Former Catholic chaplain was removed after alcohol-related ‘incident’ with University student
The administration originally attributed Father Walter Cuenin’s abrupt departure in early 2015 to unspecified health problems.
Father Walter Cuenin, the University’s Catholic chaplain from 2006 to 2015, was removed from ministry and his position at Brandeis due to alcohol addiction and a “related incident” involving an adult male student, the Archdiocese of Boston’s Secretary for Communications and Public Affairs Terrence Donilon confirmed in an Oct. 3 email to the Justice. The University had originally attributed Cuenin’s departure to unspecified “health reasons”in a Jan. 13, 2015 email from Dean of Students Jamele Adams.
University Director of Media Relations Julie Jette told the Justice in an Oct. 23 statement that in late December 2014, Brandeis received a complaint from a student that Father Cuenin “behaved unacceptably on an off-campus trip in the fall of 2014.” The University informed the student of the “availability of university support services, and the option of initiating a Brandeis investigation,” according to Jette. The University notified Cuenin that he would not be allowed to return to campus and that he should have no further contact with any student or member of the Brandeis community.
Brandeis informed the Archdiocese of Boston of the complaint, and the archdiocese told the University that it would conduct an investigation into Cuenin’s behavior, Jette wrote. The archdiocese informed the University that regardless of the outcome of its investigation, Cuenin would no longer practice as a priest or serve on any college campus.
In an Oct. 24 follow-up email to the Justice, Donilon confirmed to the Justice that the archdiocese investigated the complaint, the details of which he did not specify. “Out of concern and at the request of the adult male student and Brandeis University, it was determined that Fr. Cuenin’s assignment would end and the privacy of the adult male student would be respected,” Donilon wrote. He said he is not aware of any further contact between Cuenin and the University community.
The Justice asked University President Ron Liebowitz why the University had not disclosed the specific reasons for Cuenin’s departure in 2015 and whether the University had sought to determine if Cuenin had behaved “unacceptably” toward other students. Jette replied on Liebowitz’s behalf, saying that because Liebowitz was not at Brandeis at the time, it “isn’t appropriate” for him to comment. She referred the Justice to her earlier statement.
The Code of Ministerial Behavior for the Archdiocese of Boston states that clergy should refrain from “the use of alcohol when working with youth.” Pastoral counselors and spiritual directors “assume the full burden of responsibility for establishing and maintaining clear, appropriate boundaries in all counseling and counseling-related relationships.”
Cuenin is currently a senior priest with restricted status, Donilon wrote. “Priests who reach a certain age and who have completed parish assignments can move to senior priest status,” he added. Such priests can generally serve in parishes to help with mass or confessions, but Cuenin’s restricted status bars him from exercising public ministry. A priest’s status can be restricted for a variety of reasons, according to Donilon. He did not specify why Cuenin was banned from performing priestly duties.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley appointed Cuenin as the University’s Catholic chaplain in February 2006, according to a Feb. 7, 2006 Justice article. Catholic priests are appointed to the chaplaincy by the archdiocese, while the University hires them and pays their salaries. The archdiocese had forced Cuenin to resign from his previous post at Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, Massachusetts, the year before, saying that Cuenin’s $500 monthly stipend, which had been approved by the parish, exceeded the archdiocese’s limit of five dollars per mass. Cuenin agreed to pay the archdiocese $75,000 but said an internal audit found that his stipend was within church policy, according to the same Justice article.
"Some people have suggested [my removal] was because I was an outspoken kind of priest," Cuenin told the Newton TAB at the time, per the Justice article.
In 2002, Cuenin and 57 other priests signed a letter calling on Cardinal Bernard Law to resign, saying he was no longer an “effective spiritual leader,” according to a Dec. 10, 2002 Boston Globe article. The letter’s publication was sparked by widespread anger over Law’s failure to “remove from ministry priests accused of sex with minors,” per the same article. Law stepped down from his post four days after the letter was sent.
While an Oct. 2, 2005 Boston Globe article reported that a majority of the priests who signed the letter appeared to have “suffered no negative career impact,” some priests said that the archdiocese was creating a “climate of fear.”
“I do think there are people being targeted: those who haven't capitulated to the desires of the diocese … starting with gay marriage and reconfiguration,” Reverend Thomas Mahoney told the Globe.
Cuenin said he was known for being an “outspoken advocate for the rights of gay people” within the Church, per the 2006 Justice article. In his farewell service at Our Lady Help of Christians, Cuenin told roughly 1,500 attendees, "We welcome all people single or married, divorced or remarried, gay or straight," according to an Oct. 3, 2005 Boston Globe article. Following the service, over 1,000 people marched to the Boston Archdiocese headquarters to protest Cuenin’s departure. Cuenin had established a gay and lesbian outreach program at his parish and performed baptisms on children adopted by gay couples, saying that "gays should know that they're blessed in the Church,” according to the 2006, Justice article.
Cuenin also wanted women to be eligible for positions of leadership in the church. "I don't think future Catholics will be satisfied with only hearing the scripture interpreted through men's visions,” he told the Justice in 2006. Currently, only men are allowed to become priests in the Church.
Cuenin continued to express support for the LGBTQ community during his time at Brandeis. In October 2014, he displayed a gay pride flag on the Bethlehem Chapel to recognize LGBTQ+ History Month, per an Oct. 14, 2014 Justice article.
Elena Insley ’15, a Catholic Student Organization member at the time, described his role as extending “beyond a weekly mass and into the daily lives of students as he would offer spiritual guidance, traditional Catholic services, and also mentorship to all student,” according to a Feb. 10, 2015 Justice article.
Cuenin had taken a leave of absence from his post in October 2012 to receive treatment for cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, according to an Oct. 8, 2012 Justice article. In an email to the Brandeis community at the time, Cuenin said he hoped to address not just his cancer but “other psychological and spiritual issues” as well.
Protestant Chaplain Reverend Matt Carriker, who joined the University in 2012, said in a Sept. 27 interview with the Justice that he was not aware that Cuenin suffered from alcoholism and that he had no knowledge of an incident between Cuenin and a male student.
Dean of Students Jamele Adams and then-University President Frederick Lawrence did not respond to requests for comment, and then-Senior Vice President of Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel directed inquiries to the University’s current administration.
—Jen Geller, Jocelyn Gould, Avraham Penso, and Sam Stockbridge contributed reporting.