The longtime director of a Marquette University program based in Washington, D.C.. is under investigation for alleged sexual harassment of students.
The university’s Title IX office is looking into allegations lodged last year by at least two students against the Rev. Timothy O’Brien. The allegations were first reported by The Marquette Wire, the university’s student news organization.
“All I want is for students to be safe,” one of the complainants, junior Amanda Schmidt, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I don’t want any student to have to go through what I have gone through. Marquette should have stepped in sooner to protect students. All I’m asking for is that Father O’Brien is held accountable for his actions and Marquette staff who supported him are held accountable for failing to protect students.”
O’Brien told the Journal Sentinel on Sunday that he emphatically denied the allegations. He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
O’Brien is credited with creating the Les Aspin Center, one of the first congressional internship programs of its kind. More than 3,000 students have participated since 1988, spending a semester or summer living in the “O’Brien House” a couple of blocks from the Capitol, taking political science classes and interning somewhere that suits their interests. This year marks the center’s 35th anniversary.
Marquette hailed O’Brien as a “pioneer” and “founding father” in a 2020 story that described the priest’s ability to connect with students on a personal level and noted his fundraising prowess, which helps keep the program open to students from all economic backgrounds.
Student David Chrisbaum read the story before heading to D.C. in January 2022. He told the Journal Sentinel he “was so excited to meet this man. But we didn’t meet that man. We met someone completely different.”
During a one-on-one conversation early in the semester in the priest’s living room, Chrisbaum said, O’Brien asked him if he was gay. The question struck Chrisbaum as strange and uncomfortable but not necessarily sexual harassment. As Chrisbaum’s semester progressed, however, he said O’Brien made a series of sexual and racist comments, such as talking about the genitalia of a previous student O’Brien mentored and referring to an Arab woman on campus as “Saddam Hussein” in a joking manner. He said he heard from other students who said they were also uncomfortable with O’Brien’s remarks.
Chrisbaum, now a senior, said he filed an HR and Title IX complaint last May alongside another student who said they had experienced sexual harassment at the Les Aspin Center in a previous semester.
“My entire intention was to protect future students because I didn’t want them to experience anything remote to what I did,” Chrisbaum said.
A few months after Chrisbaum filed his complaint, O’Brien announced his plan to retire at the end of this school year. He has been on medical leave since early last November, Marquette spokesperson Monica MacKay said.
O’Brien said his doctor recommended medical disability leave due to ongoing complications from a recent accident.
Later in November, Schmidt said O’Brien walked up behind her during an alumni event, slid his hand down her back and rested his hand on top of her butt for two to three minutes as he talked with others in the group around her.
Schmidt filed a Title IX complaint after the Nov. 15 incident and said she was assured by the office’s director that O’Brien wouldn’t attend any more Les Aspin events. That didn’t happen, Schmidt said. He appeared at two other events.
When Schmidt followed up with the office, the Title IX director said she was advising O’Brien to “not only stay away from university-related events but also to avoid contact with all students.”
O’Brien is no longer teaching or participating in events related to the center but still has access to the residence, MacKay said. She said the Title IX reporting process is confidential and every complaint is fully investigated.
In December, O’Brien requested a delay in the Title IX process due to his leave, the Marquette Wire reported. He requested another delay early this year, pushing Chrisbaum’s and Schmidt’s hearings to May.
O’Brien retires June 30. A search is underway for his successor.