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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Title IX claims filed against Les Aspin founder

Photo by Skyler Chun
The Les Aspin Center classroom is located at 502 E. Capitol St. SE in Washington D.C. This is also where Rev. Timothy O’Brien lives.

Around 8 p.m. one night in January 2022, David Chrisbaum, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, made the two-minute commute from his apartment to the Les Aspin Center in Washington, D.C. and into Rev. Timothy O’Brien’s living room  to ask a question: “What is the essay about?”

But that night, Chrisbaum left with more questions than answers.

Chrisbaum said he had been sexually harassed by O’Brien, a Marquette professor, priest and founder of the Les Aspin Center program that night, though he said he did not realize it at the time. Chrisbaum said comments about his sexuality – and others – would later occur multiple times throughout the semester. 

This event would lead to a Title IX investigation, part of a year-long process that Chrisbaum said deals with 23 witnesses and a 651-page document that transcribes the details of these cumulative experiences. It was also not the first – or last – case to be filed against O’Brien.

The Marquette Title IX office confirmed to the Marquette Wire on Monday that the investigation is still ongoing. O’Brien did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment.

Spring 2022

That spring, Chrisbaum had been a student in the Les Aspin Center for Government, a program designed for Marquette students to live, study and work in the nation’s capital, gaining real-world experiences through internships on Capitol Hill or neighboring areas. 

For nearly 35 years, more than 2,500 students have gone through the program, walking the same path between the Marquette-owned apartment and the Les Aspin Center, just as Chrisbaum did that night.

Each semester, a cohort of about 20 students live in a gray three-story apartment with a royal blue door at 4 4th St. SE. They turn the corner and cross the street to 502 E. Capitol St. SE, a red brick building with a blue plaque that reads “The Les Aspin Center for Government” for any class and program-related events. The center also serves as a home for O’Brien, who has access to both buildings at all times.

O’Brien was teaching a course on Lobbyist and Special Interest Groups that semester, but after confusion on the first essay that was assigned, Chrisbaum asked to meet outside of class. Chrisbaum said O’Brien scheduled a meeting for 8 p.m. in his living room one night.

“I was just trying to find out what the essay was about, but he kept going on tangents,” Chrisbaum said. “We were talking about the Church. I was interested in the priesthood at some point in my life … ”

Chrisbaum said that’s when a conversation about the Church led to one about sexuality. After mentioning the Church’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights, Chrisbaum said O’Brien asked him if he was gay.

“I was taken aback by the comment because nobody, or no professor, has just outright asked or been so direct (about my sexuality) like that,” Chrisbaum said. “It was just weird in that situation in his living room having a conversation about that. Just really weird.”

Chrisbaum said he did not think it was sexual harassment at first. To him, it was just a weird and uncomfortable situation.

But then Chrisbaum said he continued witnessing and experiencing other incidents that he thought were weird or confusing, including discussions of sex in professional settings and inappropriate racial or degrading comments. 

In one incident, Chrisbaum recalled O’Brien referring to an Arab woman on campus as “Saddam Hussein” in a joking manner. Chrisbaum also said another friend of his came home crying one night because of other racially degrading comments made by O’Brien.

“There were just a lot of things culminating,” Chrisbaum said. “I started talking to people and was like ‘Did he talk to anybody about this?’ I was like ‘I’m just going to leave it there, that’s fine,’ but then there was another incident with one of my friends and it just kind of continued.”

At the end of the semester, Chrisbaum said he had another one-on-one with O’Brien. 

“(O’Brien) had gotten hundreds of Marquette students jobs in D.C.,” Chrisbaum said. “I wanted to ask him about next steps, jobs. But O’Brien went into an elaborate story about this basketball player that he helped get into Harvard Law School.”

But Chrisbaum said this story about law school somehow turned into a story about sex. And that’s when inappropriate comments came again.

Chrisbaum said that O’Brien made comments referring to the basketball player’s genitalia and oral sex.

“I was like ‘I asked you for professional advice. Why are you talking about this?,’” Chrisbaum said. “I thought ‘That’s really strange’ and I went back and asked everyone in the program ‘Is this weird?’ I initially played it off.”

Chrisbaum said he then reached out to a Marquette professor and the Burke Scholars director Carie Hertzberg back on Marquette’s campus April 28. They introduced him to the idea of filing a Title IX claim.

Chrisbaum is a part of the Burke Scholars Program, an intensive program that connects academics, career goals and engagement with the community. One part of the program is participating in 10 hours of community service per week during the school year.

“Then I just got really pissed off. I was like ‘I got sexually harassed by a priest, what the hell?,’” Chrisbaum said.

Chrisbaum said he filed a human resources claim in April 2022, during the last week of the program.

While he was not going to file a Title IX claim at first, Chrisbaum said he knew other peers with similar experiences who were not in a position to speak up about it. 

“I’m hoping no one has to go through the same experiences I did or the things I witnessed,” Chrisbaum said.

Chrisbaum said he later filed a joint Title IX case with another student who had experiences with sexual harassment during their time at the Les Aspin Center in a previous semester. They filed for a joint Title IX case, and Chrisbaum said he had his first interview with the Title IX office May 3, 2022. He received a formal complaint from the Title IX office via email May 11, 2022.

“The Title IX Office oversees conduct that falls under Marquette’s Sexual Harassment and Sex Discrimination Policy. The policy must comply with federal regulations that govern Title IX,” Kristen Kreple, Marquette’s Title IX director, said in an email to the Marquette Wire. “Marquette’s Human Resources Department handles employee conduct that falls outside the Sexual Harassment and Sex Discrimination Policy. The investigative and adjudicative processes are different and unconnected.”

Fall 2022

While O’Brien was still in D.C. in the fall of 2022, the Marquette Wire learned he was not teaching any classes.

As a new semester rolled around, Amanda Schmidt, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, said she attended an alumni event at the Les Aspin Center Nov. 15, 2022, which O’Brien also attended.

“I didn’t see O’Brien until it actually happened,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t see him until he had walked up behind me, slid his hand down my back and then rested his hand on the top of my butt.”

She said his hand stayed there for two or three minutes as he talked to everyone else in the group around her. But in the crowded classroom, Schmidt said it seemed like no one noticed.

The following morning Nov. 16, Schmidt arrived at her internship, a nonprofit humanitarian organization, where she said she told her internship supervisor about the incident.

“She was on a call when I walked in to work,” Schmidt’s internship supervisor said. “After, I remember she took her earbuds out and stood up and said ‘You are so happy you did not go to that event last night. It was awful’ and I grabbed my coffee and maybe I thought it was going to be like ‘tea time’ like ‘Oh what happened?’ She was shaking when I turned around.”

The supervisor, who wished to stay anonymous due to job safety reasons, said they recommended Schmidt file a Title IX case.

Similar to Chrisbaum, Schmidt is a Burke Scholar and reported it to Hertzberg back on Marquette’s campus. Because Hertzberg is a mandated reporter, she reported the incident to the Title IX office at Marquette.

November 17

Schmidt said she was able to speak with Kreple Nov. 17, two days after the incident. In the call, Kreple assured Schmidt that O’Brien would not be attending any more events.

But later that day — just a few hours after Schmidt’s conversation with Kreple — Schmidt said O’Brien made his way downstairs on a stair lift to join another speaker event in the Les Aspin Center classroom. 

“I heard his electric chair coming down and I just left in the middle of a conversation I was having,” Schmidt said. “I just didn’t want to see him and I didn’t want to be there and I knew that was him coming down.”

After the event, Schmidt said she reached out to Kreple who tried to resolve the issue.

“Can you let me know whether Father O’Brien came down while the program was still going on, or was it afterward?,” Kreple wrote in an email to Schmidt Nov. 18. “He is not supposed to be participating in university events at this time, so I’m trying to determine whether he did last night.”

November 28

Two weeks later, at another class event, O’Brien was there again. 

The class was meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, on the main floor of the Les Aspin Center. Schmidt said O’Brien was there for the whole event.

“At the end we got up to take a photo with Dr. Fauci,” Schmidt said. “O’Brien was also in the photo and he would have stood right behind me if one of my friends did not switch places with me.”

However, while O’Brien was originally in the class photo, it appears he was cropped out in the university’s Instagram story post.

Schmidt said she reached out to Kreple after the event, and was reassured they would talk to O’Brien.

“Please know that I am advising Father O’Brien to not only stay away from university-related events but also to avoid contact with all students,” Kreple wrote in an email to Schmidt Nov. 28. “If you run into any additional issues with him, please let me know as soon as you’re able.”

Schmidt said she was concerned about how the process would be handled.

“There’s literally no one out there to enforce that,” Schmidt said. “Dr. Murray is under him, so there’s no one he answers to in D.C. It’s so easy to just ignore an email or not call people back or whatever.”

Christopher Murray, the coordinator of student programs and instructor in the Les Aspin Center, teaches various political science and government courses for the program. He is currently serving as interim director of the program. Murray declined to comment to the Marquette Wire about the pending Title IX cases.

Schmidt’s internship supervisor later brought up the incident to Murray. Because they work for a humanitarian group, the internship supervisor said there are safeguarding policies that don’t allow their organization to have relationships with institutions that don’t follow these practices.

“I was like ‘We need to make sure Amanda is safe this semester,’” the internship supervisor said. “I was very concerned about all these students. I wanted to get O’Brien out for the spring semester, and then I was concerned about what was going to happen to the program after he left. I had all these concerns, but I hadn’t really brought it to (my organization) because I was thinking Marquette would take care of it.”

That day, Schmidt was also told by Kreple that her case may not qualify for Title IX due to legal language changes. The U.S. Department of Education released an updated set of Title IX regulations under the Trump administration May 6, 2020. 

“I know this may not be the news you wanted, but please know that I can continue to provide supportive measures as you need them. I am here to talk through what this means,” Kreple wrote in an email to Schmidt Nov. 28. “In the meantime, please know that I am advising Father O’Brien to not only stay away from university-related events but also to avoid contact with all students.”

December 1 and 2

Schmidt said she had a Teams meeting with Kreple Dec. 1.

“I had to really push them to consider it under Title IX,” Schmidt said. “I basically told her that I thought it was pervasive because I had heard other students had brought cases as well. I basically argued that pervasive doesn’t have to apply just to one person. I don’t know if that’s what convinced her to move forward or if she just wanted me to be quiet about it.”

The following day, Schmidt received a “Notice of Formal Complaint,” notifying her that her case would be officially processed under Title IX.

December to February

O’Brien requested a delay in the grievance process due to a Marquette-approved and legally protected leave of absence Dec. 8.

“I have reviewed the information made available to me regarding the respondent’s leave of absence, and I find that it constitutes extenuating circumstances necessary to satisfy the ‘Good Cause’ standard for a reasonable delay,” Kreple wrote in an email to Schmidt Dec. 9.

Kreple said federal law governing Title IX and the policy recognize that delays may occur due to the complexity of the case, the number of witnesses and party, witness or advisor unavailability. 

According to Title IX policy, the non-exhaustive list of factors that may constitute “good cause” for short-term delays or extensions of the recipient’s designated time frames relate to the fundamental fairness of the proceedings. Delays caused solely by administrative needs are insufficient to satisfy this standard. A respondent cannot indefinitely delay a Title IX proceeding by refusing to cooperate. 

Schmidt said the delay was requested again by O’Brien, and officially granted Jan. 31, postponing both Chrisbaum’s and Schmidt’s hearings to May 19. Chrisbaum and Schmidt were notified about the extended leave of absence Feb. 1, the day O’Brien was supposed to return from his original leave.

Present Day

O’Brien is living at the Les Aspin Center this semester. He is set to retire June 30 Just over a month after the official hearing date.

With O’Brien set to retire at the end of this school year, a search committee has been set up to hire the next director of the Les Aspin Center.

While this is still an ongoing case, Kreple said any formal complaints can continue until they are complete, regardless of whether an employee retires or leaves the university for any reason.

“If someone is found responsible for violating the university’s Sexual Harassment and Sex Discrimination Policy, they can face a variety of sanctions,” Kreple wrote in an email to the Marquette Wire. “Someone who is no longer employed by the university could be prohibited from engaging in campus-related activities in the future, as one example.”

Despite their personal experiences with sexual harassment in Washington, D.C., Schmidt and Chrisbaum both said the Les Aspin Center is a great program for Marquette students. 

“I want to see the program thrive. I have really high hopes for it,” Chrisbaum said. “I’m excited to see what the future of the program holds.”

For Schmidt, her biggest concern is that, up until this current semester, O’Brien has lived in the same places that students also live and work.

“I think it’s a huge violation of professional student boundaries that should exist,” Schmidt said. “Marquette knows there are complaints because the Title IX office is doing these processes, so the fact that they still (allowed) him to live there and teach and be around students, I can’t understand why they would allow that.”

Chrisbaum was asked to sit in on the search committee’s interviews for the top three candidates for the next director of the Les Aspin Center last week. He said he hopes they make a decision that will enact change in the program.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the O’Brien is no longer living at the Les Aspin Center this semester. He is. The story has been updated with this correction.

This story was written by Skyler Chun. She can be reached at [email protected].

Andrew Amouzou, Hope Moses and Megan Woolard contributed to this report.

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