April 26, 2023
To the Members of the Board of Trustees of St. Ignatius Preparatory:
Mr. William Sheedy, Chair
Niall P. McCarthy, Esq. Secretary
Hon. Teri L. Jackson
Mr. Michael A. Latham
Ms. Jennifer Carter Lehot
Ms. Joyce Love
Mr. Ian MacLeod
Ms. Marina McCauley
John T. Mitchell, S.J.
William Muller, S.J.
Mr. Eduardo Peñalver
Edward A. Reese, S.J.
Ms. Adria Renke
Mr. Kirk Syme
Ms. Katherine Nicolai Ward
Dear Members of the St. Ignatius Preparatory Board of Trustees:
I am writing to you on behalf of Louis J. Giraudo, in order to ensure that you are aware of a series of troublesome events affecting St. Ignatius Preparatory. Those events should, we believe, be of concern to anyone who cares about SI’s integrity; its deserved reputation for intellectual excellence, leadership, service, and justice; its mission to instill in its students a desire to lead lives of faith, integrity, and compassion; and the essential obligation to protect its students from avoidable harm.
The background of this matter is known to some of you, but perhaps not to all of you, and probably not in its full details to anyone beyond a few of you.
In mid-February of this year, Mr. Giraudo brought to Fr. Edward Reese’s attention highly disturbing information about Erin Elizabeth Burns, who was the SI girls lacrosse team coach. Rather than taking the action required of someone in his position, Fr. Reese dismissed the significance of the information, and expressed his full support of Ms. Burns. Fr. Reese’s view was that Ms. Burns was a talented and popular lacrosse coach – the team was winning games – and that outweighed any concerns about her character and personal history. But Ms. Burns’ prior conduct was shocking, and, as discussed below, raises significant concerns about SI’s decision to entrust her with the welfare of its young students.
While failing to discharge his actual responsibility as SI’s President, Fr. Reese responded to Mr. Giraudo’s having brought these concerns to his attention by attacking him personally, instructing admissions officers to reject his grandson’s application for admission to the school, and then having SI officials provide false information regarding his vindictive actions. That response is unworthy of St. Ignatius as an institution, it constitutes a betrayal of its guiding principle of Cura Personalis, and it suggests an impulse to shield the “name” of the institution while injuring its soul. And, as we all have reason to know, such shortsighted impulses to “protect” the institution almost invariably end up damaging it. Fr. Reese, in short, responded in a manner likely to inflict grave harm on SI, put innocent students at risk, and keep caring parents in the dark.
The concerns that Mr. Giraudo brought to Fr. Reese’s attention arose out of his discovery that SI had subjected its students to the influence and control of a coach whose capacity to exercise that responsibility in a positive and beneficial manner was in serious doubt. Ms. Burns had proven herself, by her past conduct, to be unworthy of being entrusted with any significant authority over young people, whose relationship with their adult mentors, and, in particular, their relationships with sports coaches, render them vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. That vulnerability is, if anything, exacerbated when the adult’s authority is backed by the moral and institutional power of SI, and, by extension, the Catholic Church.
Ms. Burns used to be licensed as a psychologist in the State of Maryland. But she was stripped of her license because, using the power that it afforded her, she manipulated, exploited, and harmed individuals under her care. Her actions are a matter of public, and judicial, record. As Ms. Burns acknowledged, in surrendering her professional license, her “decision to surrender my license to practice psychology in the State of Maryland, or any other state, was prompted by an internal investigation at my previous place of employment, my desire to take responsibility for my inappropriate behavior involving a relationship with a patient. At a minimum, the Board’s investigation could have resulted in several possible charges for engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient.”1
The reference to “a sexual relationship with a patient” fails adequately to convey the deeply disturbing nature of Ms. Burns’ conduct. The official investigation into Ms. Burns’ actions involved her employment at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore, Maryland, where she treated veterans suffering from service-related trauma. Ms. Burns was the subject of multiple complaints by male patients for inappropriate touching, and for failing to respect patient/therapist boundaries. One of those patients, Mr. William Lins, was a Marine Corps veteran who had served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time he became Ms. Burns’ patient, Mr. Lins had just been honorably discharged from the Marines, was a recovering alcoholic, and was experiencing a major depressive disorder and significant PTSD resulting from his service, and, more specifically, from an attack on his squad by a suicide bomber. Rather than caring for Mr. Lins in a professional manner, Ms. Burns took advantage of him, abused him, and exploited his vulnerability. Mr. Lins later sued Ms. Burns for malpractice, alleging:
- In the summer of 2016, the social worker asked Mr. Lins if the woman he had been talking about during their therapy sessions was in fact Dr. Burns. He admitted that it was. The social worker told Mr. Lins that other male patients had made complaints about Dr. Burns’ inappropriate conduct towards them, and warned him to stay away from her.
- Dr. Burns prevented Mr. Lins from telling anyone about their relationship, stating that he would lose his VA benefits, that she would not support his application for disability benefits, and that he would lose custody of his children.
- Whenever Mr. Lins would spend time with his children, Dr. Burns would make up emergencies and crises to convince him to see her instead. She told him that her dog had died, she had been diagnosed with cancer, that she had been raped, and that she had a miscarriage.
- Dr. Burns used Mr. Lins’ history of childhood abuse as a means of coercing him into having sexual intercourse. She told him that he needed to practice making eye contact during sex as a way to cure his aversion to intimacy, and that if he did not, the childhood perpetrator would “win”. She told him that he needed to have more sex in order to stop feeling “gay” about what happened to him as a child.
- At some time in late 2015 or early 2016, the Baltimore VA took away Dr. Burns’ private office and assigned her to an open cubicle in an administrative area. Dr. Burns told Mr. Lins that her office had been taken away because another male patient had made a false complaint to the VA regarding Dr. Burns’ treatment of him, reporting “boundary issues” and inappropriate touching. She told Mr. Lins that her clinical privileges had been revoked while the VA investigated the complaint.
Ms. Burns was found liable to Mr. Lins, and judgment was entered against her.
Mr. Lins also sued the United States Government in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The claims in that action are particularly germane to Fr. Reese’s failure to act when provided with the facts regarding Ms. Burns. Mr. Lins alleges that the Department of Veterans Affairs was negligent because it:
- failed to promptly and properly investigate Dr. Burns’ conduct when it first learned of inappropriate conduct involving her patients;
- retained Dr. Burns when it knew or should have known that she had acted inappropriately towards male patients, including but not limited to, having sexual relationships with patients;
- failed to terminate Dr. Burns or remove her from patient care when it knew, or reasonably should have known that she was using her position of power to take sexual advantage of patients.
We do not know what background investigation SI conducted at the time it hired Ms. Burns. But the facts outlined in this letter could have been readily discovered. And yet it would be inexplicable for a high school to hire someone with this history for a position of influence and control over young people. And it is inexplicable that a high school would continue to employ such an individual in that role once it became aware of her history.
It appears to us that every action Fr. Reese took with respect to Ms. Burns has been ill-advised, put both the institution and its students at risk, and betrayed the trust of SI parents.
I want to be clear on one point, lest this letter be misinterpreted, on the one hand, or the gravity of the issues presented herein be minimized, on the other. We are in possession of no facts indicating that Ms. Burns used her position of authority and control at SI in the same manner that she did while acting as a therapist in Maryland. But the mere fact that an individual with Ms. Burns’ history would place herself in a position of moral authority and physical control over impressionable teenagers suggests a lack of insight into her own actions, and a failure to have resolved the obvious issues of character, self-control, personal boundaries, and lack of empathy for other human beings that she displayed just a few years ago. The fact that Fr. Reese would fail to see the inappropriateness, and the risk of harm, attendant to such a person being placed in that role, suggests a serious failure of responsibility on his part.
It is our understanding that Fr. Reese decided that Ms. Burns should be retained as SI girls lacrosse team coach because she was a popular and talented coach, and had not committed any actual crimes. But the concerns surrounding Ms. Burns have nothing to do with whether she is popular, or whether her team has been successful on the field. And the fact is that there are a number of SI parents who, while knowing nothing about Ms. Burns’ past, were deeply disturbed about the way in which she treated the girls on her team, and were frustrated that SI appeared to condone her behavior.2
As to the notion that SI had no reason to act to protect its students because Ms. Burns may not have committed a criminal offense, the test of whether an individual should be employed in a position of influence and control over SI students is surely not whether that individual is a criminal. It is whether he or she manifests the personal integrity and ethical values that SI seeks to instill in its students, and whether he or she can be relied upon to nurture, and not hamper, those students’ emotional development. I am sure that SI does not instruct its students that the test of whether they are leading moral lives is that they have not been convicted of a crime. Ms. Burns gave up her license as a therapist in the State of Maryland because she had violated the regulations governing her profession. http://mdrules.elaws.us/comar/10.58.03.09 The happenstance that her actions were not defined as criminal may have more to do with the vagaries of Maryland politics than it does with the gravity of her conduct. https://marylandreporter.com/2013/04/01/making-sexual-abuse-by-therapists-a-crime-is-one-womans-crusade/ And, unlike Maryland, the State of California does treat such conduct as a crime. See Business & Professions Code section 729.
The SI athletics program is not just about winning games. It “is an integral part of the total educational and growth experience at St. Ignatius. Athletics is designed to affirm and promote the Ignatian values as stated in the Graduate-at-Graduation document and engage student-athletes fully in mind, body, and spirit.” https://www.siprep.org/athletics/about-athletics/philosophy. Fr. Reese did not live up to those principles when he decided that Ms. Burns was the right person to transmit these values to SI’s student athletes.
When Mr. Giraudo brought to the attention of SI’s President the unsafe environment in which the School was placing its students, Fr. Reese ignored and disparaged him, penalized his grandson, and, on several occasions, acted in ways that made his granddaughter (an SI student) feel targeted, vulnerable and unsafe. Meanwhile, the danger to SI’s students was allowed to continue, until parents complained about the coach’s abusive behavior toward their daughters. The coach then resigned, although SI has still done nothing to eliminate the danger to its own students: many of them remain under her control by virtue of their participation in the elite STEPS program (in connection with which Ms. Burns continues to use SI’s imprimatur: (https://stepscalifornia.com/our-coaches/ and https://stepscalifornia.com/our-team/), and Ms. Burns continues to contact members of the SI girls lacrosse team.
We request that you retain an independent, reputable and experienced law firm to investigate this matter, and to issue a report addressing:
- the hiring, conduct, and eventual termination of SI’s former girls lacrosse team coach, Erin Elizabeth Burns,
- any harms that Ms. Burns may have inflicted on the young women with whom she had contact while employed by SI, or any inappropriate behavior she may have engaged in, or may be continuing to engage in, with respect to SI students,
- measures designed to repair the damage inflicted on innocent parties,
- the institutional failures that led to SI’s neglect of its obligation to provide a safe environment for its students, including but not limited to the events surrounding Ms. Burns,
- recommendations designed to ensure that the errors of judgment, the lack of appropriate response, and the retaliatory actions directed at truth-tellers and whistleblowers not be repeated – more generally, to eliminate the climate of fear and intimidation that prevails under Fr. Reese’s leadership, and
- proposed policies to ensure that parents and students are not kept in the dark regarding matters affecting student safety.
Ms. Burns’ resignation was regarded by certain SI officials as closing the books on any issues arising out of Ms. Burns hiring, Fr. Reese’s decision to retain her in her position even after he received the information set forth in this letter, and his retaliation against Mr. Giraudo and his family. The books are not closed. Ms. Burns did not hire herself as SI’s girls lacrosse coach, she did not retain herself in that position when the facts of her personal history came to light, and she did not retaliate against Mr. Giraudo by denying admission to his grandson. The individuals whose actions and decisions should be investigated are still at SI.
There has been no effort to remediate the harm that has already been done, and no steps have been taken to avoid likely future harm. This episode, moreover, suggests a lack of proper governance and controls at the highest level of the institution. That is a serious lapse, and it fosters an environment in which an individual leader’s belief that he is acting to “protect” the institution – by failing to respond appropriately to disturbing information and instead attacking those who bring that information to his attention – will inevitably lead him to protect himself, and thereby cause damage to the institution and expose students to harm.
Mr. Giraudo was drawn into this matter, not for any personal gain, but out of a sense of obligation. He had received information that he believed he should share with Fr. Reese, and he expected that Fr. Reese would then act on it. When Fr. Reese indicated that he intended to take no steps to protect SI’s students, Mr. Giraudo felt compelled to press the matter. Fr. Reese evidently deemed this an act of effrontery, and he decided to “protect” the institution by ensuring that Mr. Giraudo’s grandson would not be admitted to it. And, while this letter is being written on Mr. Giraudo’s behalf, please do not infer that he stands alone. Many members of the SI community – parents, alumni and donors – are aware of the inappropriate manner in which Fr. Reese responded to Mr. Giraudo’s legitimate concerns, and they are fully in support of his continued pursuit of this matter.
As Trustees, you have accepted the responsibility to serve as stewards of the institution. The Board “is the ultimate governing body of the school.” Its delegation of authority to the President is subject to its reservation “to itself certain rights and the authority to approve corporate actions.” St. Ignatius Faculty & Staff Handbook 2014-2015, at section 2.01.
This is an appropriate instance for the Board, in the interest of preserving the integrity of the process, to reclaim its delegation of authority from the President. It is Fr. Reese whose actions are the subject of inquiry, and he cannot be the person authorized to decide whether to investigate these matters, to determine the scope of any such investigation, or to act upon whatever recommendations the report presents. The Board should undertake those responsibilities, and it should receive, and act upon, any findings and recommendations.3
I hope to hear very soon that you are treating this matter with the seriousness that it merits, and that you have retained counsel (with no ties to Fr. Reese) to conduct an independent investigation of the institutional failures involving Ms. Burns, and the potentially much broader institutional failures that may have occurred under Fr. Reese’s leadership.4
Very truly yours,
Jonathan R. Bass
1 Documentation of the facts regarding Ms. Burns was provided to Fr. Reese. We will be happy to provide it to you as well, if you request it, and will of course provide it to the law firm you retain to investigate this matter.
2 On April 3, 2023, a group of parents conveyed their concerns, anonymously, about Ms. Burns’ abusive behavior, as a coach, to the SI administration. Ms. Burns was invited to meet with the administration to discuss the matter. She resigned instead. It should be a red flag to the Board of Trustees that SI parents feel the need to remain anonymous when they have reason to complain about such matters. And yet they are prudent to protect themselves, and their children, in that manner. The lesson of Fr. Reese’s retaliation against Mr. Giraudo and his family was not lost on people.
3 It should be obvious that Fr. Reese cannot be entrusted with the oversight of any investigation regarding his own failures. And yet, since Mr. Giraudo first brought these issues to his attention in March, no one at the institution appears to have done anything other than defer to him. Most recently, SI retained outside counsel to respond to Mr. Giraudo’s concerns. We presume that it was Fr. Reese who engaged that counsel, and acted as the source of information for her. In a letter she wrote on April 24, dismissing Mr. Giraudo’s concerns as unworthy of a serious response, she refers to Mr. Giraudo’s “inflammatory allegations regarding the school,” and then says: “To cut to the chase, SI conducts its admissions process with rigor and integrity based on a comprehensive evaluation process. To suggest that any decision was based on a plot of “revenge,” as you allege, is beyond the pale.” Mr. Giraudo presented factual information, not allegations, to Fr. Reese. That information was disturbing, not “inflammatory.” Fr. Reese’s responsibility, having received the information, was to promptly investigate it, and to take measures to protect SI’s students from potential harm. He did neither. Instead, he chose to attack Mr. Giraudo, and penalize his grandson. If he told his attorney that none of this was true, and that he did not in fact instruct SI’s admissions department not to admit Mr. Giraudo’s grandson, then he was not being truthful with her.
4 If promised confidentiality, and a guaranty that they will not be the target of retaliation, we expect that members of the SI community – alumni, parents and staff – may be willing to disclose to the investigators what they know about that broader set of failures.
Leave A Comment