Flames of the Torch: Harrington’s Not the One on Trial

Much has been said about Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., President of the University’s testimony in the Cecilia Chang trial. As first reported by the New York Daily News, Harrington took the stand on Wednesday and Thursday as a witness for the prosecution.

It’s difficult to not read the testimony and see an old man who seems to have been misled and taken advantage of. He seemingly entered the University, where Chang had already been working for a decade, in the midst of this systemic manipulation and complacency regarding Chang and her work. He said that he remembers a conversation with his predecessor, Rev. Joseph T. Cahill, C.M. in which he was told “she ran her own show … and she did it successfully and she was unique and she should be left alone to do her thing.”

Chang pulled the wool over the eyes of everybody for more than 30 years. It’s a shame that Harrington fell for her charade, but it doesn’t make him a bad person, or University president.

The gifts he accepted — the ones that people are most upset about  — included tailored suits, expensive bottles of wine and watches. We’re not arguing that it seems excessive, and we’re certainly not arguing that it’s embarrassing for Harrington. It appears as if he ignored many of the values that his Vincentian community espouses and that, as a priest who is supposed to receive only a $200 monthly stipend, he is a hypocrite using his power to bend the rules.

However, it seems as if Harrington was put in an untenable position by Chang, who continually pressured him to take gifts from potential Asian donors so that he wouldn’t come off as rude or culturally ignorant. Put in his situation, it’s hard to say what we would have done differently.

And the stopovers in Hawaii after trips to Asia were recommended and sanctioned by the Board of Trustees — also known as his bosses. Issue should be taken with them, not Harrington.

Of course, there are questions that need to be answered. How did the superiors in his Vincentian community feel about these gifts he was accepting? How did these gifts he receive not violate his “vow of poverty”? Ironically, the toughest questions he should be facing all relate to his religion — not his work for the University. But his biggest defenders so far have also been those with the closest ties to the Catholic Church — meaning that he likely won’t have to answer those questions about his faith.

It’s not our role to judge him on issues of faith either. But on the merits of how his relationship with Chang affected his role as President of the University, it seems clear to us that he was co-opted, not corrupt, and misled, not misleading.