A University of St. Thomas student apologized for giving a graduation day speech that offended some of his classmates and their families.
Ben Kessler, 21, was invited to speak at Saturday's commencement because he received the 2006 Tommie Award. It's given each year to a distinguished senior by a vote of students, staff and faculty. Kessler is an academic All-America football player who plans to become a priest.
In his speech, Kessler criticized students for using birth control and for a recent food fight. He also spoke in support of a controversial new school policy that forbids unmarried faculty and staff members in romantic relationships from staying together on some school trips.
"Then he got into other failures of society and one of my classmates next to me stood up and left," said Daphne Ho, a graduating senior whose family traveled from Hong Kong for the celebration.
Chris Kearney, a graduating senior from Hibbing, said, "He started out pretty well and then, out of nowhere, comes these bombshells about things he'd seen that irritated him."
Several students cried. Others yelled for Kessler to get off the stage. Brandon Mileski, a 2002 St. Thomas graduate, was in the crowd to watch his girlfriend receive her diploma.
"Dozens of students literally started walking out when he brought up birth control issues and, at one point, I thought a riot would break out," Mileski said. "At one point he was talking about the meaning of true happiness and someone stood up and screamed: 'I'll be happy when your speech is done!"'
Kessler, 21, of Janesville, Wis., apologized in a statement released through the school. "Instead of providing hope for all, I offended some by my words," Kessler said. "I sincerely apologize to each person I offended."
St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said the university administration did not read Kessler's speech beforehand. He said typically the Tommie of the Year just congratulates everyone and wishes them well.
The Rev. Dennis Dease, St. Thomas' president, said in a prepared statement that he regrets that graduates, families and guests were offended by Kessler's remarks and that he accepted Kessler's apology.
"I have shared my sentiments with Mr. Kessler that it was not appropriate for him to use the commencement exercise as a venue to express his opinions on several issues," Dease said.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)