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

ALL ARE WELCOME: Going Beyond the Boundaries

April 11, 2012

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature  which examines how Catholic faith communities can become more inclusive of LGBT people and issues.  This is the fifth installment.  At the end of this posting, you can find the links to previous posts in this series.

Do you participate in your local parish or have you needed to find another Catholic faith community outside the boundaries of your neighborhood, town, or geographic area?  If you are a Catholic for whom LGBT justice and equality are important, you may fall into the second category.

A recent New York Times article, “A Parish Without Borders,” focuses on St. Boniface parish, in downtown Brooklyn, NY, which attracts parishioners outside of its surrounding neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, the parish’s welcoming approach to LGBT people and families is part of its wide appeal.  Indeed, the reporter also notes that a similar welcome of LGBT people has attracted many to another “intentional parish” in New York City:

“St. Boniface is an example of an intentional parish, a phrase some members of the clergy use to describe a destination church that attracts people from beyond its geographic boundaries. Many gay and lesbian Catholics travel to the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea [Manhattan].”

(Incidentally, both of these parishes are included on New Ways Ministry’s “Gay-Friendly Parish” list, which catalogs over 200 parishes around the country with an explicit welcome of LGBT people.  Many, though not all, of these faith communities could be described as “intentional parishes.”)

Indeed, the article uses homosexuality as the touchstone for defining the accepting pastoral approach that St. Boniface has adopted:

“ ‘Meeting them where they are’ is a mantra among St. Boniface’s five priests and a lay brother, who make it a point to invite new faces to monthly home-cooked lunches in the rectory.

“But the inclusive philosophy has a stickier side. While the priests hold true to and convey all the church’s teachings, whether from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Bishops or the Diocese of Brooklyn, they accept that not everyone in the pews does.

“When a lesbian couple approached one of the priests, the Rev. Mark Lane, about baptizing their child, they were afraid he would turn them away, he said. But they were welcomed. For Father Lane, 55, the parish’s openness simply reflected Christ’s teachings to love everyone. Even if that could be taken as an implicit critique of the church’s position on homosexuality, the parish did not make the family occasion into a cause.

“ ‘The danger is, you turn that into a platform and forget about the persons involved, and I think that’s wrong,’ Father Lane said. The two mothers stood at the font with their child along with everyone else. ‘The symbol is visually powerful, but that’s enough.’ ”

“The priests prefer to address controversial issues like same-sex marriage and the death penalty outside of Mass, and while anti-abortion marches are listed in the church bulletin, they are not announced after services.”

The question that comes immediately to mind is:  “Since these parishes are so successful, why aren’t other communities following their example?”  If these intentional parishes are able to attract people who must travel some distance to get there every Sunday (and to participate in non-liturgical activities during the week), they must be doing something right.  It seems obvious that a big part of the attraction they offer is the extravagant sense of welcome described above.  “Meeting people where they are” is key to that welcome, and something that all parishes could adopt with no additional cost, other than an intentional effort on the part of parish staff.

The notion of an intentional parish is not without controversy, however.  While the article states that none other than New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently gave an endorsement to the idea of Catholics seeking out parishes where they feel welcome, stating:

“I don’t mind telling you to be rather mercantile. If the particular parish that you’re in does not seem to be listening, there are an abundance of those that are.”

Yet the Brooklyn diocese’s Monsignor Kieran E. Harrington holds a different opinion:

“The church is about growing where you’re planted. . . .It’s like a family. . . .You don’t choose your family.”

What do you think?  Which is more important:  worshiping locally or worshiping in an inclusive setting?    Whatever you may have decided, what have you had to “trade-off”?  What benefits do you receive?  How did you find the community in which you feel welcome?  Do you have any advice for others?

Please submit your answers to these questions in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous posts in the ALL ARE WELCOME series:

Say the Words , December 14, 2011

All in the Family , January 2, 2012

At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out? , January 25, 2012

A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Welcome,  February 13, 2012


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