Former student claims abuse from University priest

David Saenz

The University faces financial compensation demands as a result of a sexual abuse accusation involving its former theology department chair. Rev. Arthur B. Chappell, O.S.A., resigned from his position in May following investigations by the University and the Order of St. Augustine.

These allegations come in the wake of the sex scandal involving various priests in the Catholic Church across the country. According to former University student and seminarian Gary Belkot, the sexual improprieties occurred while he was a freshman, during the 1975-76 school year. Kathleen Byrnes, assistant vice president for Student Life, said Chappell’s position with the Augustinians during that period required him to work with University seminarians.

Seeking retribution for the alleged abuse, Belkot’s attorney is demanding money from both the University and the Order to compensate for the alleged abuse.

“Because the demands are considered settlement discussions, they are confidential, and so we are not privy to the [amount] at issue,” Byrnes said. She indicated that Belkot has not filed a lawsuit because the statute of limitations prohibits it.

In an interview with WPVI Action News, Belkot said, “We would pray together. He would hear my confession and [me] being vulnerable, he would initiate the sexual abuse. He would say this was the way Jesus and the beloved apostle John were close.” WPVI also reported that Belkot’s counseling and prayer sessions with Chappell sometimes involved drinking wine.

Byrnes explained the University’s stance on the demands. “Because Father Chappell was not in any way associated with the University at the time the allegations occurred, [the university] is not a player. [The University] is not responsible or liable for anything that might have happened,” Byrnes said.

For this reason, administrators remain unsure of why Belkot is suing Villanova.

“That is the $64,000 question,” Byrnes said. “I think he’s trying to get money from whomever he can get money from.”

Byrnes went on to suggest that Belkot associates the alleged abuse with the University because he was a student at the time. But she disagreed with this theory saying, “We believe that Villanova is really out of the mix and it is more of an issue between the person and the Order.”

Byrnes also said that discrepancies exist between Chappell’s and Belkot’s recollection of their relationship. During his interview with WPVI, Belkot said Chappell initiated several incidents of sexual abuse.

As Byrnes understands it, Chappell admitted that something happened between the two, but it is much less than Belkot claims.

Belkot first reported the sexual contact to a University counselor in the late 1970s. Limited by doctor-patient confidentiality issues, the counselor notified the Order of the abuse, but he did not notify the University. As a result of the counselor’s actions, the Order removed Chappell from his work with seminarians in 1977. According to Byrnes, Chappell did not work in a school setting between 1977 and 1982, when he was assigned to Merrimack College. He received counseling during these years.

Belkot officially reported the sexual abuse to the University President’s office in February 2003. The University called the Order to report the abuse, and both organizations investigated the claim.

“There have been no allegations, no rumors,” Byrnes said. “Nothing has come to light during any of Fr. Chappell’s time here at Villanova.”

WPVI reported that the Augustinians offered Belkot $300 a month to pay for counseling over the next three years. The Order said the offer was not an admission of criminal guilt, but conceded that Chappell had behaved inappropriately.

Many students believe that the scandal will not have a major effect on the University and everyday campus life.

“It makes the [recent sex scandals] hit closer to home, but I do not feel it is a major issue for the University,” sophomore Steve Van Pelt said.

Senior Alex Edgar agreed. “I think the problem is more for the Catholic Church in general than for the University, especially if [Chappell] has already resigned.”

He continued, “What’s with the student coming forward 28 years later to accuse the priest? College students are definitely adults as opposed to 10-year-olds, and so the whole ‘he terrified me into silence’ deal doesn’t make much sense.”

Edgar also took issue with Chappell’s inappropriate behavior 28 years ago. “Isn’t it the universal Christian teaching that sodomy is evil?” he asked. “Why then would [Chappell], knowing that he is particularly vulnerable to that sin, put himself in such a precarious position?”

Chappell’s future within the Order remains unclear. While it looks as though he has not been involved in any sexual incidents during the past 28 years, Byrnes said, “I think that the climate of today makes it difficult for him to teach again in a university or a school setting.”

Since resigning, Chappell has moved out of Burns Hall on West Campus.

Chappell joined the University in 1986 as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He entered the theology department in 1989 as an assistant professor and became acting chair in spring 1995. He was named chair in 1996.