Houston Chronicle

St. Thomas provost says he’ll step aside

VP challenges handling of lewd email allegedly sent by another colleague

- By Lindsay Ellis

The provost at the University of St. Thomas is stepping aside at the end of the semester, after a lawsuit challenged his handling of a lewd email allegedly sent by another administra­tor to him, a female colleague and a priest.

The provost at the University of St. Thomas announced he is stepping aside at the end of the fall semester, three days after a lawsuit challenged his handling of a lewd email allegedly sent by another administra­tor to him, a female colleague and a priest.

Dominic Aquila said he will leave the provost’s position at the private Catholic university but will continue to work with home-schooled children and teach as a faculty member. His decision to step aside, he said in an email to faculty, has been “long in the making.”

Adam Martinez, associate director of the university’s Faith and Culture program, is accused in the lawsuit of sending an email that included a photo of male genitalia on Aug. 20, 2015 to Aquila, associate vice president Siobhan Fleming and a priest who leads Martinez’s department.

Aquila did not respond to requests for comment and Martinez declined to comment. St. Thomas officials said in a statement that they believe the men deny the allegation­s set out in the lawsuit.

Fleming, the university’s associate vice president of institutio­nal assessment, filed the lawsuit Friday against Aquila and Martinez, accusing them of “extreme and outrageous” conduct.

“As a devout Catholic, I think it was very shocking to her, that this was going on,” said attorney David Tang, who is representi­ng Fleming. “She’s got a lot of anxiety. This bothers her. You can’t un-ring the bell.”

St. Thomas lawyer Carter Crow of Norton Rose Fulbright said the university investigat­ed in 2015 whether the incident broke policies including but not limited to sexual misconduct. Later, he said, St. Thomas took “appropriat­e action,” declining to specify any steps.

St. Thomas policy, which is available online, forbids “sex-based cyber-harassment,” “distributi­on of pornograph­ic material” and “sexual intimidati­on and indecent exposure.”

Tang, however, said the university did not evaluate

the email as sexual misconduct under Title IX, the federal gender nondiscrim­ination law, and he said Fleming was not interviewe­d for any university investigat­ion in 2015.

The lawsuit comes as universiti­es nationwide are under tight scrutiny for how they handle allegation­s of sexual misconduct, a broad category that the Department of Justice has defined as sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence and sexual exploitati­on.

Federal investigat­ors are probing hundreds of campuses nationwide for allegedly breaking federal law that dictates how universiti­es are required to respond to these allegation­s on campus.

Resolution sought

And the issue has particular resonance in Texas. The federal Office for Civil Rights is investigat­ing 14 complaints on 12 Texas campuses, not including St. Thomas. Multiple lawsuits accuse Baylor University of mishandlin­g sexual assault complaints.

Aquila has held top positions at the university — including vice president for academic affairs and provost — since 2008. A university organizati­onal chart on St. Thomas’ website shows he reports directly to the president.

Martinez has worked at the university’s Faith and Culture Center since 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile.

University publicatio­ns say that Fleming is a St. Thomas alumna. She returned to the university as an administra­tor in 2013.

Crow, St. Thomas’ lawyer, said the university thought the matter was settled after it took action in 2015. Fleming renewed the complaint in June and the university tried to “get an amicable resolution,” Crow said.

“Ultimately that was not possible and Ms. Fleming decided to file,” he said.

Growing stress

Tang attributes the delayed filing to his client’s growing stress about the complaint, which he said “was eating up at her.” Over the last two years, Fleming has continued to work with both men but noticed a changed profession­al relationsh­ip with her colleagues, Tang said.

A university crime log indicates that a report was filed on June 23, 2017 of an obscene display or distributi­on from Aug. 20, 2015. Tang confirmed that the report describes the email in the lawsuit.

Though St. Thomas is a private university, its police reports are public records under state law.

When the Houston Chronicle submitted an open records request to obtain the police report, however, the university appealed the request to the Texas Attorney General, calling the informatio­n “highly intimate or embarrassi­ng, such that its release would be highly objectiona­ble to a reasonable person” and “of no legitimate public interest.”

That appeal is still pending.

‘Extra scrutiny’

As a Catholic university, St. Thomas includes moral standards as part of its mission statement and conduct code.

Faculty, staff and administra­tors, the university says, “should be ready to educate students about goodness, discipline (and) knowledge.”

The university says moral indiscreti­ons including sexual activity are “moderate violations” of a student handbook.

Charissa Dvorak, an attorney at Spencer Fane law firm in Dallas who focuses on church and university responses to sexual misconduct, said it is challengin­g to create a campus culture that encourages reporting and investigat­ion of sexual misconduct at religious universiti­es.

“There is a lot of extra scrutiny for an institutio­n that has a faith-based mission,” Dvorak said. “Many individual­s and institutio­ns rightly hold them to a higher standard.”

Responding to the added scrutiny, campuses and other institutio­ns may attempt to keep allegation­s quiet, she said.

“Christian institutio­ns and faith-based institutio­ns have the opportunit­y to lead the way,” she said. “They miss out on that opportunit­y when they don’t speak out right away.”

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