Ontario Catholic Schools Trustee Is Chastised for LGBT Support

October 5, 2013

A trustee of the  Waterloo Catholic District School Board in Ontario, Canada, has been punished by his colleagues, in part because of his support for LGBT youth and the establishment of gay-straight alliances (GSA) in the religious institutions.

Anthony Piscitelli

Anthony Piscitelli

Anthony Piscitelli is not allowed to attend special committee meetings, though he can attend general board meetings.  This punishment was enacted because board members felt he violated principles in an op-ed that he recently published on Pope Francis’ new openness to LGBT issues and how that relates to Catholic education.  The Record newspaper reported:

“Trustees agreed that fellow trustee Anthony Piscitelli made misleading and inaccurate statements in an opinion piece in The Record last week when he said non-Catholic students are not allowed to attend Catholic elementary schools.

“Only two trustees — Janek Jagiellowicz and Joyce Anderson — supported Piscitelli on Thursday by voting against the motion, which came as an initial complaint by trustee Peter Reitmeier. . . .

“Reitmeier said Piscitelli’s article, which also referred to gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools and how more needs to be done to support gay and lesbian youth, was ‘undignified, unprofessional or contrary to the preservation and promotion of Catholic values and teachings.’

“Reitmeier said Piscitelli was inaccurate when he wrote that ‘the Ontario Catholic school system was slow to adopt reforms aimed at improving circumstances for gay and lesbian students.’ “

In the op-ed, Piscitelli discussed how statistics show strong support for same-sex marriage among Canadian Catholics, and so it would be likely to assume that they also support GSAs.  Yet, he pointed out:

“Last year, for example, the Ontario Catholic Trustees association aggressively fought the provincial government’s attempts to ensure that gay-straight alliances were available as a student support for every student in this province.

“Instead of fighting gay-straight alliances, school board leaders should have been focused on finding a way to make them work within a Catholic context. The church’s emphasis on loving one another should have made this easy to do.”

In regard to  his claim that non-Catholic students are not allowed to attend Catholic elementary schools, Piscitelli stated that he made a technical error:

“Piscitelli agreed that he made a minor technical error and apologized for saying non-Catholics are not allowed in the system. However, he did not agree that he had violated the code of conduct.

” ‘I am sorry for any misperception this may have caused in the community,’ he said.”

In fact, allowing non-Catholic students to attend the schools is a complicated matter, reported The Record:

“Waterloo Catholic District School Board policy allows non-Catholic students to attend elementary schools if permission is granted by the education director. There are currently 80 non-Catholic students in elementary schools.

“At least one parent must be Catholic or the child must be baptized in the faith to attend elementary school. Catholic high schools are open to all students, regardless of faith.”

Piscitelli did not back down from his support for GSAs and LGBT people.  According to The Record, :

“I will continue to argue that we need to do more to ensure that our gay and lesbian staff are comfortable being open about their sexuality in our schools . . . because I believe they are the areas where we are failing as a Catholic school system.”

Catholic schools here in the United States need a voice like Piscitelli, who is willing to speak out for justice and equality for LGBT staff and students.

Meanwhile, The Windsor Star reported that Catholic schools in Ontario still are calling the provincially-mandated GSAs “social justice equity clubs,”  so that they do not have to use the word “gay.”  Catholic schools in Ontario receive government funding, and so are subject to provincial laws.

The identity of these clubs was highlighted recently by a study which points out that schools which have GSAs in them report significantly less binge-drinking among students.  CBC.ca reported:

“In schools with gay-straight alliance clubs, heterosexual teen boys are 45 per cent less likely to have had an episode of binge drinking in the past month. Heterosexual teen girls are 62 per cent less likely to binge drink.

“It benefits LGBTQ students too. Lesbian students, for example, are 50 per cent less likely to drink five or fewer drinks at one time.”

A prominent LGBT Canadian activist explained the importance of the student organizations having a more accurate, specific name:

Deirdre PIke

Deirdre PIke

“Deirdre Pike, a Hamilton LGBTQ activist, was vocal last year about  the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board’s refusal to allow issue-specific gay-straight clubs.

“This is evidence that they benefit all students, she said. And it’s another reason why the Catholic board needs to reconsider its practice of only allowing generic anti-bullying clubs.

” ‘The Catholic school board really needs to pick up the pace and the integrity in terms of naming these groups, and be intentional about naming them for what they are,’ she said. ‘ “Diversity club” is not going to cut it.’ “

Catholic schools in the United States can learn a lot from the courage of Anthony Piscitelli and the Canadian experience about how to establish welcoming environments.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Cambridge Times: Catholic board trustee broke policies – banned from special committee meetings”

 

 

 


Toronto Catholic Educators Vote to Support Gay-Straight Alliances

May 25, 2013

Toronto Catholic School DistrictThe Toronto Catholic School District Board has turned down a proposal brought by two of its trustees to ban gay-straight alliances at the state-funded Catholic schools in that province.

The Toronto Star reports:

“Trustees voted 7 to 4 against a motion Thursday by trustee Garry Tanuan calling on the board to defy Ontario’s year-old Accepting Schools Act that says boards must let students set up gay-straight alliances (GSAs) if they wish. Tanuan’s motion, seconded by trustee John Del Grande, said gay-straight alliances ‘promote a positive view of homosexual activity, which undermines Catholic teaching on chastity and marriage.’ ”

But  students involved in a gay-straight alliance at a Catholic school says that the two trustees’ notion about what the student clubs do is incorrect:

“ ‘Gay-straight alliances and Catholicism are not mutually exclusive; they go hand in hand … and provide a safe space for those who need support,’ said student Jersey David from the gay-straight alliance at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School. ‘Our discussions are about anti-bullying and inclusive language,’ and does not conflict with Catholic schools’ promotion of chastity, argued fellow student Erin Edgehill.

“Students from the gay-straight alliance club of Francis Liberman Catholic High School — which is called Bridges — noted they start each club meeting with a prayer and believe the Catholic faith extends to accepting those of different sexual identities.”

One of the trustees who voted to support the continuation of gay-straight alliances explained his position in terms of gospel inclusion:

‘Trustee Sal Piccininni said Catholic education must change with the times, and that he was always taught that ‘Jesus accepts everybody.’ He said he was proud of the students who defended GSAs at the meeting.”

The decisive defeat of the attempt to squash the GSAs is a victory for positive Catholic social teaching about non-discrimination.  GSA’s not only help LGBT students feel safer, but they help other students get over their ignorance and fear about sexual minorities. Catholic institutions should follow the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s example by instituting programs to eliminate bullying and end homophobia in young people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


Ontario Catholic School Controversy Could Easily Have Been Avoided

March 3, 2013

A recent story from Ontario highlights institutional Catholic intransigence over LGBT issues is trumping reasonable solutions to simple problems.

Xtra.ca, a Canadian LGBT news source reports on the case of an 18-year old secondary school student named Brooke who has experienced repeated harassment at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario:

Brooke with her girlfriend

Brooke with her girlfriend

“Administrators at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario, are allegedly threatening to launch a lawsuit in an attempt to silence a gay student who is speaking out against homophobic discrimination at the school.

“Brooke, 18, a Grade 12 student at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, who asked that her last name be withheld, has had a rough school year so far. It began with the death of her father on Oct 1. On top of that, Brooke says a teacher has been bullying her because she is gay and in a relationship with a fellow student.
“And ever since the teacher outed their relationship to her girlfriend’s parents, Brooke says, the school has become the only place the pair can see one another, so she has no choice but to stay.”
Brooke claims that harassment from her religion teacher, Jolene Coste, has been occurring all year, with the teacher making remarks in class about the girl’s relationship with her girlfriend and with negative remarks about homosexuality.  Things came to a head when Brooke alluded to an obscenity when answering  a question about “real” marriage on an exam.  Her response resulted in a ten-day suspension from school.
The arguing and accusations have been going on for most of the past school year.  School administrators have brought up the possibility of suing Brooke for defamation.
Clearly, this situation has gotten out of hand.  What is sad here is not just the possibility that a religion teacher would be bullying a student or that a student would resort to near-obscenity on an exam, but the fact that school administrators have not explored some way to mediate the situation by having the student, her parents, and the teacher discuss the situation together and come to some ground rules for behavior.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported, Ontario Catholic schools are state-funded, and are also subject to the province’s recent Accepting Schools Act, which was designed to eliminate bullying.  Though Catholic schools originally balked at such a law, this situation clearly shows the need for it.  One member of the Ontario parliament, Cheri DeNovo spoke to Xtra about the need for student safety:
“ ‘That’s not just physical safety, but also psychological and emotional safety as well,’ she says. ‘I call on every adult that surrounds her in that school system to stand up for her safety.
“ ‘Here we have a student in a publicly funded school that is not getting the support from her administration. She does not feel safe. Her concerns are not being addressed. Frankly, I think it’s disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her.’
 ‘DiNovo says it’s now the province’s job to ensure the act is enforced. Students shouldn’t have to face a legal battle to get the protection they deserve, she says. ‘[Education Minister] Liz Sandals herself should intervene. It’s sad we have to ask this of our students.’ ”
It is terribly sad that the government might have to become involved here.  Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on a dispute in New York City between a Catholic pastor and a nearby drag show.  The dispute was easily resolved by the parties sitting down and speaking with one another.
In this school case, good Catholic pastoral care and simple human contact and dialogue could have defused this problem before it escalated to such proportions.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Formation of Gay-Straight Alliances Should Be Top Priority at Catholic Schools

February 6, 2013

National Gay-Straight Alliance DayToday is National Gay-Straight Alliance Day.  February 6th has been marked by a coalition of youth advocacy organizations to raise awareness for the need of such organizations in our schools. Catholic schools are no exception.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network highlights the challenges posed to gay, lesbian, and transgender students:

  • “More than 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed;
  • Nearly 20 percent of LGBT students were physically assaulted by their peers at school;
  • Almost 40 percent of LGBT students reported that faculty and staff never intervene when homophobic language is used in their presence;
  • Nearly 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day because they felt unsafe.”

Those behind National Gay-Straight Alliance Day propose expanding the presence of GSAs at schools to combat negative experiences and provide greater safety:

“Violence and discrimination against LGBT students is the rule, not the exception, in American schools. It is a national disgrace that students feel threatened in school simply because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  While Americans need to know that thousands of students each day go to school or college and endure LGBT violence and harassment, they must also know that GSAs are a tool in helping end violence and that these student groups save lives.”

Nearly half of Catholic colleges in the United States offer gay-friendly resources (here is a full listing by New Ways Ministry) and there are many GSA-style groups in Catholic high schools,  but the establishment of support groups remains a conflict for many schools.

In Canada, the province of Ontario passed legislation in mid-2012 mandating that all schools allow student clubs focused upon sexual orientation or gender identity. Catholic schools, which are funded by the government, were included in the law, but critics claim they have failed to provide anti-bullying or school spirit groups with an explicit LGBT focus. The Hamilton Spectator reports on this criticism and the government’s firm enforcement of the law:

“But according to local activist Deirdre Pike, [not naming the support clubs "gay-straight alliances"] could leave students feeling excluded and without the support they need…

“‘Until they get intentional about naming these groups, the silence will continue.’

“The education minister’s office, meanwhile, says the legislation is “clear” about the government’s commitment to safe, inclusive and accepting schools for all students, including those who are LGBT.”

In Australia, Daniel Torcasio is speaking about his troubling experiences teaching at an all-male Catholic high school where homophobic speech, bullying, and discriminatory employment practices were commonplace. The former teacher details one incident in 2009 for The Star Observer:

“‘A 13-year old kid came to me and told me he was gay. He’d only told his family and a few close friends, and told me so that if he was ever bullied at school someone would understand the situation and be able to help,’ Torcasio said.

“‘Naturally I took it to the school leadership, who then went to the Catholic Education Office…’

“‘The reply back from them was that we were never to mention matters like this again. That kid could’ve come to me as a cry for help – if he’d said he was suicidal or that he was being bullied, we would’ve been told to help him in any way we could, but because he was gay, we weren’t ever to discuss it,’ he said.”

Torcasio also left that position because of policies against gay staff that created a culture of silence for fear of termination:

“‘I was fairly open about my sexuality in the staff room, but I couldn’t let one detail of my private life slip to my students. If I’d mentioned my sexuality to someone or a parent had complained, I would have lost my job,’ he said.

“Torcasio claimed the ‘Catholic ethos’ stipulation in teacher’s contracts was only enforced on gay teachers.”

Torcasio, an alumnus of the high school, had returned to teach at the school after fifteen years expecting students would be more accepting than when he was a student and experienced severe bullying. He was disturbed by a continued culture of homophobia. The Catholic school district officially has no policy on LGBT students other than bland language regarding Catholic values.

Clearly, the common thread in these stories is the desperate need for students, educators, and parents to speak up. In Catholic schools, the establishment of gay-straight alliances that provide safe spaces for LGBT and questioning students, allow peer support to emerge, and create respectful atmospheres should be a top priority.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related recent post

February 1: Raising LGBT Standards in Catholic Schools


NEWS NOTES: Following Up on Previous Stories

October 26, 2012

Here are some items that may be of interest which follow up on stories that we have already posted:

1) Back in April, we posted about Anna Maria College, a Catholic campus in Worcester, Massachusetts, disinvited Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Senator Edward Kennedy, from speaking at the school’s commencement ceremonies, in part because of her support of marriage equality.  This past week, Anna Maria College welcomed Ms. Kennedy as the keynote speaker at an academic symposium on “Faith and the Public Square: Balancing Religious Beliefs with the Common Good.”  The Worcester Telegram and Gazette article on her speech notes that she received a standing ovation when introduced.

2) In September, we reported that Nigel Studdart, a Catholic high school teacher in New Zealand, was fired from his job because he criticized his principal’s negative remarks about gay parents, and because he supported the students’ protest of the remarks.  Recently, a follow-up story in The New Zealand Herald notes that Mr. Studdart is considering legal action to get his job back.

3) Over the past year, we’ve been following the story of Ontario’s new law which requires state-funded Catholic schools to establish gay-straight alliances, if requested by students.  A possible law suit against the government may be brought by a group who feels that Catholic education rights are being violated by the new law, reports The Globe and Mail.

4) In September, we reported that Catholic organizations were among over 30 religious groups that endorsed the passage of a California bill which would outlaw forcing minors to undergo “conversion therapy” to change their sexual orientations.  The bill was passed into law and signed by California’s Catholic Governor Jerry Brown.  CNN.com reports that in signing the law, Brown hoped that conversion therapy would be consigned “to the dustbin of quackery.”

5) Last week, we reported on Equally Blessed’s report which detailed how the Knights of Columbus are spending millions of dollars to prevent marriage equality from becoming the law of the land.  Today, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog carries an op-ed essay by Marianne Duddy-Burke, a representative of Equally Blessed and executive director of DignityUSA, which provides some context and analysis for this report.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Catholic School Board in Canada Allows Gay-Straight Alliances

August 21, 2012

The Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board, Ontario, Canada, has relented and agreed to allow gay-straight alliances use the name “gay-straight alliance”  in state-supported Catholic schools.  The decision comes after over a year of wrangling with government officials about the use of the name.  The provincial government passed Bill 13 in the spring requiring that a gay-straight alliance be established if a student requests one.

The Windsor Star reports:

“The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board has backed off its hardline stance against allowing gay-straight alliances now that the province has made accepting them law as part of Bill 13, passed in June.

“Secondary school principals and vice-principals will be undergoing training later this month on how to implement and structure such clubs, which will only be formed when a student asks for one.

” ‘We fully understand what the law says and we’ll be compliant with the law,’ said superintendent of education Mike Seguin.

” ‘So we’re prepared to do everything we can to make sure we have a safe and inclusive environment in that context.’

“In May the board said it would not heed the wishes of Premier Dalton McGuinty and allow the clubs to be called gay-straight alliances. Instead, board chairwoman Barbara Holland maintained the clubs would be called social justice equity clubs unless a law deemed otherwise.

“But with the passage of Bill 13, ‘An Act to amend the Education Act with respect to bullying and other matters,’ on June 5, the province made law the allowance of clubs to call themselves gay-straight alliances in all school boards.”

The Catholic school board will also continue with its social justice equity clubs, according to Seguin:

“We decided to make social justice equity clubs mandatory in all of our secondary schools. And we did that by policy over a year ago. Those will continue because it’s our view that it’s better to address the needs of all people who are marginalized in different ways. Whether it’s people based on body type or special needs and so forth because we see bullying takes on a face that is very complex.”

Dallas Mahaney

The decision was met with excitement and enthusiasm from students eager to form gay -straight alliances.  CBC.ca reports:

” ‘There’s a lot of homophobia at our school and I think it would benefit our school a lot to have a safe environment for everyone,’ said Dallas Mahaney.

“The 16-year-old Saint Thomas of Villanova Catholic High School said he’s comfortable with being gay. He hopes the alliance will help destroy homophobia.”

According to a separate Windsor Star article, one student hailed the move as a way to end the interminable bullying she has received:

For several months almost daily at school, Adriana Unis endured bullying for who she is.

“I was in one class where they told me to kill myself,” the 15-year-old St. Joseph’s high school student said Wednesday about the taunts of a couple of boys last semester. “It was because I was gay. They were saying because I was a lesbian my parents should have killed me.”

Adriana Unis and Jouvon Evans

Unis said she had heard insults before, but those words hurt.

“I’m kind of used to it, I guess, but it was still upsetting,” she said.

Unis did not know what to do. She vaguely told a teacher about it, saying only that she was having some problems with kids, but nothing much was done.

That’s why she’s thrilled the provincial government has passed Bill 13, Ontario’s antibullying legislation, which requires schools to create gaystraight alliance clubs if a student requests one.

And one person with great experience with gay-straight alliances is looking forward to the establishment of these clubs:

“Jouvon Evans, who facilitates Windsor Pride’s School’s Out program, mentoring about 15 high school students on how best to run gay-straight alliances, said interest is increasing with such clubs.

“She said Bill 13 will go a long way to helping reduce bullying and promoting self-confidence.

” ‘People know there’s a comfortable space where they can turn to,” Evans said. “And they can rely on the teachers and the administration.’

“Though Evans said there can sometimes be a temporary spike in bullying when gay-straight alliances are created, she said homophobia soon drops after such clubs are launched with the backing of the school.”

Knowing the benefits that such a club can provide, one has to wonder why all Catholic schools, in all of Canada and the U.S., too, don’t establish such clubs.  Their presence in a school environment, where both homophobia and sexual identity questions run high, is a perfect way to enact Catholic teaching about the dignity of sexual minorities and about the need to eradicate prejudicial attitudes and behaviors.  Let’s hope and pray that Ontario’s example will lead the way!

–Francis DeBernardo–New Ways Ministry

Most recent  Bondings 2.0 posts on this topic:

June 14, 2012:  Follow-up on New Ontario Law Allowing GSAs in Catholic Schools

June 6, 2012:  Ontario Legislature Passes Gay-Straight Alliance Law Despite Catholic Pressure

May 26, 2012:  Majority Favors Gay-Straight Alliances in Ontario’s Catholic Schools

April 28, 2012:  Catholic Support for Gay-Straight Alliances: ‘It’s what our faith calls us to do.’

For additional articles on the topic, search the category “Canada” .


Follow-up on New Ontario Law Allowing GSAs in Catholic Schools

June 14, 2012

Last week, we reported that the Ontario Parliament passed Bill 13 into law which allows students at the state-funded Catholic schools there to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

Since that time, there has been some interesting response and commentary, which I would like to summarize here.

Perhaps most importantly, Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins released a statement calling on Catholic schools to respect the new law.  Such a statement is newsworthy because Collins and others in the Canadian hierarchy had strongly opposed the bill. U.S. Catholic quoted the statement, in part:

“The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario has expressed serious concerns regarding certain aspects of this legislation, as have numerous other individual citizens and groups.

“Recognizing that the Accepting Schools Act is now the law, Catholic partners will seek, as we have always done, in a way that is in accord with our faith, to foster safe and welcoming school communities.

“Bullying, in any form, is unacceptable. At the core of our Catholic Christian beliefs is the command to welcome every person with love and respect.”

Collins’ statement surprised some because the week before the law was passed, he was referring to it as an infringement on religious freedom.

Commentator Michael McGough, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, noted how vastly different Collins’ approach is compared to how the U.S. bishops have been responding:

“At a time when U.S. Catholic bishops are crying foul — or crying wolf? — about intolerable intrusion on their religious liberty in the form of ‘Obamacare’ regulations, it’s interesting to speculate how they would react to a law like Ontario’s GSA requirement. . . .

“Canada and the U.S. have much in common, but I can’t imagine this country’s assertive Catholic hierarchy humbly acknowledging that an unwelcome enactment ‘is the law.’ ”

McGough’s argument is too complicated to be summarized here, but if you want to learn his reasoning for such a claim, I suggest you read the entire essay.

While the trustees who administer the schools have opposed the bill, great support for the new law has come from the Catholic teachers’ association. The Globe and Mail reports:

“Catholic teachers in Ontario are calling on school administrators to embrace the province’s new anti-bullying legislation allowing students to form gay-straight alliances, even as pro-life activists push for a constitutional challenge.

“Kevin O’Dwyer, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said his 43,000 members welcome the legislation, which passed third and final reading on Tuesday, because it allows schools to protect students from homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

“ ‘I think it’s going to be a positive experience for students to engage those clubs, whatever name they choose,’ Mr. O’Dwyer said in an interview.

“He is hoping that Catholic school trustees can overcome their objections to legislation that they argue contradicts church doctrine condemning homosexual activity.”

As an aside, I must interject that it defies logic to wonder how administrators can think that supporting GSA’s condones homosexual activity.  Would they say that any support group that includes heterosexual students condones heterosexual activity?

Not all Canadian Catholics, however, support the new law.  MetroNews.ca reports that the Campaign Life Coalition is calling for a court challenge.  A statement from the group said:

“ ‘This legislation now puts a radical homosexual agenda in every publicly-funded, Catholic and Public school across Ontario, under the guise of “bullying prevention,” ‘ said the pro-life group Campaign Life Coalition in a statement released after the bill passed third reading Tuesday. It urged all taxpayers and Catholic School Boards to fight the law in court.

But The Globe and Mail article quotes a political expert who says that such a challenge may end up ringing hollow since so many Catholics support the new policy:

“Frank Peters, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert in education policy, said the Catholic educational community has not been well served by this kind of forceful opposition. ‘I think there’s a fairly strong segment within the Catholic church who wonder just exactly how this is in contravention of Catholic teaching.’ “

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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