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


Minnesota Becomes 12th US State with Equal Marriage Laws

May 14, 2013

Marriage Equality Advocates Celebrate in the Minnesota State House

Minnesota becomes the 12th state in the US to adopt marriage equality into law today, just six months after voters defeated a constitutional amendment to define marriage heterosexually. In both campaigns, Catholic advocates and opponents played a central role in shaping the marriage equality conversation.

After a successful House vote last week, the Senate voted 37-30 yesterday to pass the bill. Legislators now send the bill to Governor Mark Dayton who is expected to sign it this afternoon. The New York Times reports on the victory, and turnaround, in Minnesota:

“In a way, Monday’s vote was a startling shift in the conversation in this state. For much of 2012, Minnesotans had been debating an amendment to the state Constitution that would have done the opposite — define marriage as between a man and a woman…Minnesotans in November rejected the amendment and sent majorities of Democrats to both chambers of the State Legislature, setting off an intense new push to legalize same-sex marriage.

“‘That whole constitutional amendment backfired on them,’ Amy Britain, 46, said Monday…She said it proved that Minnesotans, like many Americans, had changed their views on marriage.”

At Queering the Church, Terence Weldon notes the importance of Catholic efforts by Minnesotans involved in the struggle:

“This is not new: Catholics have been prominent in marriage victories elsewhere, as have other faith groups…But it is true that for a long time, it appeared that church groups were overwhelmingly opposed, and only fairly recently has faith–based support become reasonably widespread. Minnesota, I suspect, is one example where the religious support has been particularly telling…

“I’m not going to even attempt to offer a run-down of all the people and groups who have contributed, or how. But for some indication of just how much there has been, cross to yesterday’s post at The Wild Reed, ‘Drawing the Circle Wide‘, written in anticipation of today’s success and giving an extensive list of some of those people, with pictures, whose hard work has now paid off. Then cross to today’s post at Sensus Fidelium, ‘It’ll be legal by August 1st‘, where you can read more about the legwork done by Catholics for Marriage Equality MN…”

Leading up to the 2012 elections, marriage equality advocates fought fiercely to defeat an anti-gay amendment being voted on while the Catholic hierarchy spoke and spent heavily to write discrimination into law. Today, once the governor signs marriage equality into law, all Minnesotans will be able to marry while religious liberty protections remain in place.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


The Best of 2012 in Catholic LGBT News

December 31, 2012

Thumbs_upYesterday, we posted our list of the worst of 2012 in Catholic LGBT news.  Today, as promised, we end the year on a positive note by presenting our list of the BEST of the previous year.  Much good has happened in 2012, with Catholics at all levels of the church speaking out for justice and equality for LGBT people.

Thanks to the 286 of you who voted in our poll to determine the selection and ranking of these best news stories.  The percentage following each story is the percentage of people who chose this item as one of their top five.

The Top Ten

1. Catholic lay support aids marriage equality victories in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State. 23.08%

2. Priests in Minnesota and Maryland publicly counter the local hierarchy’s opposition to marriage equality. 14.69%  

3. Berlin’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki suggests that the church should treat gay and straight couples similarly9.09%  

4 & 5.  TIE                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Bishop Richard Malone in Maine announces that the diocese will not take an active political role against the state’s marriage equality referendum. 8.39%                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Surveys show increase in support for LGBT issues among Hispanics, especially Catholics. 8.39%

6. At New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson calls for the church hierarchy to re-think its sexual ethics teachings8.04% 

7 & 8. TIE                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The University of Notre Dame gives official recognition to a gay-straight alliance after years of student activism. 5.24%                           Austrian Cardinal overturns a pastor’s decision to bar a gay man from serving on a parish council. 5.24%

9. Catholics in Media Associates gives its top award to TV’s Modern Family, a show featuring a gay family. 3.85%  

10. Maryland priest who denied communion to a lesbian woman at her mother’s funeral is removed from pastoral ministry. 3.5%  

Editor’s Note:  One item which we neglected to add to the list for voting was that Vice President Joe Biden, a  Catholic, endorsed marriage equality, paving the way for President Barack Obama to do the same.  Biden also referred to transgender equality as “the civil rights issue of our time.”  We feel these should deserve some mention on the list of the best Catholic news of 2012.  We regret that we didn’t include them for voting.  Mea maxima culpa.

Other items

Cardinal Francis George apologizes for comparing the LGBT community to the Ku Klux Klan. 2.45%  

Ontario requires all schools, including state-supported Catholic schools, to institute gay-straight alliances. 2.1%  

Jesuit author James Martin endorses Spirit Day, a national program to end bullying of LGBT youth. 2.1% 

Pastor at Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco reverses his earlier decision to ban drag queens from parish events. 1.75%

Students at Stonehill College, a Catholic campus in Massachusetts, win a new and improved non-discrimination policy. 1.4%  

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Minnesota Teen Supports His Friend in Confirmation Controversy

November 25, 2012

Last weekend, we reported the story of a Minnesota teenager, Lennon Cihak, who is being denied confirmation because he took a stand in support of marriage equality during that state’s recent ballot initiative.

An interesting development has occurred in this story:  one of Cihak’s confirmation class peers has refused to receive confirmation as a  gesture of solidarity for his friend.  What makes this development even more interesting is that the second teen, Ryne Kisch, does not share Cihak’s support of marriage equality.

D-L Online.com reports:

“Jay Kisch said his 16-year-old son, Ryne, did not agree with 17-year-old Lennon Cihak’s support of same-sex marriage, instead withdrawing from the confirmation process at Assumption Church here ‘out of compassion and concern’ for Cihak.

“ ‘They don’t necessarily share the same viewpoint on gay marriage, but yet they’re good friends and very supportive of each other,’ Jay Kisch said.”

Yet, the priest who denied confirmation to Cihak, Fr. Gary LaMoine, made a public statement that Kisch agreed with Cihak on marriage equality, which Kisch and his family have denied:

“In a letter to the parish made public last Friday, LaMoine said both Cihak and another ‘candidate,’ meaning Ryne Kisch, withdrew from the confirmation process ‘because of their disagreement with the teaching of the Church concerning marriage.’

“ ‘My son feels like he’s been maligned,’ he said. ‘No one even asked him why he didn’t want to go through the confirmation process. I think it was just assumed that he believed in gay marriage.’

“Although Ryne, who has been a friend of Cihak’s since kindergarten, says he does not support same-sex marriage, he still wanted to stand with his friend.

“ ‘We disagree on the views but we can still be friends,’ Ryne said. ‘I decided to stick up for him.’ ”

LaMoine–and indeed the entire church– can learn a lesson from Ryne:  you don’t have to agree to be able to stand in solidarity and communion with your friend.  Love can transcend all differences.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Minnesota Teen Denied Confirmation Because of Support for Marriage Equality

November 17, 2012

Lennon Cihak

A 17-year old in Barnesville, Minnesota, is being denied Confirmation for posting a photo on Facebook revealing his opposition to the failed constitutional amendment in that state that would have defined marriage as one man and one woman, and his family is suffering repercussions too.

The mother of Lennon Cihak was informed in a private meeting with their parish priest, Fr. Gary LaMoine, that Lennon would be unable to receive the sacrament, even though Lennon had participated in a service programand attends Mass.

The photo in question is one of Lennon holding a lawn sign in support of the marriage amendment that the teen altered to show his support for marriage equality.

Other students in the Confirmation class ‘Liked’ the photo, thus the family cannot understand why Cihak was singled out. The priest sanctioning Lennon referred to it as an ‘internal and pastoral’ matter when questioned, and said he is consulting diocesan officials regarding the matter, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reports that the Cihak family is now being sanctioned for their son’s Facebook post, yet some members remain committed to the Catholic Church:

“But now the family is not allowed to participate in Communion there, Doug [Cihak, Lennon's father] said, and he’s worried as to how far the sanctions will go, expressing concern about being able to be buried alongside his parents.

“Still, Doug insists he’s not mad at LaMoine, calling him just a ‘messenger’ of the church. The same could not be said for his wife, who said she doesn’t plan on returning to the church ever again, her son nodding in agreement…

“But through it all, Lennon said his faith hasn’t faltered.

“‘I don’t want the church to be put down. I don’t want the Catholic religion to be put down,’ he said. ‘It’s just the way the priest has things running. He’s so strict. He won’t loosen up about things.’”

It is positive that Lennon can parse out what the faith is truly about and the harmful actions of people in the institutional structure, but no young person or family should be subjected to such abusive treatment from a priest.

This use of sacraments in a disciplinary capacity undermines the beauty and depth of these important moments in the life of a Catholic, and a case like this sheds light on why many high school students choose to forgo Confirmation altogether. Hopefully, priests like Fr. LaMoine will come to their senses and minister pastorally instead of ideologically.

Diocesan officials need to intervene in this case and correct LaMoine’s mistake.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Bishops and Vatican React to This Week’s Marriage Equality Electoral Victories

November 10, 2012

It is understandable that certain Catholic bishops would be disappointed in Tuesday’s ballot victories for marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State.  All the bishops in those particular states were vocal in trying to defeat marriage equality initiatives.

Bishop Richard Malone

In Maine, Bishop Richard Malone attempted to be reconciliatory in his statement following the vote.  While noting that he was “disappointed” in the outcome, he also showed some awareness that Catholics who supported marriage equality did so out of a sense of justice, though he disagreed with their motivation:

“I trust that those who voted for such a radical change did so out of concern for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction. Respect and acceptance of all people regardless of sexual orientation is not a point of controversy. It is a teaching of the Church, but so is the authentic meaning and definition of marriage. That is why the Catholic Church will continue its commitment to work for the basic human rights to which all people are entitled, while remaining devoted to preserving and strengthening the precious gift of marriage.”

Although Bishop Malone needs to learn that not all gay and lesbian people “struggle” with their sexuality–indeed, many see it as a gift from God and celebrate it as such–it is commendable that in this statement he reaffirms his dedication to human rights.

Archbishop William Lori

In Maryland, Archbishop William Lori responded to the vote for marriage equality in his state by continuing to speak as if the campaign were still ongoing, instead of a settled affair.  In The Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, quotes from Archbishop Lori’s response:

“ ‘I think that vote will prove not to have been for the common good of our state,’ Archbishop Lori said. . . .

“The election results on same-sex marriage should serve as a ‘wake up call’ for Catholics, Archbishop Lori said, demonstrating ‘our need to redouble our efforts to defend marriage, to preach about what marriage is, and to help people understand it as a unique relationship that does not discriminate against anyone, but is for the good of children and for the good of our society.’ ”

Lori’s comments differed greatly from those of Ryan Sattler, a Catholic layman who was profiled by The National Catholic Reporter for his work on marriage equality in the state, and who was sought for his reaction to the election’s outcome.  Sattler stated simply:

“On Election Day, Maryland voters chose justice. They chose equality. They chose love.”

Similarly, Karin Quimby, deputy faith director of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, praised the work of Maryland Catholics like Sattler:

“I think the work of Catholics on Question 6 here in Maryland shows that the social justice teaching in the Catholic church is alive and well. Lay leaders did a great job at the grassroots level, making their voices heard, and their fellow Catholics responded. Catholics clearly believe, very strongly, that every person has dignity, every person should be treated fairly, and every person deserves the same rights.”

Archbishop John Nienstedt

In Minnesota, the Archdiocese of St. Paul, led by Archbishop John Nienstedt, also emphasized the idea that it is time to move forward from the rancor of debate:

“Although the defeat of the amendment is a very serious concern to us, it will not deter us from continuing to serve this community and the whole state in pursuit of the common good.”

Father Michael Tegeder, who publicly opposed Archbishop Nienstedt during the marriage debate, called for the Ordinary’s resignation in a letter to the Star Tribune:

“As a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I would ask our archbishop, John Nienstedt, to prayerfully consider stepping down from his office. It would be healing for our state and our church and would show some magnanimity on his part. His misguided crusade to change our Constitution, spending more than a million dollars and, more importantly, much goodwill, has been rejected. Elections have consequences.”

Archbishop Peter Sartain

In Washington State, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle also seemed prepared to continue the debate about marriage.  In a statement, he said:

“I am disappointed that so many voters failed to recognize marriage between a man and a woman as the natural institution for the permanent, faithful covenant of love for a couple, for bringing children into the world, and for nurturing and educating those children. This change in civil law is not in the best interest of children or society.”

More joyous in response was Washington State’s Catholic Govern Christine Gregoire, who had signed the marriage equality legislation into law.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted her reaction to the vote:

“ ‘Washington has made history and I couldn’t be prouder,’ said Gregoire.  ‘Voters stood up for what is right and what is just and said that all Washington families are equal under the law . . .

“ ‘This is a day history will look back on as a turning point for equality.  It is a day I will look back on as Washington state leading the nation.  And it is a day that I will carry with me forever.’ ”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone

Commenting on all four successful votes, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, also seemed intent on putting a negative spin on the outcomes in his statement:

“Yesterday, November 6, was a disappointing day for marriage, as the effort to preserve the unique meaning of marriage in the law lost by only a narrow margin in four states, even though vastly outspent by those who promote the redefinition of marriage.

“The meaning of marriage, though, cannot be redefined because it lies within our very nature. No matter what policy, law or judicial decision is put into place, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union. It is either this, or it is nothing at all. In view of the fact that every child has a mother and a father, our society either respects the basic right of every child to be raised by his or her mother and father together and so supports the true and unique meaning of marriage for the good of children, or it does not. In a society marked by increasing poverty and family fragmentation, marriage needs to be strengthened, promoted, and defended, not redefined. I hope and pray that political leaders, judges, and all people will seek to honor this foundational and common sense truth of marriage.”

In L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, tried to place the Catholic hierarchy’s position in a positive cast, even in the face of such resounding defeats.  A Religion News Service story offers the following summary:

” ‘You could say that the church, on this level, is bound to lose,’ writes [Lucetta] Scaraffia. ‘But this is not the case.’

“According to the historian, the church’s fight on moral issues such as gay marriage and abortion has drawn support and admiration’ from many non-Catholics.

“By opposing legislation allowing gay couples to adopt in the United Kingdom or fighting the birth control mandate in the U.S., the church ‘made it clear for everyone that this is not about progress’ but about ‘the loss of one of the founding freedoms of the modern State, religious liberty.’ “

In all these cases, where Catholics have been working on both sides of the marriage question, it will be incumbent on the local bishops to work toward reconciling these factions in the church so that there are no lingering senses of animosity or alienation.  This will be particularly important where the bishops have been particularly politically involved on the marriage question, and thus have risked alienating marriage equality supporters.  Now that the electorates have spoken for justice and equality, the work of reconciliation must begin in earnest.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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