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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

‘Satan was able to destroy a wonderful organization’: Right to Life is without president, faces internal turmoil

Members of the University’s largest student group, Notre Dame Right to Life, received a series of two letters dated April 2, 2023, addressing turmoil and turnover in the club’s ranks. The correspondence capped a constitutional debate that lasted for weeks within the anti-abortion group, and an even longer period of interpersonal strife in the club’s higher ranks.

In a six-and-a-half-page letter sent to members of the club, former president Merlot Fogarty wrote to address “questions in the past several weeks over the intentions of several members of the board, the process of deliberation of the constitution and what this means for the club in the coming years.”

Fogarty, a junior in Ryan Hall studying theology and political science, marked the end of her tenure in her letter: “My term began on April 1st, 2022. It is now April 2nd, 2023. Thus, I am no longer your President. No one has been elected. My term has come to an end.”

In her letter, Fogarty heralded the club’s accomplishments over the past year and called her leadership of the club “one of the most beautiful and remarkable experiences of my life.”

She also detailed a year of tensions and broken trust, as well as painted a portrait of her deteriorating mental health. Fogarty has shared her history of anxiety publicly and has discussed how coming from a broken family led her to anti-abortion activism.

In October, a board retreat was held, and Fogarty writes she “regained a sense of peace and confidence in the board, my leadership skills and the amazing work we were doing to change hearts and minds on campus.” But that didn’t last long.

“I began hearing a lot of details of my personal life in conversations around campus with people I had never spoken to before. Board members had been sharing with others the struggles I had been facing in my personal life, to paint me as an incompetent leader,” she alleged.

This tension seeped into the club’s work.

“The factions on board became more visible in meetings as certain people sided with each other and separate group chats were made,” Fogarty wrote. 

A sitting member of the board, seeking anonymity because of the threats and harassment they say they have received, said Fogarty’s letter came as a surprise. 

“We were not aware of our former president’s intent to step down or of the letter she wrote to the club, but felt the confusion that resulted from it deserved an immediate response. A majority of the board gathered on Sunday for hours to determine what we felt was necessary to say,” the board member wrote to The Observer. 

The board member wrote that “among other things, the board has received anonymous threatening emails that include assertions that ‘We will not forgive. We will not forget. We are watching.’”

Jose Rodriguez, the club’s vice president for design, said the four-page response letter emerged from a “secret group chat” that excluded himself and other members of the board.

“The response is not intended to speak for every member of [the] board unequivocally, but the majority of board members were consulted. As we noted, this year, and especially the process since [the constitutional referendum], has been incredibly painful and deeply saddened all of us, and we have struggled for months to determine what is charitable and productive,” the anonymous member of the board specified.

A former board member told The Observer that less than half of the board was actually involved in the letter’s drafting and publication.

The response itself thanks Fogarty “for the hard work and dedication she has shown to the club during her time as president” before leveling a number of accusations against her leadership.

Rodriguez, a junior in Keenan Hall, said he joined the club under Fogarty’s encouragement.

“I joined obviously [because] I’m pro-life, but also specifically through the encouragement of Merlot to get more involved in the pro-life cause, in building a culture of life on campus,” he said.

Rodriguez said he appreciated Fogarty’s leadership.

“I think she’s a great leader. Of the three years I’ve been on campus, she has been the best president of Right to Life, in my opinion,” he said. “She has obviously increased the amount of events that Right to Life has had. She increased the number of ways that club members could be get involved within the club, either as commissioners, through volunteering events, to service events, through all that stuff.”

Rodriguez mentioned a number of the club’s successes over the past year. 

“And a lot of the events that we’ve had have had an impact. For example, fundraising for a mother, protesting pharmaceutical companies and attending the March for Life. There’s just been a wide variety of events that we’ve had that would not be possible without Merlot’s leadership, without all the time that she spends planning out these things,” he said.

Constitutional crisis

At the end of February, Right to Life’s GroupMe, which currently stands at 755 members, exploded into chaos, with members leveling allegations of a board-led “coup” against Fogarty. The specific controversy was rooted in the fact that the club’s lost constitution from 2011 had been found. The board’s response letters argues they had then begun the process of amending the constitution for several reasons.

“​​First, the constitution had been lost for years, and SAO had not shared it with us until this year. Over time, it had calcified into something that did not resemble the current shape of the club. Because of this, our President decided to begin the process of constitutional reform, and we have been debating and revising this constitutional draft since last semester,” they wrote.

They wrote the 2011 constitution “bound the Board members into the legal gymnastics that were needed to keep the club functional” and not risk the club’s hundreds of thousands dollars in funding and standing with the Student Activities Office (SAO). 

The late February amendments, agreed upon in a single hour-long board meeting according to the former board member, included requirements that the president be a senior and have served on the board for two semesters, as well as imposing a one-year term limit. 

Fogarty, who herself was nominated for president as a sophomore who had been on board for only one semester, wrote in her letter to the club that “it became clear that a single person was instituting all of the amendments, and that they were ensuring someone like me could never be the club’s president again.”

Rodriguez agreed that the amendments seemed to target Fogarty specifically, given the combination of a term limit and a requirement that the candidate be a rising senior.

With a referendum on the amended constitution going to club members, the club’s large group chat erupted.

“Around 10 p.m. that night, a senior club member asked a question about the terms of one clause on elections in our 750-member club-wide group chat. In the next few hours, hundreds of questions and comments about the meaning behind the referendum and why the board was targeting me specifically flooded the chat. I sobbed in my room as I realized what had really happened. I hadn’t led the club to destruction. I had been undercut and betrayed by three petty girls and a club advisor,” Fogarty recalled in her letter.

Fogarty wrote in her letter that she was not allowed to share the final results of the vote with the club that night, but the results were overwhelming, with 85% of the club striking down the amended constitution.

This was not the end of proposed constitutional changes, however, as the club’s leadership moved to define “active members,” a two-thirds majority of whom was needed to pass any constitutional changes.

According to Rodriguez, this had four requirements: to pay dues, participate in at least one committee, attend a majority of monthly meetings and to volunteer for two major events. He added that committees no longer exist in the club, and that attendance hasn’t been taken at monthly meetings, so the new requirements effectively meant only some members of the board deemed the “executive committee” could be considered “active members.”

Rodriguez himself proposed an amendment to strike all requirements for active membership except the paying of dues, something he said the board had previously unanimously agreed upon in early February, which failed by a two-thirds vote at the March 20 meeting.

These active members thereby voted in the amendments at that meeting, and according to the response letter, they were “passed by an overwhelming majority vote.”

Fogarty expressed her disgust at the events in her letter, writing, “Thirteen people were given the power to make decisions affecting a club that makes up an eighth of the student body, decisions on which the real membership of the club had already made their views clear. We went from being the largest pro-life campus club in the country to a 13-member aristocracy making decisions out of spite rather than the love of Christ.”

Troubles with the de Nicola Center and club advisor

A former board member recalls how the club advisor, Petra Farrell, the Culture of Life program manager at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, became “one of the driving forces” of the strife within the board.

Referring to Farrell and the center, the former member speculated some tension had come from disparate views on the way to approach a post-Dobbs campus.

The former board member made reference to financial manifestations of this difference of opinion, saying that the de Nicola Center had priorities centered on broader appeasement and their donor base.

In particular, the former member expressed frustration over the March for Life and resistance to spending thousands of dollars to attend this year’s protest, the costs for which are split between Right to Life and the de Nicola Center.

In an email, de Nicola Center director Carter Snead clarified that “the costs of the March are not evenly shared by RTL and the dCEC. In fact, this year, the dCEC agreed to pay 91% of the costs associated with student travel and has always paid 100% of costs for faculty and staff travel and related events.”

The former member argued the deNicola Center's events in the wake of Dobbs were insufficient and out of line with the Right to Life approach to building media attention around abortion issues, including addressing on-campus controversies

Snead disputed the source’s characterization of the center’s post-Dobbs approach as centered on a webinar series, writing “the dCEC has sponsored nearly 20 such events in the past year.”

Fogarty’s letter makes reference to Farrell, recounting a specific meeting with her.

“I was looking for guidance and advice from our advisor, but was instead met with a detailed account of the gossip and rumors that I had been hearing, although this time they came to a head: I was told that I was dividing the club and failing to promote a culture of life,” she wrote.

Fogarty’s letter also specifically mentions a number of other instances involving Farrell, including the day following the GroupMe episode.

“The next day I was called to a meeting with our advisor where she blamed me for the state of the club GroupMe chat, accused me of colluding with those who voted no and demanded that I write and sign a statement that there were no ulterior motives for the constitutional amendments and that we had decided to release it unanimously as a board. I refused, because ‘lying is a sin,’” she wrote.

Rodriguez also shared concerns about Farrell and her involvement in board controversies.

“Her standard was basically that she was just an unbiased intermediary, that she was just going to facilitate us and let us come to our own decisions. But in my opinion, she has not consistently applied this standard. As there’s been various moments where she’s influenced the opinions of members on the board by giving her own opinions, such as supporting the term limit and various other amendments,” he said. “Those were controversial to the club, but not to the majority of the board.”

He also said she had insufficiently addressed social problems in the club’s ranks.

“I don't think she’s done enough to address the bullying that goes on behind the scene. ​​I think she’s had various opportunities to step in. But she has not. So I would have liked for her to take a more prominent role in addressing the aggressiveness of some people on the board, some of the comments that they’ve made towards Merlot. To act as the adult in the room,” he said.

The response letter takes issue with Fogarty’s characterization of Farrell’s involvement, writing, “Our advisor was instrumental in meeting with SAO to ensure that our club — and our hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding —would not be deactivated and risk 1.5 years of having an inactive status. Our advisor did not place the club’s legitimacy in jeopardy; rather, she’s the only reason why we continue to exist at the moment.”

Finances and allegations

The March for Life is not the only point of contention over the club’s $170,000 budget.

In the board response letter, allegations were made of “verbal and physical abuse, elaborate lies, excessive and unapproved spending of club funds, exclusion, aggressive behavior, distrust, libel and slander and threats to our reputations.”

The anonymous board member added that “our former president often spent large sums of money to buy items, especially over the summer and during the fall semester, without notifying the treasurers or board as a whole. We also lost money on our concession stand due to a lack of communication and input from the rest of the board.”

Rodriguez said such allegations made towards Fogarty were untrue. The former board member added that spending was a big issue, one that “you could blame the entire board this year for because we didn’t have a budget in the fall.”

The former board member and Rodriguez suggested that allegations of abuse may have come from Fogarty’s implementation of a “task manager” spreadsheet to keep track of which three tasks board members were responsible for at a time. 

“Not everyone on the board contributes an equal amount of effort towards this club, or has the same time commitment, and not everyone fulfills their duties,” Rodriguez said. 

He further added that Fogarty had stepped in on cases where members of the board had not fulfilled their tasks.

“There’s certain times where board members fail to accomplish their designated tasks within the scope of their role. And in those cases, Merlot put it upon herself to get that done. I think she’s been — contrary to what the letter says — good at communicating with board members,” he said.

Moving forward

In her letter, Fogarty thanked anti-abortion activists on campus.

“I thank you all, truly, for the support you have shown for my leadership and your radical commitment to supporting life on campus. I am so blessed to have been able to lead you this year, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for the pro-life movement with people like you leading the way. I apologize deeply for the way this year has ended, and I hope you recognize the great good we have done on this campus and the love I have in my heart for each and every one of you,” she wrote.

“They say Satan attacks that which is doing the most good. Through lies, rumors, gossip and malice, Satan was able to destroy a wonderful organization that used to be dedicated to respecting the dignity of life,” Fogarty added.

The sitting board member wrote the route forward is unclear.

“I cannot say with complete certainty how we will endeavor to rebuild this trust, but in my own relationships, I will be prioritizing open, honest and personal conversations, time away for prayer and reflection and the choice to hope in the intentions of others. Hopefully these enable us to have fruitful discussions that allow us to move forward,” they wrote.

Rodriguez affirmed that communication was central looking ahead.

“I think there’s been a lack of transparency of board members communicating with each other, and the board communicating to the club as a whole. I think to rebuild that trust, we start with better communication, both with other board members and with to the club, and hearing what the club members have to say, taking their thoughts and opinions into consideration and allowing them to voice what they think the direction of the club should be moving forward,” he said.

In the closing of her letter, Fogarty shared her disappointment with the club’s perceived shift.

“I am sad to say that the leadership of this club no longer aligns itself with the love of one another, with a love for the dignity of life. My own life has been torn to pieces by those who claimed to uphold the dignity of life. To the board members who let a piece of paper take over the joy this club once used to bring to me, I wish you the best of luck. I hope you find peace in my absence,” she wrote.

Correction: This story previously made mention of a fundraising banquet held by the de Nicola Center on the night of the March for Life. That has been changed to reflect comment from the center’s director, Carter Snead, who clarified the event was a “reception, co-sponsored by the ND Alumni Association, free of charge for ND alumni, friends, and family members who attend the March.”

The Observer failed to reach out to the de Nicola Center before the deadline of this story, resulting in some disputed statements based on other sources. The article has been corrected to reflect information from the center. We sincerely regret this error.