Catholic architecture scholar resigns post after allegations of sexual misconduct toward seminarians

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Mundelein Seminary
A sign is seen at the entrance to Mundelein Seminary Jan. 2, 2019, on the grounds of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. Church architecture scholar Denis McNamara, who was at Mundelein Seminary from 2000-2019, has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior toward adult seminarians. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Bob Roller)

(OSV News) — A popular historian of church architecture and promoter of liturgical aesthetics faces allegations of sexual misconduct against adult seminarians from his time on faculty at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.

In a March 28 article, The Pillar, an online news outlet that covers the Catholic Church, disclosed that Mundelein’s rector, Father John Kartje, had issued a March 27 letter — a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar — advising the Mundelein community that “we have received reports alleging Dr. Denis McNamara, a former (seminary) faculty member, engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior toward adult seminarians during and after the time he was employed here.”

McNamara most recently had been director of Benedictine College’s Center for Beauty and Culture, which opened in 2019, as well as an instructor in the school’s architecture department, where he taught courses on the intersection of theology, art and architecture in Catholicism. However, Benedictine College officials revealed to their community that McNamara left his position at the Atchison, Kansas-based Catholic college on March 9, after the institution received information concerning McNamara’s behavior in an unspecified private ministry.

McNamara had served from 2000 to 2019 on the faculty of the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary, part of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, which counts more than 100 seminarians from close to 30 U.S. dioceses. He had written several books on church architecture and regularly gave talks, while also co-hosting the “Liturgy Guys” podcast.

“We deeply appreciate the courage of the men who came forward to report these matters,” Father Kartje said, as reported by The Pillar, while encouraging “anyone who believes he or she has been subjected to inappropriate behavior” to come forward and make a report.

In a March 28 message to the Benedictine College community, a copy of which was obtained by OSV News, school officials said they had “received a written statement detailing allegations of concerning behavior by Dr. Denis McNamara in the context of a private ministry,” the name of which was unspecified.

“The written statement confirmed verbal reports made on March 1 and March 2,” explained the college’s message to the community, adding that on March 3, “McNamara was put on immediate administrative leave, including the suspension of e-mail and campus privileges.”

The March 28 message stated “the allegations reported to Benedictine College administrators did not include claims of criminal behavior, misconduct against minors or Benedictine College students or employees, or misconduct on our campus.”

However, the message added the college “concluded that the behavior in question represented such a serious lapse of judgment that he (McNamara) was placed on immediate administrative leave.”

McNamara resigned March 9, following “further consideration of the statements shared with the college” and “a discussion of the situation with Dr. McNamara,” the message said, adding that “both parties agreed that Dr. McNamara’s resignation from Benedictine College was necessary.”

The college “is not at liberty to publicly share the allegations as they are not associated with Benedictine College faculty, staff, students, or facilities,” according to the statement.

Requests for comment placed by OSV News to Mundelein Seminary and Benedictine College have not yet been answered. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Chicago, in which Mundelein Seminary is located, declined comment.

News of allegations against McNamara come as Pope Francis updated procedures for handling abuse cases, particularly mechanisms meant to protect adults vulnerable to the abuse of authority in the church, such as seminarians.

On March 25, the pope promulgated a permanent version of “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), which among other revisions expanded the text to include “a crime against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor, or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason, or with a vulnerable adult.” The changes take effect April 30.

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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