After Investigation, Priest who Presided at Biden Inaugural Mass Resigns as Santa Clara University President

In a May 12 letter to the university community, Fr. O’Brien said that in early March his Jesuit provincial, Father Scott Santarosa, had voiced concerns to him “about my well-being.”

Mission Santa Clara de Asís is at the heart of SCU's historic campus.
Mission Santa Clara de Asís is at the heart of SCU's historic campus. (photo: ScuMatt / CC BY-SA 3.0)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Santa Clara University president Jesuit Father Kevin O’Brien engaged in questionable behavior at informal dinners with Jesuit graduate students, the local Jesuit province has ruled, leading to Fr. O’Brien’s announcement that he will resign as president of the California Jesuit university. He has entered an outpatient program to address personal issues including alcohol use and stress.

Fr. O’Brien has been president of the San Jose-area university since 2019. He presided over the Jan. 20 Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C. which President Joe Biden attended the day before his inauguration. The priest has reportedly known the Biden family for at least 15 years, dating back to when Fr. O’Brien served at Georgetown University. Fr. O’Brien previously presided at a Mass for Biden and his family in both 2009 and 2013, when Biden was sworn in as vice president, the San Jose Mercury News reported. 

John M. Sobrato, the chairman of the board of trustees for Santa Clara university, said in a May 12 announcement that an independent investigation conducted on behalf of the USA West Province of the Society of Jesus found that Fr. O’Brien “engaged in behaviors, consisting primarily of conversations, during a series of informal dinners with Jesuit graduate students that were inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries.”

“The province also advised the board that alcohol was involved and that no inappropriate behavior was found in any settings outside of these dinners,” Sobrato said. “The board of trustees takes this situation very seriously and fully supports those who came forward to provide their accounts.”

Sobrato said Fr. O’Brien notified the trustees of his intention to resign on May 9 and the board accepted his resignation May 10. The board will immediately begin the process to search for his successor, Sobrato said.

In a May 12 letter to the university community, Fr. O’Brien said that in early March his Jesuit provincial, Father Scott Santarosa, had voiced concerns to him “about my well-being.”

“These concerns were based on accounts of my behavior over the past year in certain social settings with adults that did not meet the highest standards of decorum expected of me as a Jesuit,” he said. “The province investigated these concerns, and based on the results of that review, Father Santarosa asked me to enter a therapeutic program to address related personal issues, including my use of alcohol and stress management.”

Fr. O’Brien said he wrote his letter with “a heavy heart but clear mind.” He said he fully cooperated with the province’s investigation process.

“In April, I entered an outpatient or nonresidential treatment program, which many Jesuits over the years have found helpful in living a full, healthy life of service,” the priest added. “In my case, the program is expected to take four to six months.”

“It is important to have friends in your life, as I do now, who can speak honestly when they are concerned about you,” Fr. O’Brien’s letter said. “Equally important, no matter the success or positions you achieve in life, everyone needs help at times, and it is okay to ask for help when you need it, and to allow others to care for you.”

On March 15 Sobrato had announced unspecified allegations that Fr. O’Brien “exhibited behaviors in adult settings, consisting primarily of conversations, which may be inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries.” Sobrato asked any witnesses of inappropriate behavior to contact the Jesuits’ provincial office.

In his May letter to the university community, Fr. O’Brien said his extended absence would not serve the university well as the coronavirus pandemic ends. His resignation would allow the university board to begin the search for a successor, he said. He would not know whether or how he can return until the conclusion of the treatment program, he added.

While Father Santarosa, the Jesuit provincial, expects that Fr. O’Brien will be able to return to priestly ministry, it will not be as president, said Fr. O’Brien.

“As together we addressed challenges during the pandemic and in our movements to greater racial justice, I have loved my service here, primarily because of the people,” he said. “Thank you for your company and your support, especially when the days and decisions were hard. I trust that God will use my labor here for good, even when I fell short of my or your expectations.”

The university trustees have named Lisa Kloppenberg as acting president. She was named interim university provost in June 2019 and has served as university provost and vice president for academic affairs since February 2020. Previously, she served as dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law and as dean and professor of law at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio.

Fr. O’Brien praised Kloppenberg’s “exceptional and visionary leadership” and praised the leadership of the university cabinet, its deans, and other leaders.

“Know that my days begin with prayers for Santa Clara and its mission which endures with the grace of God and the goodness of so many,” he said.

Fr. O’Brien was reportedly popular and well-liked as SCU’s president. He was a frequent contributor to MSNBC, CNN, and the Washington Post on Church-related issues.

He was a lawyer before he was ordained a priest. He served as dean of Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology before being named president.

Santa Clara University, established in 1851, counts current California Governor Gavin Newsom and former Governor Jerry Brown among its alumni. 

In 2013, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University changed their employee health care plans to remove elective abortion coverage. The change prompted significant protests from some faculty, while Planned Parenthood and others lobbied California officials to block the effort.

After California mandated abortion coverage in health plans, the universities complied, despite Catholic teaching against cooperation with the provision of abortion.

The Obama administration rejected claims that the state mandate violated the Weldon Amendment, which bars federal funds to state or local governments if they discriminate against healthcare entities, including health insurance plans, that decline to pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions. However, in early 2020 federal officials appeared more favorable to Weldon Amendment objections.