On Georgetown University's campus, a small, white key is painted on the pavement just outside the crypt beneath Copley Chapel.
Last fall, each of the 1,300 freshmen received a letter on campus traditions. It was unsigned but adorned by a small drawing of a key.
In the library, a group of books in the American studies collection is identified as anonymous gifts. They are stamped with a Latin motto: Non scholae sed vitae (not for school but for life).
The source of these small mysteries is a secret, all-male society made up primarily of student leaders and advised by an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, the Rev. Joseph T. Durkin, who has written a book on Georgetown's history and teaches a course about it.
When the existence of the group, called the Stewards Society, was publicly disclosed this month, it caused an uproar on campus. The student government, both student newspapers and a group of women students strongly denounced it.
Its leader, senior Jeffrey Renzulli, who identified himself as the Chief Steward, announced that the group was disbanding. He refused to say much more, but as the identities of undergraduate members were disclosed -- 12 so far -- they resigned their conspicuous posts on campus, including editor of the Hoya newspaper and chairman of the Student Assembly.
But on Thursday, Mark Johnson, who acknowledged having been a Steward, was elected president of the student government by a decisive margin in a campus-wide election.
In an interview, Johnson refused to discuss the secret society. He told the Hoya he would make no "admission of wrongdoing."
Some society members, though, have been contrite.
"I understand now why so many people are against it," said Christopher A. Donesa, the former Hoya editor who, like his two immediate predecessors as editor-in-chief, was a member of the Stewards. "We didn't conceptualize it as an elitism thing or a control thing . . . . I know now there's really no place on this campus for that kind of group. But until things came out, I never had a chance to discuss it with anyone who wasn't a member of the society."
After a letter from Durkin and a statement from the Stewards appeared in the Hoya, its rival newspaper, the Voice, published a special edition with many more details about the organization.
"It was a potentially dangerous power structure that excluded women, who make up more than half the university," said senior Stephanie Yuhl. The Stewards also had no black members, although Renzulli said the group tried to recruit a few.
In a letter to the Hoya, Yuhl and five other women students said the society had "the power to manipulate student opinion and university agendas" by promoting one another's ideas while being "entirely unaccountable to the community which they purport to serve."
Donesa and other society members denied that they did any "manipulating." In their letter to the Hoya, which was printed without the names of the society's members, the group said its purpose was "to defend, enhance and protect the spirit and traditions of Georgetown." It said it had kept secret since its founding in 1982 so that members could "serve for the sake of service and not for hope of personal benefit."
Durkin, in his published letter, said the secrecy and the exclusion of women were both "serious mistakes." He said he went along with the policies because of the group's "good intentions."
"My attitude on both these points," Durkin wrote, "was what Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his 'Book of the Spiritual Exercises,' calls 'deception by the Devil when he disguises himself as a Spirit of Light.' " When contacted by a Washington Post reporter, he declined to elaborate.
Two Georgetown administrators acknowledged knowing about the group for several years before Durkin disclosed its existence. John J. DeGioia, the dean of student affairs, said he refused to give the Stewards any support or recognition, despite several requests, because Georgetown has a policy against secret societies, which flourish on some college campuses, including the University of Virginia and Yale. But DeGioia said he had decided not to disclose the names of members he knew or to ask them to dissolve the organization.
"I don't believe that was my responsibility, but I did make it clear to them that we do not tolerate the activities of a secret society on our campus," DeGioia said.
John Courtin, the executive director of the Georgetown Alumni Association, acknowledged in an interview with the Hoya that he "participated in a limited way" in the secret society. According to the Hoya, Courtin said, "I was a contact in the group. From time to time, students would come in and ask for ideas. As alumni director, I am involved with many organizations." The Post could not reach Courtin for comment, despite a number of messages left with his secretary.
One project in which many Stewards were involved is a new magazine called Georgetown's Blue & Gray, published by an independent nonprofit corporation. Its two student founders, Jon Bacal and Johnson, were members of the Stewards, and its first issue in October included a picture of Courtin on the back cover, a brief profile of Durkin and an article by Richard J. Cellini, a founder of the Stewards who attends Georgetown Law School.
The second issue, published in December, included an article by Manuel Miranda, another Stewards founder who is now a New York lawyer. Miranda called for more Jesuit involvement in student organizations and made the cryptic observation that the "greatest" student clubs are "those whose membership is non scholae sed vitae," which is the Stewards' motto.