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In wake of hazing scandal, Mater Dei president steps down

Mater Dei players after a football victory
Father Walter E. Jenkins, wearing a red jacket, poses with the Mater Dei High varsity football team after a victory on Nov. 26.
(Kyusung Gong / For The Times)

The president of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana has left the school in the wake of an alleged hazing scandal involving its storied football program.

Father Walter E. Jenkins, who started at Mater Dei in July, stepped down at the end of the winter break, according to a letter sent Saturday by Erin Barisano, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Jenkins, a priest, will return to South Bend, Ind., to “take on a new assignment” with his religious order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, Barisano said.

His departure follows weeks of controversy for Mater Dei’s powerhouse football program and longtime head coach Bruce Rollinson. A lawsuit filed in late November by the family of a former football player accused Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange of trying to cover up a brutal locker room altercation that left the player with a traumatic brain injury.

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A lawsuit accuses Mater Dei and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange of trying to cover up a brutal locker room altercation that left a player with a traumatic brain injury.

Mater Dei spokeswoman Allison Bergeron said Jenkins was not fired, and that there is “no connection between the litigation and his departure.”

“To make such a connection is deeply unfair to Father Jenkins, who served Mater Dei well during his tenure,” she said.

Jenkins’ departure will not affect a review, scheduled to begin this semester, of safety protocols at the school and in its athletic programs, Bergeron said. After news of the lawsuit broke, Jenkins hired a Sacramento-based law firm to conduct the investigation and said he would make the findings public.

The timing of Jenkins’ departure creates “more questions than answers,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College who has followed the news of the scandal at Mater Dei.

“The whole timeline has been strange to me,” she said. Something else to watch, she added, is who replaces Jenkins and how that person is chosen.

The Diocese of Orange will choose a replacement for Jenkins, Bergeron said. Until a new president is hired, the school will be led by Principal Frances Clare and a team of assistant principals, she said.

Clare has been Mater Dei’s principal since 2002. She handles the school’s day-to-day operations, including academics and extracurricular activities. The president serves in a chief executive-type role, liaising with donors, alumni and the media and handling some financial matters, Bergeron said.

“There’s absolutely no question that the school and the diocese are committed to school safety regardless of who sits at that desk,” Bergeron said.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 23, alleged that the student’s injury stemmed from a bout of “Bodies,” in which two players punch each other between the shoulders and the waist until one gives up. The student agreed to square off against a player who was 50 pounds heavier in an “effort to fit in and show he was tough enough,” according to the complaint.

Two videos reviewed by The Times showed the two players punching each other before the larger player landed three punches on the smaller player’s head.

Mater Dei tried to cover up the boy’s injuries, which included a broken nose and slurred speech, by not calling paramedics and not contacting his family for 90 minutes, the lawsuit alleged. The Orange County Fire Authority did not dispatch an ambulance to the school that day, according to agency records reviewed by The Times.

Rollinson, who has coached the Monarch football team since 1988, told the boy’s father that he “would be a millionaire if he got paid $100 every time he heard about Bodies or other physical rituals,” but later told police he had no knowledge of Bodies, according to the complaint.

The locker room injury occurred in February. Jenkins started as president in July. In December, the football team won its third state championship in five years.

Jenkins was Mater Dei’s third president in two years. In January 2020, longtime President Patrick Murphy left for a job as president of business operations for the Arizona Coyotes, a National Hockey League team in Phoenix. He was replaced by Father Steve Sallot, who served as interim president until Jenkins arrived.

Jenkins previously worked as president of Holy Cross High School in New York and was on sabbatical in South Bend before he joined Mater Dei, according to a 2021 profile in Orange County Catholic, the diocese’s publication.

Bishop Kevin Vann threw his support behind Jenkins last month in a letter co-signed by Barisano, the diocese superintendent. They asked the Mater Dei community for patience and support for Jenkins, and for “the process of identifying areas of improvement and initiating changes that embody the tradition of Honor, Glory, and Love at Mater Dei.”

They also decried the media coverage of two lawsuits involving players on the football team: one, the lawsuit over the locker room injury; the other, a description of a planned attack carried out by two football players that broke a basketball player’s jaw.


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