Catholic University's next president: Boston law school dean

John Garvey starts his new job in July.
John Garvey starts his new job in July. (Courtesy Of Catholic University Of America - Courtesy Of Catholic University Of America)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

John H. Garvey, a law school dean with a long record of scholarship on some of the most divisive issues in the Catholic Church, on Tuesday will be named the new president of Catholic University of America.

Garvey, dean of the Boston College Law School since 1999, will replace David M. O'Connell as president of Catholic, the national university of the Roman Catholic Church. O'Connell announced his departure in the fall and was tapped this month as bishop-elect of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

The transition marks a significant shift for Catholic, which has spent the past dozen years rediscovering its spiritual identity under the guidance of an energetic cleric. Leadership now passes to a lay administrator, who spent a semester at Harvard Divinity School before moving to Harvard Law, where he graduated in 1974.

Garvey, 61, will be the third lay president of Catholic. The last was Edmund Pellegrino, a doctor and medical ethicist who served from 1978 to 1982.

The search committee was not looking for a lay president; in fact, trustees had a mild preference for another clerical leader, said the Most Rev. Allen H. Vigneron, archbishop of Detroit, who chairs the university's board of trustees and led the nine-month search.

"The board would have seen a lot of advantages to having a priest be the president, but in the end the board asked the search committee to put forward the best candidates," he said.

Vigneron said the search committee, assisted by an outside search firm, considered more than 200 people for the job, although he would not specify the number of candidates. Nor would he confirm reports, circulating in religious blogs, that Garvey was one of two finalists. The other was said to be H. James Towey, president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and also a lay administrator.

Trustees settled on Garvey at a June 7 meeting, Vigneron said, and he accepted the job that day. Vatican approval, required for any new Catholic University president, took an additional two days.

Vigneron said the university board expects Garvey to continue O'Connell's work to reclaim a Catholic identity for the Northeast Washington campus. O'Connell raised the share of students and faculty who self-identified as Catholics and hosted Pope Benedict XVI in a 2008 visit. He said trustees also appreciated the legal mind Garvey has brought to bear in analyzing Catholic quandaries.

"I'm very grateful that he's an accomplished scholar, and I think he brings from his legal scholarship a lot of wisdom about the church's place in contemporary society," Vigneron said. "He's a very thoughtful man, very measured. He tries to bring light and insight to matters about which there's a lot of argument."

Garvey clerked for Irving R. Kaufman, a federal appeals judge known for having presided over the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and imposing their death sentences. Before joining Boston College, he was an assistant to the solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan and a law professor at the University of Kentucky and Notre Dame.

His legal writings have sometimes gravitated toward controversial topics. In a 2003 law review piece, Garvey wrote the church had "no credibility" in policing sexual misconduct by priests. In a 1998 article, he wrote that the church's opposition to the death penalty placed Catholic judges in a moral and legal dilemma. In a 1996 book, he said freedom of choice had been "exploited, to good political effect," by the "pro-choice" abortion rights movement.

As law school dean, Garvey is credited with bringing nationally recognized figures to campus, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who spoke at 2009's commencement.

Garvey will start work at Catholic in July at an undisclosed salary. He will be introduced to the Washington community Tuesday at a news conference. A biographical sketch says he is married, the father of five and enjoys swimming, gardening, piano and golf.

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