In a letter addressed to SCU students, faculty and staff Wednesday morning, O’Brien said his decision to resign follows the March investigation by the USA West Province of the Jesuit Provincial Office. The investigation was sparked by concerns from Jesuit Provincial Scott Santarosa about behaviors observed in “certain social settings with adults that did not meet the highest standards of decorum expected of [O’Brien] as a Jesuit" over the past year.
In the end, the investigation found 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." Alcohol was involved, but "no inappropriate behavior was found in any settings outside of these dinners," according to a letter this week from John M. Sobrato, Santa Clara University’s Board of Trustees chair.
The 54-year-old career priest, theologian and renowned author’s departure comes only two years into the job, and five months after he presided over the Mass President Joe Biden attended in Washington D.C. ahead of his inauguration.
O’Brien said he entered an outpatient or nonresidential treatment program in April, which is expected to take four to six months. The program will address personal issues, including alcohol use and stress management, according to the letter.
“After much prayer and thought and out of deep love for Santa Clara, I have concluded that the best service I can offer to our beloved university is to step aside now,” O’Brien wrote. “As I engage this personal work, I cannot leave the university waiting, amid all the challenges we face in a very competitive landscape and given the opportunities we need to seize as we pivot to a post-pandemic context.”
Now the search for O’Brien’s replacement is on.
“The Board of Trustees takes this situation very seriously and fully supports those who came forward to provide their accounts,” Sobrato said in his letter. “The Board of Trustees will immediately establish a process to conduct a search for the University’s next President.”
In the meantime, former SCU Provost and now-Acting President Lisa Kloppenberg will continue to lead the school and its education, working with the university’s cabinet, deans and other leaders.
Alluding to the actions that led him to his outpatient treatment, he praised the importance of having friends that openly raise concerns. He left Santa Clara University students with a message: “Everyone needs help at times, and it is OK to ask for help when you need it, and to allow others to care for you.”
According to a press release announcing his appointment in 2019, O’Brien joined the Society of Jesus in 1996 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. He earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University and a Master of Divinity and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, now part of Boston College.