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After learning of this history two decades ago, I joined with a small group of activists to ask Maryland Provincial Rev. James R. Stormes, S.J., in effect, to seize a unique opportunity to confess and repent.
We thought our initiative was particularly well timed since President Bill Clinton had announced the appointment of a seven-member advisory board for his initiative on race to promote "a national dialogue on controversial issues surrounding race; to increase our understanding of the history of race relations and the common future people of all races share; to recruit leadership at all levels to help bridge racial divides, and to propose actions to address critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime and the administration of justice."
John Hope Franklin, an eminent historian and educator, whose writings included the 1946 landmark study From Slavery to Freedom, was appointed chair, and Judith A. Winston was named Executive Director of this "One America Initiative," with a senior staff of national civil rights leaders as senior staff.
As the initiative was getting off the ground, our small, diverse group met with Ms. Winston, herself a graduate of Georgetown University Law School, who was clearly delighted with what we proposed. We told her that we were not about blaming, but rather about acknowledging, apologizing, and reconciling, and said we were approaching then-Georgetown President Rev. Leo O'Donovan, S.J. and Maryland Provincial Stormes as follows:
"We have a vision of Georgetown's most prominent alumnus standing up before the cameras at Georgetown University this spring (1998) and being able to say, in all sincerity, that he has never been prouder of his alma mater and the Jesuits who run it. He might tell a bit of the story of Georgetown's origins and then, jointly with Fr. Stormes and Fr. O'Donovan, announce the establishment of a foundation to promote the education of the descendants of the Jesuits' slaves. President Clinton could then cite this as precisely the kind of action he had hoped would spring forth from his Initiative on Race, and could call upon others to follow the courageous example of the Maryland Jesuits. We think this could be a welcome boost for the President's Initiative."
But our optimism was misplaced. Even though many of us had learned at Jesuit hands about acting in a just way and doing recompense for injustice, we were told that we had no "standing," as what the Jesuits call "externs" or outsiders who have no right to hold them accountable. We still cannot figure out exactly why the Jesuit leaders were so offended by our initiative and they wouldn't tell us. We were denied an audience with Stormes -- and without Stormes's nihil obstat, there was no hope for support from O'Donovan.
The final nail in the coffin for our own initiative (as well as Bill Clinton's) came in early 1998 as his trysts with Monica Lewinsky and his lies about them deprived him of any pretense to moral leadership. The whole Initiative died an inconsequential death.
By chance I found myself sitting next to Judith Winston on a plane a few years ago. She saw my name, recognized me, and recalled our ill-fated common effort. Neither of us could do much more than simply shake our heads.
Perhaps even more sadly, the behavior of those Jesuit leaders in 1838 was not entirely an aberration. As Fr. Berrigan noted in this autobiography, Jesuit institutions have often traded ethics for clout, preferring to hobnob with the great and powerful rather than act as moral critics of social wrongs, such as slavery, war and -- in recent times -- even assassinations and torture.
Among its graduates, Georgetown University churned out CIA Director George Tenet, who offered "slam dunk" deceptions to justify the invasion of Iraq, and Vice President Dick Cheney's torture-excusing lawyer David Addington, who graduated summa cum laude.
Nor is Georgetown alone as a Jesuit institution in this dubious position of training people to engage in jesuitical arguments to justify the unjustifiable. My alma mater, Fordham, which has forever been trying to be "just like Georgetown," produced CIA Director John Brennan, an ardent, public supporter of the kidnapping/"rendering" of suspected terrorists to "friendly" Arab intelligence services for interrogation.
Brennan also defended the use of U.S. secret prisons abroad, as well as "enhanced interrogation techniques" (also known as torture).
But Brennan was a big shot in the White House and Fordham's Trustees were susceptible to the "celebrity virus." So, Fordham President, Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., invited Brennan to give the university commencement address on May 19, 2012, and to be awarded -- of all things -- a Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa.