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Former American University President Pleads Guilty to Making Obscene Calls

May 24, 1990 GMT

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) _ Former American University president Richard E. Berendzen pleaded guilty Wednesday to two misdemeanor charges of making obscene telephone calls from his office and said he deeply regretted his actions.

Shortly after he appeared in court, Johns Hopkins University Hospital released a five-page statement that said the 51-year-old Berendzen had been sexually abused as a youngster.

″He was sexually and emotionally abused severely as a child,″ said the statement, which the hospital said was released by the authority of Dr. Paul R. McHugh, chairman of the hospital’s Psychiatry Department.


″He did not place calls for prurient interests; rather in a confused way, he was seeking answers to unresolved issues relating to his own abuse,″ the statement said. The person who allegedly abused Berendzen was identified only as an adult woman who was close to him, a release issued by McHugh said.

In a statement read outside the court by his attorney, Gerard Treanor, Berendzen said, ″In no way do I offer this report as an excuse for my conduct. Rather, it gives additional information, fills out the story, and provides a fuller context for my actions.″

Fairfax County General District Court Judge J. Conrad Waters Jr. sentenced Berendzen to 30 days in jail on each charge. He suspended all of the jail time, provided the educator stays out of trouble for one year and continues treatment.

Berendzen said he would continue on an outpatient basis at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and would report to the court every 90 days.

In an appearance with McHugh on the ABC television ″Nightline″ show, Berendzen said he learned in treatment that ″the person on the other end of the phone turned out to be a surrogate for my own abuser,″ a person he described as ″a woman very close to me.″

″I hope some people can learn from my travail″ and seek help, he said.

McHugh said psychiatrists were familiar with people ″who abused other people in all kinds of ways,″ and whose particular acts of abuse were ″aspects of embedded character,″ but Berendzen falls in a different class: ″It is important to know the individual we are dealing with has had a life of service and commitment to other people,″ a person who is ″not a person who was indulging in selfish misconduct.″

One of the women he was accused of calling, in suburban Virginia near Washington, said, ″I cannot criticize the judge. He did what he felt was just and fair.″

But the woman, Susan Allen, also called Berendzen ″a very sick man″ and said of his required therapy, ″I do not feel he is going to get the effect of it as he would if he had walked in there and said, ’I am an obscene telephone caller. Help me.‴

She made her comments to WUSA-TV in Washington.

He was treated at the psychiatric ward at Johns Hopkins from April 10 through May 4, officials said. He was evaluated by the Sexual Disorders Clinic there prior to admission, McHugh said.

Berendzen was interviewed after the administration of sodium amytal, along with psychological testing, McHugh said. Berendzen’s pain and confusion about his childhood surfaced when his father died in 1988 and he visited his childhood home, McHugh said.

This ″concludes a chapter in my life of pain, apprehension and sorrow,″ Berendzen said in the statement released by his attorney. ″It has been a necessary step, one I have taken after much contemplation and with deep regret for my actions.″

Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan said Berendzen received the standard sentence. ″This is the typical disposition in this classic case,″ Horan said. ″Our primary interest is in putting an end to the phone calls.″

Berendzen resigned April 8, effective at the end of the school year, as president of the university, saying he was exhausted. He was charged May 11.

Horan said the only calls that investigators can document that Berendzen made were to the home of a Fairfax County police officer and a retired South Carolina police officer who lived in Fairfax.

The charges were the result of phone calls Berendzen made March 28 and 29 to women at those residences, police said. During the calls, Berendzen talked about ″explicit, detailed, gross and graphic sex with adults and children,″ one of the victims said.

Law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said Berendzen telephoned women advertising day-care services and that the calls were traced to his office phone.

Making obscene telephone calls is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

Horan said the county prosecutes between 100 and 150 cases similar to Berendzen’s each year.

The university’s Board of Trustees said in a statement following Berendzen’s resignation that the Harvard-educated astronomer quit ″in the best interest of the university″ after ″allegations of improper behavior.″

On April 26, Berendzen released a short statement apologizing for the embarrassment caused by the circumstances surrounding his resignation. He did not address the allegations.

Berendzen had been president of the university since 1980.