Fired Minnesota Teacher Speaks Out on the Danger of Silence

September 13, 2013
Kristen Ostendorf

Kristen Ostendorf

“I don’t feel like telling the truth should cost me my job.”

Those are the words of Kristen Ostendorf, reacting to being fired from a Minnesota Catholic high school after she publicly revealed that she was a lesbian and involved in a relationship with another woman.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports that officials at Totino-Grace H.S., in Fridley, a suburb of the Twin Cities, have been tight-lipped about their response to the firing.  MPR states:

“The school released a statement saying the matter is a private one between employer and employee.

” ‘Like all Catholic schools and organizations, Totino-Grace follows the teachings of the church and the employment policies of the Archdiocese,’ it said in part.”

Interestingly, this is the second case this year of a Totino-Grace staff member leaving the school because of revealing involvement in a same-sex relationship.  William Hudson voluntarily stepped down as school president when he disclosed to school board members his long-term commitment to another man.  Ostendorf taught English, religion, and was a campus minister and swimming and lacrosse coach.

The silence of the school officials contrasts strikingly with Ostendorf’s claim about telling the truth. In a MinnPost interview, Ostendorf spoke eloquently about the destructive power of silence:

“I’m not a big fan of silence. I’m not a fan of leaving the unnamed elephant in the room. I think silence is a huge problem. There’s been criticism of Bill [William Hudson] for having ‘kept a secret.’ And I think, really? He was doing a job he was called to do. But let’s say he was keeping a secret, and I chose to not keep a secret. We’re both gone. And the sad story is, I’d like to be the last person to be fired for who I loved, or for the gender of the person I love. But I won’t be, probably, and the silence around it terrifies me.

“The truth is, there are 800 kids who started school two weeks ago. They have a job to do, and they have to do it well, and they will. They have to press on. Still, I’m gone, and my desk is empty, and everybody knows it, and nobody’s talking about it. That’s something I wake up at night thinking about: the silence. Silence is the undoing of lots of good things, and I would err on the side of truth. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

In the same interview, Ostendorf comments about another form of silence in the church:

“As far as I can surmise, the rule I broke was saying out loud that I am in a relationship with a woman. It is OK in the church to be gay, though one would really not say that aloud.”

MPR also reported on another Totino-Grace staff person, Chad O’Leary, a youth minister, who resigned in 2010 after telling school administrators that he was gay.   They also describe these types of departures as part of a national trend:

“Firings at Catholic schools over same-sex relationships appear to be on the rise nationally, according to Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for LGBT employees in Catholic institutions.

” ‘In 2011 there was maybe two or three cases like this. In 2012 there was probably six. And now [this year] we’ve had well over a dozen,’ he said.

“DeBernardo says that’s in part because gay marriage has become legal in more states, like Minnesota, and that has gay employees of Catholic schools speaking up about their relationships.

” ‘The arrival of public affirmation of their relationships is going to bring out more and more of these cases,’ he said.”

For a listing of the known dismissals of church workers because of LGBT issues over the past few years, click here.

Michael Bayly, a prominent Catholic LGBT  Twin Cities’ advocate, put these firings into spiritual context in his blog post at The Wild Reed:

“I’ve followed a number of cases where LGBT people have either resigned or been fired from Catholic institutions. And as difficult as the situation was initially for these folks, they’ve actually moved on to a much better place in their lives. For one thing, they’re no longer closeted. And, let’s be honest, why would we want anyone to remain in a situation where they can’t be their true and full selves? That’s a terrible way to live. I know as I lived it for many years. Oh, to be sure, we can justify it by saying something like, it’s better to be ‘on the inside’ doing what we can to help others.

“Well, let me tell you, that only lasts so long. Ultimately, the best way we can help others, say, for example, young people at a Catholic school, is to live a life of honesty and integrity. That’s what Kristen Ostendorf has chosen to do after eighteen years of being in a work environment that, as she says, required her to ‘hide and compromise and deny who I am.’

“I’m happy that Kristen is out of such an unhealthy environment. I’m sad that such environments still exist – especially within a faith community that claims inspiration from the life and message of Jesus. There’s a major disconnect there, to be sure. “

Silence is unhealthy and secrecy breeds many negative consequences.  Instead of castigating those who speak with honesty and clarity, our church should be honoring these people for helping us as a community to move closer to the truth.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles

Star-Tribune:  Gay teacher no longer employed at Totino-Grace

MinnPost:  Fired after she came out to colleagues, Totino-Grace teacher leaves dissonance and silence behind

The Wild Reed: Thoughts on the Firing of Kristen Ostendorf

Huffington Post: Kristen Ostendorf, Minnesota Catholic School Teacher, Allegedly Fired For Being Gay

Pioneer Press: Another gay educator out at Totino-Grace High School

Minnesota Public Radio: How Totino-Grace discovered, then fired gay veteran teacher


Update on Catholic Financing of Marriage Equality Opposition

November 19, 2012

Church financing to oppose marriage equality is in the news once again as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) updated its report on Catholic funding to reveal that Catholic institutions provided $2 million this year to try to forestall marriage for lesbian and gay couples in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State.

An earlier version of this report was released before the election. The full, updated report is available on the HRC website.

In a statement announcing the report update, HRC noted:

“The historic results of last week’s elections only highlight the growing disconnect between the fair-minded Romany Catholic laity and the anti-LGBT Church hierarchy. A 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that nearly 60 percent of Catholics support marriage equality. In fact, polling indicates marriage equality is one of the least important issues Catholics are currently concerned with. That same poll, from Belden Russonello, found that 83 percent of Catholics feel their bishops should not influence their vote.”

The report breaks down the funding by state.  It complements a report by Equally Blessed released before the election which details funding to oppose marriage equality by the Knights of Columbus.

Chad Griffin, HRC President commented on the report:

“The American people went to the polls and affirmed one of the core values of the Roman Catholic Church: the belief that all humans are worthy of dignity, respect, and love. The Church and NOM [National Organization for Marriage] can continue pouring money into discriminating against LGBT people, but the writing is on the wall for their anti-equality agenda. The Roman Catholic hierarchy should be focusing on taking actions that actually improve people’s lives, not spending precious resources on spreading malicious lies aimed at tearing down an entire community of people.”

(As an aside, in a HuffingtonPost blog entry, Griffin cited one of ten reasons that marriage equality was so successful this election cycle was because “Faith coalitions were on our side:”

“In 2008, our opponents talked like they had a monopoly on faith. This year, the prominent voices of pro-equality faith leaders like Reverend Delman Coates and organizations like Catholics for Marriage Equality made a huge difference.”)

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, where the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis spent $650,000 in a campaign to support a state constitutional ban against marriage equality, a group of concerned Catholics is calling for greater transparency and accountability.

Minnesota Public Radio reported on a meeting of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, where one leader, Martha Turner, asked participants to share their concerns about archdiocesan spending so that the group can start a conversation with the archdiocese:

” ‘We would like to hear your stories,’ Turner said. ‘We want to hear from you, we want to hear your experiences and your concerns about how the money is used that you donate to your parishes and that some of which ends up in the archdiocese.’ “

As Catholics begin to ask for more transparency and accountability, church leaders are going to find that they will have to be honest or that Catholics will vote with their pocketbooks by refusing donations.  What would be interesting to know is how much Catholic money was raised FOR marriage equality efforts.  As the number of Catholics who support marriage equality continues to grow, the total of their individual donations to marriage equality campaigns will is sure to grow.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Fired Minnesota Catholic School Teacher Calls for Dialogue on Marriage Equality

June 28, 2012

A 46-year old Catholic school teacher in Moorehead, Minnesota, has lost her job because of her personal conviction in favor of marriage equality.

Trish Cameron

Trish Cameron, who taught at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, says she is now praying for a healthier dialogue in the church on the issue of marriage.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports:

“After 11 years teaching fifth graders at St. Joseph’s Catholic school in Moorhead, the same-sex marriage issue was on Cameron’s mind as she filled out her annual self-evaluation form this spring.

“Part of the evaluation asked teachers to rate how well they support the teachings of the church. In the comment box, Cameron wrote, ‘I do not agree with all church teachings on a personal level, but I do not bring my own opinions into religion classes.’

“That comment led to a meeting with her principal and superintendent where she explained her break with the church on the issue of same-sex marriage. One week later, they asked her to resign.

” ‘I don’t think there was any hiding my feelings, but along the way at the moments of dialogue was I thinking, “gee I’m jeopardizing my employment?” No,’ she said. ‘That never crossed my mind.’ “

Her decision to express her views privately through the teacher evaluation process resulted from the fact that during a visit to her fifth-grade class last year, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Crookston diocese directed students to urge their parents to vote for the upcoming constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality.  MPR reports:

” ‘When he came to talk to my fifth graders this year this was the topic, gay marriage and the Minnesota Marriage Amendment,’ she recalled. ‘And it ended with a direct call to “talk to your parents”‘ kind of “tell them how to vote and make sure — this is important for the church.” And I was really troubled by that, I was very uncomfortable with that.’

“Cameron said she felt a fifth grade classroom was not the appropriate place for a political discussion of the marriage amendment, which would change Minnesota’s Constitution to allow marriage only between a man and a woman. Cameron said she can’t remember another instance in 11 years where a bishop expressed political views in the classroom.”

Cameron, who has a teaching position in nearby Fargo, North Dakota, for the fall, holds no bitterness, but does hold a hope that the Catholic church can discuss important issues like marriage equality more openly:

“Cameron believes she represents a segment of the Catholic Church no longer willing to simply accept what the church leaders say without discussion. Cameron said she has heard from many Catholics who tell her they are also struggling with the same-sex marriage issue.

” ‘We want to talk. This matters in our life. To some of us it’s extraordinarily painful. To some of us it’s really confusing,’ she said. ‘I have teenagers with close friends that are openly gay and those friends matter to them.’

“Cameron also said that she and other parents are afraid that the battle over same-sex marriage will alienate their children from the church.

” ‘After generations of being planted and rooted in the Catholic faith, we’re afraid we can’t hand this faith comfortably to them,’ she said.

“Cameron said she is not asking the church to sanctify same sex-marriage. But she does want church officials to talk about the issue. She worries they have slammed the door on dialogue.

” ‘If that is what the church chooses to say in the end — divine revelation and no more dialogue, then I guess for me even my own future as a Catholic which matters a lot to me, that part of it I don’t know yet,’ she said. ‘It really does matter how the church responds to this.’

“Cameron said her faith is strong and she won’t turn away from the Catholic Church in the near future. But she said if the church continues to ignore the plea to talk about difficult questions like same-sex marriage, she will have no choice but to find a more open and accepting place to worship.”

If the hierarchy does not find a more productive way of dealing with cases like Cameron’s, our church should brace itself for a downward spiral of firings and resignations.  What is troublesome in this case is that it was not public dissent, but private conviction which caused the firing.  Job performance and duty to the church and its religion curriculum were not  at issue.  Our prayers are with Trish Cameron–prayers of support during this challenging time and prayers of gratitude for her faithful, grace-filled witness.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Resigned and Retired Priests Strengthen Hope and Courage of Minnesota Catholics

May 18, 2012

Two stories should strengthen the hope and courage of Minnesota Catholics who are working to defeat the state’s proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw marriage equality which will be on the ballot there in November.

In the first instance, a group of resigned Catholic priests in the state have joined together to encourage Catholics to oppose the amendment, which is being supported by the state’s Catholic bishops. A Minnesota Public Radio report states:

Ed Flavahan

“As Minnesota voters prepare to go to the polls this fall, the Catholic Church has mounted a major effort to convince them to approve a constitutional amendment that would only allow marriage between men and women.

“But Catholics are not united behind the church’s official position, a point made clear today, when a group representing 80 former Catholic priests spoke out against the marriage amendment. They said the amendment violates Christian principles of love and justice.”

The Progressive Catholic Voice blog cites the group’s statement read at a press conference on May 17th:

“As former Catholic priests who collectively devoted more than 1,000 years of service to the Church, we strongly oppose the proposed marriage amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution. Free to express our opinions openly, we call on all people of good will to exercise their fundamental right to follow their consciences and to resist discrimination against any of God’s children.

“We encourage Minnesotans to base their vote on principles of justice and love. the proposed amendment, in violation of those principles, would deprive an individual of his or her right to marry the person he or she loves. Therefore, as former priests, we encourage all Minnesotans to vote “NO” on the marriage amendment.”

 

Sensus Fidelium, the blog of Catholics for Marriage Equality–Minnesota, carries the text of the statement of one of those 80 priests, Ed Flavahan, which recounts his journey of how his own homophobia became eradicated through personal interaction with lesbian and gay people.

A CBS news report quoted Flavahan’s criticism of the large amount of money spent by the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis to support the amendment:

“ ‘I was outraged to learn that the archdiocese spent $650,000 last year in 2011 to promote this divisive initiative, while its own Catholic Charities are being forced to curtail their good and necessary work,’ said Flahavan.

“St. Paul-Minneapolis Diocese spokesperson Dennis McGrath disputed the claim that Catholic Charities donations had been cut. He said the amount of donations had increased in 2011.

“McGrath also said that the $650,000 spent to promote the initiative came from money accrued through interest from the Archdiocese’s holdings, not from donations.”

MinnPost.com quoted another resigned priest on how the amendment is damaging to all:

“John Estrem, a former rector at the Cathedral of St. Paul who went on to head Catholic Charities, said the Church he knows is about love and inclusion. ‘As a Catholic and former priest, I encourage all to vote no on this amendment,’ Estrem said. ‘Enshrining discrimination does not promote marriage. It simply diminishes us all.’ ”

Fr. John Brandes, Fr. Timothy Power, and Fr. Thomas Garvey

In addition to the statement of these 80 resigned priests, three retired priests–John Brandes, Tom Garvey, Tim Power–submitted a letter to the editor  to Minneapolis’ Star Tribune (which ultimately was not printed) which began”

“Catholics of Minnesota you have a choice! . . .There is not just one way for Catholics to vote in November.”

The letter encourages Catholics to defeat the amendment.  In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, they note the climate of fear among priests that has been propagated by St. Paul-Minneapolis’ Archbishop John Nienstedt:

“The men say they know many other priests — retirees and those in active priesthood — who support their position but are either too prudent or fearful to speak out.

“Last year, Archbishop Nienstedt sent a letter to all priests in the diocese calling the charge to defend traditional marriage ‘one of the greatest challenges of our times.’ He reminded them of the vow they took on their ordination day to promote and defend the church’s teachings and warned, ‘There ought not to be open dissension on this issue. If any have personal reservations, I do not wish that they be shared publicly.’

“The three retired priests received the letter.

“In his 55 years of being a priest, Garvey said he can’t remember a similar warning.

” ‘That was a terrible thing, such an injustice to us to say you cannot disagree with me on this matter,’ he said. ‘And it’s just not true.’ “

Hope and courage are contagious and infectious.  The hope and courage that these resigned and retired priests have displayed will surely spread to the general Catholic population.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


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