusations were against Ast.

“I knew both the people who undertook the investigation, and I certainly trust their integrity,” Wolf said.

The lawsuit’s cover-up allegations evoke the sexual-abuse scandals that the Catholic church and schools have faced across the world in recent decades.

A 2002 Boston Globe investigation revealed there were cover-ups of incidents of Catholic priests sexually abusing children going back many years. Millions of dollars have been paid to settle cases with victims. Some cases of sexual harassment and assaults at Catholic colleges also have drawn attention.

In Oklahoma, at least seven priests and two church deacons have been accused of sex abuse or misconduct, according to news reports.

In 2016, the Rev. Jose Alexis Davila, of San Diego, was assigned to four Oklahoma congregations, despite a misdemeanor battery conviction for groping a woman at his California home, according to the San Diego Tribune. Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley removed DaVila after news reports that the priest was doing pastoral work in Oklahoma.

Concerns on Campus

The women’s lawsuit alleges that St. Gregory’s officials received “numerous reports” from faculty and staff, as well as from students, about sexual misconduct at the school and failed to adequately investigate or provide a safe environment.

“Through fear and intimidation, the university and the abbey created an environment by which students, faculty and staff could not come forward for fear that their scholarships and/or positions would be eliminated,” the lawsuit says.

Connolly, who was an assistant philosophy professor at St. Gregory’s from 2011 to 2016, said in emails that from early on in his career there, students came to him with concerns about Ast. The young women were distraught and described patterns of behavior that were consistent, even though the women were unaware of others’ complaints.

“Almost all of the women were devout Catholics, and they were apprehensive about filing formal complaints,” Connolly said. “They were led to believe that one should never criticize a priest or accuse the Church, and a number of them expressed the fear of going to hell if they spoke out.”

He had voiced his concerns with Stasyszen, the abbot – verbally, then by email, but was always brushed aside, Connolly said. A year or so later, he wrote a letter to Stasyszen, plus the university dean and provost, but was again ignored, he said.

Ast was under investigation for at least one Title IX claim, the board president and others confirm. Title IX is a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational programs. Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault. Colleges and universities can be legally responsible when they know about and ignore sexual harassment or assault in their programs or activities.

Tucker, attorney for the abbey, said the allegations in the lawsuit repeat allegations the university already investigated.

“Title IX has such a low standard of proof. There was no finding. That’s important to recognize,” he said. “I don’t believe the allegations (in the lawsuit) have any merit.”

John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union

The Rev. Nicholas Ast, of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, is shown in this July 19, 2012, photo taken at the 73rd Annual Tekakwitha Conference in Colonie, New York, outside Albany. He was talking with a Catholic sister and executive director of the conference.

Women’s Allegations

The lawsuit alleges that over 10 years, Ast “groomed numerous girls for sexual abuse under the guise of providing spiritual guidance, friendship and a listening ear.”

The lawsuit accuses the university of failing to properly supervise departments, including the dance program and the Office of Faith Integration, Development and Evangelization, or FIDE, an initiative to reinforce Catholic faith and identity on church campuses.

Jessica Van Oort, a former faculty member at St. Gregory’s, said in an interview that Ast regularly videotaped dance performances and participated in a “good luck” ritual before performances with the young women, which Van Oort found unnerving.

Van Oort, who was dance department chair and assistant professor from 2011 to 2017, said she didn’t complain to administrators but did find a new videographer.

In interviews, Bucko and Judd, who filed the lawsuit, said Ast stocked his office with candy and beverages, which they said encouraged students to stop by regularly. Jack, the attorney, alleges this was one way of grooming the young women.

Bucko, a dance student who attended the university from 2009 to 2013, said Ast once asked her what her favorite chocolate was, and what beverage (non-alcoholic) she liked. He then stocked his office with her favorites. They had a mentor-mentee relationship and frequently talked about life, Bucko said. As a freshman, she changed her major from communications to history because Ast was a history professor.

“Something in me just wanted to be around him and be guided by him. It felt like a Harry Potter and Dumbledore situation,” said Bucko, now 26.

As she got more comfortable, he started closing and locking his office door for confession, at which time the conversation got “R-rated”, she said. Uncomfortably long hugs followed, and he once pressed his body against her, aroused, she said.

She left the university in 2013 without graduating due to a chronic illness and now lives in Texas. She pushed the memories aside until a 2016 conversation with a college acquaintance brought them to the surface again. She learned from him that other women had similar experiences.

One of those women is Judd, a self-described “cradle Catholic” who graduated from St. Gregory’s in 2015 and lives in Oklahoma. She encountered Ast regularly; she served as director of music ministry for the mass attended by students for a while — a position that came with a scholarship and an office near Ast.

He would frequently stop by and ask about her romantic relationships, she said.

“He would close the door because it was confession, and he would start asking me really specific details,” Judd said. “In hindsight, really inappropriate questions.” This happened several times a month, she said.

She, too, said Ast hugged her after confession and once pressed his body against her, aroused.

Once, during summer break she attended mass at a youth retreat and during confession, confessed her relationship sins to a different priest.

That priest didn’t ask for details, and quickly moved on, telling her, “God knows what your sins are.” She said she realized then Ast had been taking advantage of her.

The week before graduation, Judd had a panic attack during the night and her roommate took her to the emergency room. After the incident, she confided in her roommate what had happened with Ast.

Shortly after, she opened a complaint with the Title IX coordinator, Anita Poole Endsley, which resulted in mediation with herself, Poole Endsley and the abbot, Stasyszen. Poole Endsley, reached via social media, declined to comment citing a non-disclosure agreement with the university. She resigned in 2016, while the investigation was ongoing. Ron Diggs, who filled her position as Title IX coordinator, declined to comment when reached at his Norman home.

“The abbot was like, you know, these kinds of things happen sometimes, and brushed it off,” said Judd, now 25. “Nobody called it sexual assault or anything. It was just ‘uncomfortable.’”

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 16 but the judge issued a stay of proceedings in January while the university’s bankruptcy is being settled. A final hearing in the bankruptcy case is set for April 17.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

The monastery is where most of the Benedictine members of St. Gregory’s Abbey reside.

Legal Issues

The university’s most recent president, Michael Scaperlanda, withheld comment because of the pending litigation.

“Although I cannot speak directly to the claims that arose several years ago under a previous administration, I have faith in our judicial system that it will be fairly adjudicated,” Scaperlanda wrote in an email. Scaperlanda was a board official for several years prior to taking on the role as president, documents show.

Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, declined to answer questions about whether the archdiocese investigated the allegations against Ast, saying she couldn’t discuss specifics in the case because of the lawsuit.

One defense the university and abbey raised in their responses to the lawsuit is the civil statute of limitations, which ranges from one to five years, depending on the offense.

Statutes of limitations vary by state. Michigan lawmakers recently voted to extend the statute of limitations for civil and criminal sexual abuse claims to 30 years after a person’s 18th birthday if they were minors when the incident occurred, and 10 years for victims who were older than 18 when the offense occurred.

Michigan’s legislation was in response to the sex abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar, a sports physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University who is now spending life in prison.

Last year Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law the Hidden Predator Act, which extended the criminal and civil statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to their 45th birthday. The act does not include an extension for people victimized as adults.

Laws to extend the statute of limitations for sex abuse victims come at a time of increased public awareness of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and reasons why such instances are often not immediately reported — which include shame, denial and fear of retaliation, experts say. This year Georgia also considered extending the limit on civil lawsuits over childhood sexual assault but faced opposition from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Boy Scouts of America. A more lenient bill passed.

Another defense raised by the abbey is Canon Law, which, in part, forbids priests from revealing anything about confession. Priests who violate the seal of confession can be excommunicated.

Tucker said this means Ast can neither confirm nor deny the allegations. “It would be a breach of his vows to say, ‘That’s not true,’” Tucker said.

Both Judd and Bucko said they were relieved to hear St. Gregory’s had closed, because it meant there would no longer be young women on campus.

“I don’t want anybody else to have to go through that, and to be scared, and be in a position where they think they can’t do anything,” Judd said.

Reach Jennifer Palmer at jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org or (405) 325-2084.