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Top Harvard Theologian Quit After Porn Discovery

May 20, 1999|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Questions of moral authority and the balance between public lives and private conduct are daily discussion fodder at the Harvard Divinity School. On Wednesday those issues exploded into public view as students and faculty learned that the school's dean, Ronald F. Thiemann, was forced out in November after thousands of pornographic files were found on his university-owned personal computer.

A spokesman for Harvard President Neil Rudenstein confirmed that pornographic material was found on Thiemann's computer in his Harvard-owned house after he requested additional disk space. Computer technicians who assisted Thiemann in transferring files to the new disk discovered the pornography and reported it to university officials.

As a consequence, spokesman Joe Wrinn said, Rudenstein and Thiemann "agreed that it would be in the best interests of the Divinity School for the dean to resign."

Although no details were available about the content of the material, the pornography was said to be explicit, but not involving children or other illegal activities.

In a resignation memorandum in November, Thiemann said he was leaving his post of 13 years "for personal and professional reasons." Thiemann, who was on sabbatical and unavailable Wednesday, is expected to return to his tenured teaching post in the fall.

His colleagues at the school, known for its liberal philosophy, maintained a silence over the affair. Calls to four Divinity School faculty members went unreturned. Thiemann's interim successor, Father J. Bryan Hehir, was said to be meeting to discuss the matter with students, faculty and staff after an article Wednesday in the Boston Globe.

Experts in the evolving area of cyber-privacy said the case highlighted the need for caution when e-mail or the Internet are used for personal purposes in a professional setting. Employers have wide latitude to monitor computers used in a work context, said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I.

But as material scampers across the screen of what appears to be a secure little box, computer users often develop a false sense of sanctuary, Smith said. He added that an American Bar Assn. briefing for lawyers in Washington on this very subject attracted thousands of listeners Wednesday. Still, Harvard's William Hutchison, a professor of the history of religion in America, expressed reservations about whether Thiemann's alleged transgressions merited his forced resignation.

Rumors about the pornography found in Thiemann's computer had circulated for some time, Hutchison said. But even if those stories were true, he went on, "I question whether someone would be dismissed on those grounds."

Some theologians readily saw the complexity of Thiemann's situation. As dean, Thiemann was credited with creating the Divinity School's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, which examines the role of values in law, the press, medicine and other areas. A Lutheran minister, married with two children, Thiemann, 52, specializes in modern Protestant thought.

Bernadette Brooten, a professor of Christian studies at Brandeis University who was formerly at Harvard, said: "Everyone deserves privacy, including in their private use of erotic images and stories. Nevertheless, seeing women and men as created in the image of God is ethically incompatible with consuming pornography created under the degrading and dehumanizing conditions operative in our vast pornography industry."

In Cincinnati, former Presbyterian minister Jerry Kirk, co-chair of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography, said a penchant for pornography was no more common among people of faith than among the general population, but added, "it's more common among people of faith than people of faith have been willing to admit."

Kirk said people in positions of authority should be held to tough standards on the subject of pornography: "Anyone who claims moral authority of any kind has to be held to a much stricter standard because it undermines everything else he does."

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