A case of “he said/they said” is brewing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, this week, as a Catholic layman who was hired to be the president of a small Catholic schools system, said that his job offer was rescinded because it was assumed that he was gay. The employer is denying this allegation.
Tim Nelson, 48, was hired by the Regis Catholic Schools, an association of five Catholic institutions in Eau Claire, on April 4th, but he learned on April 22nd that the school system rescinded the offer.
Nelson is charging that the rescinding is based on an incorrect assumption about his sexual orientation based on the wording of an obituary for his father that was printed two-and-a-half years ago. Eau Claire’s Leader-Telegram reports:
“The Rev. Brian Konopa, pastoral dean of Regis schools, broke the news about ‘serious issues that have come to the forefront’ in a telephone call on April 17, or 13 days after Nelson had been introduced as the next Regis president, Nelson said.
“Regis officials indicated someone had given them information showing that a man’s name was listed in parentheses behind Nelson’s in the survivor list of his father’s obituary 2½ years ago, and they told him that is typically the way a gay partner is listed in an obituary, Nelson said.
“Nelson said he explained to Konopa that he considered the man his best friend and that the man was close to Nelson’s family.
” ‘I said, “If you think we are intimate or sexually active, you’ve got another thing coming.” We are not like that at all,’ Nelson recalled telling Konopa.
“Nelson pleaded ignorance to the traditions of obituaries and said, in retrospect, he should have asked to have the roommate, who was included in the obituary at his mother’s request, listed among other friends of the family.
“Regarding his relationship with the man, Nelson said, ‘The two of us live in community, we share expenses and live a devout Catholic lifestyle and meet daily in a chapel in our home for daily prayers.’ “
In addition, Nelson said that the school system checked out his Facebook account and found something objectionable there, too:
“Nelson also alleged that Regis officials expressed concern about a homosexual group he had ‘liked’ on his Facebook page. Nelson, who acknowledged having some gay Facebook friends, said he doesn’t know anything about the group and must have inadvertently ‘liked’ it. He immediately deleted it when it was brought to his attention.”
” ‘Regis Catholic Schools denies that any assumptions, insinuations or speculation played a part in its decision to not hire Mr. Nelson,’ the statement said. ‘Furthermore, Regis Catholic Schools categorically denies that sexual orientation was a part in its decision. Mr. Nelson’s speculation is unfounded and untrue.’ “
The system explained their reason for changing their mind:
” ‘Mr. Nelson was not hired as RCS president because of his lack of candor about his affiliations with religious communities during the interview process,’ the statement said.”
Nelson said that this statement refers to his membership as a Franciscan religious brother when he was younger, but he says he was forthcoming about that part of his life during his interview.
Nelson also alleges that Regis officials asked him to tell people that the reason he would not be employed by the school system is that he had decided not to move from New Mexico, where he currently resides. The news report says that Nelson
“backed up his assertion by providing the Leader-Telegram with a string of emails, [and] said he refused to go along with what he considered to be a lie.”
While there is no hard evidence made public at this point to support either Nelson’s or Regis’ claims, it is hard to know which side to believe. Nelson ends up being more persuasive because the school system’s responses are so guarded and vague. Another thing that adds to the persuasive power of his side is that the case seems to fall into the growing disturbing pattern of church institutions firing LGBT employees. The fact that an obituary was involved in his case, as it was in the firing of Carla Hale, also adds to the credibility of Nelson’s allegations.
Church institutions could increase their credibility by adopting non-discrimination employment policies for LGBT people, and enforcing these policies well. Not only would it help their credibility, but it would also help to strengthen their Catholic identity by living up to the church’s ideals of social justice.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry