Successor Must Restore Faith

At the end of the Dark Age of the St. John’s men’s basketball team (the turbulent Mike Jarvis era), Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., Still-President of the University found himself in hot water after bemoaning the “culture” of the team.

“Cultures develop on a team,” Harrington told the New York Daily News in February 2004. “And I’m not talking about ethnic culture or religious culture. It’s the way people interact and what they think is acceptable or not acceptable.”

By Harrington’s definition, there’s a cultural problem in the office of the president at St. John’s – a culture of corruption. Harrington and chief of staff Rob Wile thought it was “acceptable” to leverage their relationship with Cecilia Chang to live the high life.

Harrington used his cozy relationship with the Board of Trustees to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in reportedly interest-free loans for his protégé Wile.

The statement in support of Harrington issued by Cardinal Timothy Dolan shows that there’s another cultural problem – the tendency of Catholic clergy to circle the wagons when one of its own is facing allegations of wrongdoing. We’ve seen before that there’s very little accountability when priests, bishops and cardinals do wrong, and the situation with Harrington is no different.

Dolan had the chance to restore some faith in the institution that many at St. John’s have lost throughout this scandal. He had the chance to put his foot down, and say that this type of behavior is not in line with Catholic teaching, and not the way a priest should act. He could have said that although Harrington did a lot of great things, he exhibited extremely poor judgment when doing things like taking trips to Turks and Caicos with Wile and his then-girlfriend, or accepting fancy suits and watches from Cecilia Chang and her friends.

He didn’t. Dolan’s statement, like NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s and the Very Rev. Michael Carroll’s, neglected even to mention the appalling scandal that has plagued the campus all semester.

“I am delighted to learn that in his retirement Father Harrington will be available to the Church to continue to champion Catholic education” Dolan said. “I expect to call on him.”

Dolan, like everybody involved with this case, took the easy way out. Harrington’s corruption doesn’t even rise to the level of footnote in his biography as written by St. John’s office of external relations. Instead, look at our pretty new buildings! The dorms! Steve Lavin! That’s Harrington’s legacy to them, not the $350,000 that went from student tuition payments to Wile’s pockets, or the eyewatering figures lavished on Harrington and Wile by Chang, who billed it all back to the University.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this whole sordid affair, and I fear that the University won’t learn any of them. I fear that the next president will come in with the same mentality that Harrington did, and view his role as a CEO, rather than as a spiritual and moral leader. I fear that the new president will continue to refuse to level with students and faculty. I fear that the new president will see nothing wrong with driving an Audi, or wearing Patek Phillipe watches, or staying in five-star hotels on trips to Asia, with layovers in Hawaii (all things that Harrington decided didn’t conflict with his vow of poverty). I fear that while the actors will change, the institution will not.

And it needs to. As a Yale business professor told New York Magazine, you don’t see the kind of shenanigans that happened at St. John’s except in corrupt institutions.

Fair or not, that’s the perception of the University that Harrington leaves. The new president’s first priority should be to restore honor and integrity to the University, and save the reputation of St. John’s. That requires disavowing Harrington’s actions, publicly and explicitly. Nobody will believe that anything has changed until the University divorces itself from the man who has brought so much shame to the school.

The Board of Trustees needs to make a clean and decisive break from the Harrington Era with its investigation report and its new hire, or risk the University continuing to fall from its perch as one of the leaders of Catholic higher education.