Advertisement
Share

USD Calls Off Event Because Killea Is Invited

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Administrators at the University of San Diego canceled an on-campus political conference last month because of their concern that state Sen. Lucy Killea’s involvement would be an affront to Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher, whose clash with Killea over the abortion issue generated a national controversy last fall.

The March 16-18 conference, which was to have been co-sponsored by USD’s political sciences department and a La Jolla consulting firm, was scrapped the week before because of university leaders’ concern that Killea’s planned appearance would be “inappropriate,” a university spokesman said Thursday night.

During last fall’s campaign, Maher denied Killea Communion rights because of the San Diego Democrat’s advocacy of abortion rights--igniting a political and religious firestorm that figured prominently in her upset victory.

Initially, officials at the Catholic university told organizer Brenda Kinnaman that the three-day meeting on campaign tactics could not be held as planned at USD’s Douglas Manchester Conference Center because of a last-minute scheduling conflict.

Advertisement

Rejecting USD officials’ suggestion that the event be moved off campus, Kinnaman tried to reschedule it in late April at the university. Faced with that prospect, USD officials dramatically changed their story, admitting that the March conference had been scuttled, not by a schedule conflict, but by university leaders’ discomfort over Killea’s inclusion among the speakers. Moreover, as long as Killea remained part of the program, officials told Kinnaman, the conference would not be welcome at USD.

In a statement released late Thursday night, prompted by earlier inquiries from The Times, the university said: “USD felt an appearance by state Sen. Lucy Killea, given the events of last fall’s election, would be perceived by the public as an affront to Bishop Maher and was, therefore, inappropriate.”

Though Kinnaman said she has been told privately by USD officials that Maher vehemently objected to Killea’s role in the conference, Arts and Sciences Dean Pat Drinan insisted that Maher “exerted no pressure at all,” either in trying to have Killea removed from the program or in canceling the meeting.

Instead, USD President Author Hughes, in consultation with political science department head Virginia Muller, decided to cancel the conference “as a matter of courtesy” to Maher, Drinan said. Maher could not be reached for comment Thursday.

“President Hughes approached the bishop, not the other way around,” Drinan said. “It was thought that, with Bishop Maher only a few months away from retirement, Sen. Killea’s participation . . . could have been seen as an unnecessary embarrassment. That’s what we wanted to avoid.”

Describing herself as “a little disappointed but not really offended,” Killea, who received a master’s degree at USD, said the university’s objections were privately conveyed to her by a friend in the administration.

“I didn’t really look upon the conference as an olive branch, but I thought, well, maybe this will help us get back to normal business and put this other stuff behind us,” Killea said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”

During last December’s special 39th state Senate District campaign, Maher’s sanction against Killea catapulted the otherwise obscure state legislative contest to national prominence--reviving, in the process, the familiar debate over separation of church and state.

Advertisement

Calling Killea, 67, “an advocate of this most heinous crime,” Maher ordered her not to take Communion unless she recanted her support for legalized abortion--something that the then four-term Assemblywoman refused to do.

Though Maher called his action “more pastoral than political,” he readily acknowledged that he hoped his message would cost Killea votes in her race against Republican Carol Bentley. Far from damaging Killea, however, Maher’s action transformed the unassuming, low-key legislator into a nationwide celebrity, acting as a magnet for dollars and volunteers that helped produce a razor-thin 50.6%-49.4% victory.

Maher, who is scheduled to step down as head of the San Diego diocese in July when he reaches the church’s mandatory retirement age of 75, is head of USD’s board of trustees. The final decision about the conference, however, rested with Hughes. Privately, some USD professors have complained that the event’s cancellation raises serious questions about academic independence at the university, the site of the diocesan headquarters.

“It’s difficult to say how this might be perceived,” Drinan said. “It is inherently a murky situation. We tried to clean it up, but it ended up getting a little messy.”

Advertisement

In particular, the university’s initial explanation that the conference’s cancellation stemmed from a double-booking oversight created confusion and misunderstanding on all sides.

Drinan conceded Thursday night that available space was not the problem but resisted characterizing the admittedly false explanation as a cover story designed to conceal the real reason.

“I don’t think it is as much a cover story as it was a legitimate method of trying to find a way out of this that didn’t cause embarrassment,” Drinan said. “We tried to finesse the situation.”

Kinnaman, a fund-raiser in Killea’s race last December, said she doubts that the true story behind the cancellation would have come out had she not pursued her efforts to reschedule the event on the USD campus. About 200 people had reserved places at the conference, which will be held in July at UC San Diego.

Advertisement

“At first, it looked like Lucy might have trouble clearing her schedule, so I think they thought, ‘All right! We’re home free!’ ” Kinnaman said. “But, when I told them Lucy would be able to do it, they were forced to ‘fess up and level with me.”

Killea offered similar remarks in downplaying her feelings about the awkward situation.

“I don’t really have any personal resentment over it,” Killea said. “If the concern was that I might embarrass them by bringing up the bishop’s action (barring her from receiving Communion), that’s not something I would do. I wasn’t going to raise the issue independently.

“I guess my feeling is just that the bishop’s been left far behind in what’s happening today. But that will work itself out. Time will take care of that.”

Advertisement


Advertisement