The archbishop of Seattle who last week defended Catholic officials’ decision to force two LGBTQ teachers out of their Catholic high school jobs, this week has placed the school’s president on leave while creating a task force to evaluate how the school can “remain faithful” to its Catholic mission.
Archbishop Paul Etienne had issued a February 19th statement about the employment disputes at Kennedy Catholic High School, Burien, which forced teachers Paul Danforth and Michelle Beattie to resign over their same-gender engagements. The dispute led students and their supporters to stage a sit-in at the school and then walk out to a rally; a similar rally was held outside archdiocesan offices.
Etienne, who instead described the resignations as “voluntary,” wrote cryptically in his statement and never actually addressed the LGBTQ nature of these disputes:
“How do we balance our timeless teaching with our love for all of God’s people? The answer lies within the human condition. Pastors and church leaders need to be clear about the church’s teaching, while at the same time refraining from making judgements, taking into consideration the complexity of people’s lived situations . . .
“The church teaches the fullness of the Gospel. Those who teach in our schools are required to uphold our teaching in the classroom and to model it in their personal lives. We recognize and support the right of each individual to make choices. We also understand that some choices have particular consequences for those who represent the church in an official capacity.”
In a further development this past week, Etienne placed Kennedy Catholic president, Mike Prato, on a leave of absence until the school year’s end, which a statement from the archdiocesean Office of Catholic Schools said was “out of respect and concern for” Prato . Protestors had been calling for Prato’s resignation, as well as that of Principal Nancy Bradish. The Seattle Times reported further:
“In a letter to the school staff, Etienne acknowledged the protesters indirectly. ‘It is abundantly clear to me that our Catholic schools are serving a much broader community than in the past,’ he wrote. He added that he was creating a special task force to examine how to apply ‘universal church teaching locally.'”
It was also reported that Kennedy Catholic’s director of admissions resigned.
Etienne’s action against Prato prompted a mixed reaction to one of the main figures in this story. KOMO News reported:
“In a written statement, Sean Nyberg, Danforth’s fiancé, said: ‘The announcement today proves that the Seattle Archdiocese is paying attention to this story. I assume that means they will address the discriminatory and targeted enforcement of their morality clause against LGBT persons. While personnel changes were long overdue, the primary issue has been, and still remains, that the Seattle Archdiocese uses their morality clause to justify disciplinary action against LGBT persons, while ignoring other violations of Catholic teaching. I look forward to hearing a clear explanation for this discriminatory practice.’ “
In creating the new task force Etienne said that the group would solicit input from the school community and would “look at how we apply universal church teaching locally. Specifically, under the leadership of the Office for Catholic Schools, this task force will examine how we remain faithful to our mission in a dramatically changing world.”
Shannon McMinimee, the lawyer representing the two teachers, told KOMO News :
“Ultimately, if anything can be taken from the 2 announcements yesterday is that the Archbishop is listening, which I appreciate. . . .
“Was I expecting them to consider changes as quickly as they did? No, that was a surprise. I think it is pretty early on to know what exactly that means. I certainly hope that the task force is simply not an internal task force. I think that if it’s going to provide meaningful change to the Catholic School system here in Seattle, it’s going to need student voice, it’s going to need parent voice, and it’s going to need of human resource professionals and others to help them balance out a desire to reflect teachings of the Catholic Church as well as a desire to be modern employers – recognizing that they live in a state, in a city that has a commitment to non-discrimination. “
Before he was placed on leave, Prato had released his own statement defending the forced resignations, according to King 5. The school president claimed that Danforth and Beattie “proactively” shared their engagements:
“We discussed this decision in the context of their covenant agreement, and they voluntarily resigned. I hired these teachers and I care about them very much. I still do. I wanted to make sure they felt supported, and so we discussed several options including the possibility of finishing out the school year…They indicated they wished to resign prior to the winter break in February. We worked with them to arrive at a mutually agreeable transition plan and financial package to assure they would be supported in their transition.”
The Kennedy Catholic community and LGBTQ advocates have continued to resist the discrimination against Danforth and Beattie. National Catholic Reporter shared reactions from Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry:
“‘When bishops or leaders in Catholic institutions complain that teachers or students need to follow the teachings of the church, the teaching that we need to follow is the gospel. And the gospel is clear about the dignity and respect of every human person,’ Gramick told NCR…
“Gramick said she was encouraged by ‘grassroots Catholics’ who support victims of discrimination, as protests by students and parents have become part of the regular pattern after news of such employment decisions.”
New Ways Ministry’s executive director, Francis DeBernardo, observed the firings trend was difficult to address because “it’s like playing the carnival game of whack-a-mole. . .It keeps popping up somewhere new.” He added:
“Cases like Kennedy Catholic and others are ‘creating a bad name for Catholic education,’ said New Ways Ministry Director Francis DeBernardo, who believes parents will choose to not send their children to Catholic schools if they are seen as intolerant and discriminatory.
“‘And young people are just not going to stand for this kind of nonsense,’ he told NCR. ‘They’re being pushed out of the church.'”
While the motivations for Etienne’s actions this week are still unclear, perhaps he is seeking a way to repair the harm that this employment dispute caused. The proof will be in how honest, transparent, and inclusive the task force will be.
Elsewhere, a petition by Faithful America calling for the teachers to be reinstated is approaching 10,000 signatures. You can add your name here. A crowdfunding campaign to support the teachers has earned more than $36,000 in donations.
For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click here or click the “Employment Issues” category on the right-hand side of this page. For New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBTQ issues here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 28, 2020