Kelly Zhou

In response to last week’s news of former Yale Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music professor Jaime Lara’s history of sexual abuse as a priest, Divinity School alumni sent a letter with over 120 signatures to Dean of the Divinity School Greg Sterling and Dean of the Institute of Sacred Music Martin Jean, urging them to take concrete actions to foster a “just, hospitable and equitable” learning environment for students and a climate of accountability for faculty and staff.

By signing the letter — which was distributed starting Nov. 15 — alumni pledged to withhold financial support from both the Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music until the administrations of the two institutions address the letter’s requests “in good faith.”

“While we and many other alumni benefitted from amazing educations and transformative experiences during our time on the Quad, we are disappointed by what this news reveals — unhealthy and toxic power dynamics that too frequently characterize faculty-student encounters and relationships at YDS and ISM,” the letter states.

Sterling alluded to the news of Lara’s past abuse in an email to members of the Divinity School community Nov. 10. But after members of the Divinity School community criticized Sterling for not mentioning Lara by name, Sterling sent a second email to the Divinity School community five days later, in which he explicitly named Lara and stressed that the Divinity School was not aware of Lara’s laicization — the removal of a priest from the Catholic Church clergy — or the reason for his removal, until this month when it was revealed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.

Sterling added that he knew of no evidence indicating that Lara committed any acts of sexual misconduct during his time as a Yale faculty member, from 1998 to 2009.  According to the email, Sterling will provide an update in the near future on the school’s collective efforts to prevent abusive behavior and to cultivate a “safe and respectful community.”

“We were pleased to see Dean Sterling say [in his email] that there were collective efforts that would be forthcoming regarding how to best respond to this, so we felt like it made sense for the alumni to weigh in in terms of what those collective efforts might look like and make some suggestions for what we think would be a moral response,” said Katey Zeh DIV ’08, one of the letter’s authors.

The alumni letter urges the Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music to form a committee  of students, faculty, staff and alumni to investigate and produce recommendations for how the Div School can alter its vetting process to prevent the hiring of sexual predators like Lara. The committee, which will be facilitated by an external human resources professional, will also analyze “the larger culture of harassment and inappropriate behavior” at the Divinity School.

Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer portrayed in “Spotlight,” an Academy Award-winning film about sexual abuse by clergymen, told the News that whatever background check Yale ran before hiring Lara was not “even semi-thorough” and put children at risk. Garabedian is representing three of Lara’s alleged victims, who claim that they were abused by Lara between the ages of nine and 11.

“Why wouldn’t Yale act in a responsible manner and speak to his former employer, review records seeing his employment and do a background check?” he said.

The letter requests that the committee document how the University hired Lara without any knowledge of his laicization or his history of sexual abuse in the Church and look into whether any information about his past history was communicated to the Divinity School before or during his employment there. It also asks the administration to solicit testimonials from alumni and current students on the subject of Lara’s behavior as a faculty member and to investigate whether there were any reports or complaints made against him or any other members of the Divinity School.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said Sunday that the University had not yet released a response to the letter. He did not respond to questions about the background checks conducted before Lara’s hiring or the Divinity School’s general vetting process.

Zeh said the news of Lara’s past shines a light on a the broader cultural issue of problematic faculty-student interactions, specifically sexist and misogynistic attitudes, comments and practices of faculty members. After Lara’s history of sexual abuse went public, many Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music alumni began sharing instances of inappropriate behavior from other faculty members of the Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music.

“This was not just confined to Jaime Lara,” Zeh said. “This is a systematic problem that we need to address and make sure it doesn’t happen in the future with any current or future faculty members.”

Lara was laicized in 1992.

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu