Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, the founder of Ignatius Press and a former student of Pope Benedict, has been fired from his position as theologian in residence at Ave Maria University. The action reportedly was taken because he criticized the administration’s handling of the school’s finances.
In a Monday letter, Fr. Fessio said that Dr. Jack Sites, Academic Vice President of Ave Maria University (AMU), had flown into San Francisco for an “amicable” Monday meeting with the priest to inform him that he was being dismissed.
Fr. Fessio said the dismissal stemmed from a November 2008 conversation Fr. Fessio had with Jack Donohue, who was then chairman of the board of AMU. According to Fr. Fessio, he told Donohue about the “urgency” of the university’s financial situation.
“I told him that there were policies being followed that were at the root of the problem, that the present administration was irrevocably wedded to those policies, and that without a change of administration the university was at great risk.”
In Fr. Fessio’s and Dr. Sites’ Monday meeting, Sites reportedly explained that Donohue had related the conversation to Tom Monaghan, a founder, major donor and present chancellor of AMU.
According to Fr. Fessio, it was decided by unknown persons “that the university could not have a faculty member making these criticisms of the administration and thus undermining the university.”
The priest had previously been fired from his position as university provost in March 2007, and was rehired in a less prominent position after protests from students and other Catholics. In his Monday letter, he said the circumstances of both firings were similarly due to “irreconcilable administrative differences.”
Expressing continued support for the university and a continued willingness to recommend the school to students and parents, Fr. Fessio wrote:
“I think it is an accurate summary to say that I am being dismissed as a faculty member because of a private conversation with the chairman of the board in which I made known my criticisms of the university administration; and because of allegations which have not been made known to me and to which I have not been given an opportunity to respond.”
“I will continue to think my dismissal is another mistake in a long series of unwise decisions,” his letter concluded.
The public relations firm representing AMU, Falls Communications, provided CNA with a statement from the university about Fr. Fessio’s firing.
“Ave Maria University (AMU) has announced that it has ended its formal relationship with Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. and he will no longer serve as Theologian in Residence. The decision was made by the leadership of the university and supported by its Board of Trustees,” the statement said.
"While Fr. Fessio will not be continuing in any capacity at the university, AMU wishes to express its gratitude to him for the assistance that he rendered to the university.”
Adela Gonzales White, a spokeswoman with the Diocese of Venice, confirmed to CNA that Bishop Frank J. Dewane is a non-voting ex officio member of the AMU Board of Trustees and so was not involved in a vote concerning Fr. Fessio.
The bishop was only recently appointed to the board and has not yet participated in a trustees’ meeting.