Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (Part 4)

Recalling the time when the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis
supported and defended initiatives to make Catholic high schools places
where "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are safe
from harassment and prejudice."

Right: A 1998 photo of members of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries Study Group on Sexuality, including Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) co-founders Bill Kummer (front row, left) and David McCaffrey (front row, second from right).

With all the hoo-haa over the recent censoring of student Sean Simonson’s school newspaper op-ed (“Life as a Gay Teenager”) by Benilde-St. Margaret’s Catholic High School, it’s easy to forget that there was actually a time when the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and the majority of its high schools – Benilde-St. Margaret included – actively supported initiatives aimed at making schools safe for LGBT and questioning students.

And playing a crucial role to these initiatives (which collectively were termed the Safe Schools Initiative) was Family and Friends of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Persons in Catholic Education, a special ministry project of the independent Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). This ministry project worked in union with the archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries office (CEFM) to provide “safe staff” training to faculty and administrators of eight of the eleven archdiocesan high school that participated in the Safe Schools Initiative.

Last November I began documenting the relationship between the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and CPCSM. The sharing of historical documents highlighting this past relationship is important as there are some within the local church who today try to downplay or even deny that such a relationship ever existed.

In this fourth installment, I share the November 12, 1998 Catholic Spirit article, “Archdiocese Defends Efforts to Address Gay Issues.” It’s an article that documents the archdiocese’s defense of CPCSM co-founder (and 1989 Archbishop John Ireland Award recipient) Bill Kummer (left) from “unfair” and “irresponsible” charges leveled at him by the reactionary newspaper The Wanderer in its “reign of terror against anyone who disagrees with their understanding of Catholic doctrine.” Yes, folks, that's a direct quote from The Catholic Spirit which, it should be noted, is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. And those “efforts to address gay issues” that The Catholic Spirit declares the archdiocese to be in defense of is a reference to the Safe Schools Initiative facilitated by CEFM and CPCSM.

It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? Just twelve years ago the archdiocese could talk about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and vigorously defend an initiative aimed at making high schools places where such students would be “safe from harassment and prejudice.” It could also equate these efforts with “issues of racial and gender bias, other strands of prejudice running through society in general that are unacceptable in Catholic Church teaching.”

Fast forward to 2010, to when a gay student of an archdiocesan high school can’t even share his experiences in his school’s newspaper without it being censored by school officials, and to when Dennis McGrath, spokesperson for the archdiocese, goes on record as saying that “we are supportive of [this] decision by school authorities.”

Officials at Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school maintain that they are “committed to ensuring that all students are safe, respected, and protected,” and that it is the responsibility of a Catholic school to “respect and uphold the dignity of the vulnerable, including students who are attracted to the same sex.” Note there’s now no longer any reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender students but rather those “attracted to the same sex” – a phrase that echoes the way that the clerical leadership and the Courage apostolate (along with its odious pseudo-scientific bedfellow NARTH) likes to talk about LGBT people: as those afflicted by “same-sex attractions.”

I appreciate Maia Spotts critique of Benilde-St. Margaret’s recent statements. In her November 19 Change.org article, “Catholic High School Silences Gay Editorial,” Spotts writes:

What the school seems to misunderstand is that by pulling the comments and the piece, they aren’t respecting Sean, or creating a safer atmosphere in which he can thrive and live openly. Cutting the dialogue off at the pass only validates those who believe it was wrong in the first place. Removal of Sean’s column denigrates the needs of LGBTQ students, ignoring Sean’s plea for support and compassion. It leaves Sean with one less safe haven in which to speak his mind. And removal of the comments dismisses those who improperly disagree without consequence. Which means the bullies win.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a glimpse of when things where much more enlightened in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in relation to LGBT students and their needs. And given the current regime Catholics in the archdiocese are living under, this glimpse back to how things once were seems like receiving a dispatch from another planet! Yes, things in the church can and do change, though not always for the better.


Catholic High Schools: Wanderer article termed unfair, irresponsible

Archdiocese Defends Efforts
to Address Gay Issues

By Bob Zyskowski

The Catholic Spirit
November 12, 1998

Efforts to make Catholic high schools places where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students are safe from harassment and prejudice have been defended by the archdiocese.

The initiatives taking place at Catholic high schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area are consistent with Catholic teachings and doctrine, a statement from the archdiocese said.

A Christian life of chastity is the basis of all teaching regarding sexuality in the Catholic schools, said Dominican Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger of the archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries office.

The Nov. 10 statement came in response to a recent article in The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper based in St. Paul. The Wanderer story said gay activist Bill Kummer had “worked” and “used” Archbishop Harry J. Flynn and other archdiocesan officials to promote a gay agenda in Catholic high schools.

The article by Paul Likoudis said Kummer boasted at a national workshop how he had transformed nine of the 11 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese into “gay friendly” schools.

Kummer, who served as a resource for CEFM, is co-founder of Family and Friends of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Person in Catholic Education. He spoke at the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries [now known as the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry] in Rochester, NY.

The Wanderer story used as its source a tape recording of Kummer’s presentation; archdiocesan officials said they listened to the same recording and came up with a different interpretation of what Kummer said.

The statement by the archdiocese called The Wanderer’s version “attack journalism” tat unfairly questioned the credibility of Kummer and Archbishop Flynn.

“After a careful review of the tape by archdiocesan leaders,” the statement said, “it is clear that Mr. Kummer said nothing that would give a reasonable person the idea that he had intended to deceive anyone regarding this matter.

“What is clear, however,” the archdiocesan statement continued, “is The Wanderer, including its publisher, reporters and editorial staff, continue their reign of terror against anyone who disagrees with their understanding of Catholic doctrine.”

The statement by the archdiocese said Archbishop Flynn, as the chief teacher in the archdiocese, is responsible for ensuring that what is taught within the archdiocese is consistent with Catholic teaching and doctrine.

“The irresponsible way in which this and many other articles are written, including regular attacks on numerous Catholic bishops, clearly demonstrates that The Wanderer has set itself up over the church and its appointed leaders and will use any means necessary to make their point.

“They are neither ethical journalists nor persons concerned with the total truth of Catholic teaching,” the archdiocesan statement said of The Wanderer.

Behind the controversy is an attempt by the archdioceses to help Catholic high schools provide pastoral care for students, said members of the CEFM team working with schools to address GLBT issues.

Bias in the forms of violence, personal abuse, harassment and the agonies young people g through during adolescence were brought to the attention of CEFM staff by administrators of local Catholic high schools.

For the school presidents, their main concern was the safety of the students, said Jane Hilger of the CEFM staff.

Sister Mary Ellen, CEFM director of personnel and planning, added, “This is an opportunity for schools to affect the culture and climate in a way that makes schools safer for all students.”

Thomas McCarver, CEFM director, equated the initiatives with issues of racial and gender bias, other strands of prejudice running through society in general that are unacceptable in Catholic Church teaching.

“We’re trying to address the strands of bias head on – nothing has been subversive,” McCarver said. “Bias against GLBT students has been ignored, and that’s the reason for our schools taking these initiatives.”

Training offered to Catholic high school faculty and administrators teaches that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people deserve to be respected and treated with the dignity all God’s creatures have a right to expect, CEFM officials said, and to oppose efforts such as the GLBT initiatives is to oppose church teaching.

“Church teaching calls for respect for everyone,” Hilger said. “We are putting forward what Jesus taught – you respect everyone.”

Teachers asked what they were to do when students came to them with questions or concerns surrounding GLBT issues, Sister Mary Ellen said. “We asked what does the church teach, and we studied that.”

Resource material used in the discussions include the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1991 letter from the U.S. bishops “Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning,” two position papers by Archbishop John R. Roach on the subject; and “Always Our Children,” the 1997 document by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Marriage and the Family which was revised and approved by the Vatican this summer.

The CEFM team said it is charged with teaching the fullness of Catholic teaching, and that includes issues of social justice, human dignity and the rights of the individual.

McCarver added, “The archbishop’s position is that we teach within church teaching, and we have.”

The intent of discussions with faculty was to find out what was happening to students in Catholic schools that might be detrimental and to make it better, Sister Mary Ellen said.

McCarver said the schools themselves see only positives from the efforts.

“What’s happened, faculty members tell us, “McCarver said, “is that these initiatives are changing the climate in schools.

“If it was okay to bash someone in the past, it isn’t now. It’s about how we behave toward one another. We’re trying to teach kids what’s right.”

– Bob Zyskowski
The Catholic Spirit
November 12, 1998

Sadly, archdiocesan support for CEFM and CPCSM’s Safe Schools Initiative did not last. Perhaps because of the above rebuttal by then-Archbishop Harry Flynn of The Wanderer (the first time a bishop publicly rebuked the ultra-conservative newspaper), reactionary elements within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis intensified their efforts to put an end to the Safe Schools Initiative. They ultimately succeeded, and in 1999 the Archdiocese notified the schools that CPCSM representatives were no longer welcome to be part of CEFM’s work. As a result, the formal “safe staff” training of faculty and administrators effectively ceased.

Years later, however, I compiled and edited the various resources, strategies, testimonials, and anecdotal components of the initiative into what would become the 2007 book, Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective. (For reviews of this book, see here, here, and here.)

I would argue that the cessation of the Safe Schools Initiative has undoubtedly contributed to the unfortunate situation we’ve witnessed recently at Benilde-St. Margaret. It’s a situation that, as Maia Spotts reminds us, “denigrates the needs of LGBTQ students, [and] ignore[es] Sean [Simonson]’s plea for support and compassion.”

To his credit, Simonson (pictured at right) remains undeterred. A recent Star Tribune story notes that he is attempting to establish a gay straight alliance at Benilde-St. Margaret’s.

“The goals are not to indoctrinate or push any agenda other than acceptance,” he says. “I just think that, especially in high school, it’s a very difficult time to go through, and being gay doesn’t make it any easier. They need people to support them.”

Hmm . . . I suddenly have the song “History Repeating” in my head! I mean, twelve years ago it was an archdiocesan official reminding us of the need to “teach kids what’s right.” Here’s hoping the officials of today heed Sean Simonson's echoing of that call and work with him and others in creating safe and accepting school environments throughout the archdiocese for – and let’s all say the words together, now – GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL and TRANSGENDER students.

Hey, it’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. And there’s even now a book out there to help . . . just in case the old-timers have forgotten some of the details.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Two Editorials that Benilde-St. Margaret Catholic High School Doesn’t Want You to Read
Quotes of the Day – November 16, 2010
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 1)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 2)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 3)
History Matters
How Times Have Changed
For the Record


Mareczku said...

God bless Sean and his attempt to form a gay-straight alliance at his high school. I am on my way back to work but just wanted to make a quick comment. I read Dennis McGrath's comments on this. "We would not favor it. It's a lifestyle we do not endorse." Lifestyle?????? Screw him. (You may edit this and add a more appropriate comment - sorry.)

Mareczku said...

Thanks for sharing this. The Safe Schools Initiative was a great idea. It is too bad they couldn't keep it going. At least in an open way. I hope that they still are even if only quietly.

Mareczku said...

The article by Bob Zyskowski was excellent. Is he still around? How about Sister Mary Ellen and the other people mentioned? I hope that they are still active and supportive of human rights for all. You have a lot of great people in your area. Keep the faith and keep up the good work.