SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — Seton Hall University won't rescind an honorary degree given May 7 to Dolores Cross, the president of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, despite information indicating that she has publicly worked to advance abortion rights.
“As an undergraduate alumna of Seton Hall University with a long history with the university, Dr. Cross knows our ethical commitments well and has assured us she sees no conflict between her public statements and Seton Hall's Catholic mission,” Robina Schepp, director of public relations at Seton Hall University, told the Register.
Questioned about Cross’ participation in a 1992 report from the National Abortion Rights and Reproductive Action League, or NARAL, Schepp reiterated that Seton Hall had been assured by Cross that none of her public statements contradicted the Catholic Church's teachings.
“She knows the school. She has a long history with school,” said Schepp. “She has assured us that she doesn't see a conflict in relation to the report or at any other time that is in conflict with our Catholic mission.”
The Register obtained a copy of the NARAL report, called “Facing a Future Without Choice: A Report on Reproductive Liberty in America.” Cross served as a member of the National Commission on America Without Roe, which released the report.
The report quotes Cross on page 24, affirming the importance of “choice” as a principle to be respected in the context of abortion: “What I say to my students relates to my role as a college president as well as a mother and an African American woman. I'm concerned with three things — students being able to get into college, making sure we retain the students and they graduate from college, and creating opportunities for them. At every step of the way, choice is important.”
Asked to comment on Cross’ remarks, Schepp said, “I really do not want to enter into a debate with you in regards to her statement.”
Schepp refused to answer if Cross’ statement proves that she supports legalized abortion.
“Again, she has told us that she has not made any public comments that are in conflict with our mission,” said Schepp.
Priests for Life spokesman Father Peter West, who was the first to publicly call on Seton Hall to rescind the degree, was disappointed by the university's response.
“Dolores Cross obviously lied to Seton Hall. She has made public statements in favor of abortion,” said Father West, a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark.
He again called on Seton Hall's president, Msgr. Robert Sheerhan, to revoke the degree.
“Msgr. Sheerhan praised Dolores Cross for exemplifying the values that are taught everyday at Seton Hall,” said Father West. “I think it's Msgr. Sheerhan's duty as a priest and as a leader of a Catholic university to retract this degree because this woman is not only pro-abortion, she is also not truthful.”
Father West did find a positive development from the controversy.
“One good thing is that she is running from her public record and is obviously ashamed of her role with the National Abortion Rights Action League,” he said.
But that doesn't mean that the honorary degree did no harm, he added.
“It's very disheartening for people working to protect unborn children when Catholic universities give honor people who believe in ‘abortion rights,’” said Father West.
Seton Hall is an archdiocesan university. The Archdiocese of Newark called the controversy “a university matter.” Newark has been without a bishop since Theodore McCarrick became archbishop of Washington in January.
“Seton Hall continues to be important to the diocese, but university matters on a day-to-day basis are dealt with by the university,” said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the diocese.
James Riley, Jr., a sophomore from Newark studying political science, said the university's lack of knowledge regarding the views of Cross is unacceptable.
“Any claim of ignorance is an attempt by the university to shy away from any bad publicity that this might bring,” said Riley. “You do not award an honorary doctorate to a stranger, or to a person whose background has not been completely reviewed. It is just not good sense.”
Riley said that is obvious from the NARAL report that the views of Cross “clearly conflict with those of the Catholic Church.”
Ray Flynn, former ambassador to the Vatican and mayor of Boston, said accidents happen and that Seton Hall should be given the benefit of doubt regarding the original confer-ral of the degree.
“A lot of these things slip though the cracks. You just have to be vigilant,” said Flynn, the president of Catholic Alliance, a national Catholic political organization.
But Flynn added that now that Cross’ ties to abortion advocates are publicly known, Seton Hall should rescind the honor.
“Why should we confer a degree on someone who is advocating the taking of innocent lives, which is contrary to Catholic teaching?” Flynn asked.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, said many Catholics must share in the blame.
“Several abortion advocates are selected as commencement speakers at Catholic universities every year, and the argument is always the same: academic freedom and freedom of speech dictate the right — the privilege — of abortion advocates to be seated in places of honor beside the leaders of Catholic institutions,” said Reilly. “It's outrageous, but where's the outrage?
Schepp insisted that giving Cross an honorary degree didn't violate the school's Catholic identity.
“The school did not give an award to NARAL,” she told the Register. That doesn't excuse the school, Flynn said.
“Just by being on the commission whose stated goal is to advocate for abortion, Cross is making a statement,” he said.
Father West said that Schepp's argument wouldn't hold up if the university tried to honor someone like David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, or someone else associated with the racist organization.
“If the speaker were associated with the Ku Klux Klan, [the honorary degree] would be revoked,” Father West said.
“We should have the same policy for those who deny human rights to the unborn child.”
The Catholic Alliance's Flynn, who has issued a public statement calling on Seton Hall to rescind Cross’ doctorate, insisted that he has no animosity against New Jersey's only Catholic college.
“I have the highest respect for Seton Hall,” Flynn said. “I received an honorary degree from Seton Hall in 1995 when I spoke at commencement. But what has happened? I don't think the students have changed.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.