In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the growing outcry against racism in the U.S., students and alumni of Catholic schools in New York City are demanding changes to make their schools more inclusive of all people, including LGBTQ people.
Students and alumni from five Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn—Archbishop Molloy High School, The Mary Louis Academy, St. Edmund Preparatory High School, St. Agnes High School, and St. Francis Preparatory School—have been sharing personal stories of the discrimination they faced in high school because of their race, ethnicity, and sexuality.
According to The City, current and former students report a pattern of disrespect and exclusion for any student who does not fit into the mainstream culture of the schools—a culture that is predominantly white, Catholic, heteronormative, and affluent.
The most prevalent accusations against the schools were personal accounts of racism experienced by students of color who faced overt racist actions and rhetoric as well as microaggressions at the Catholic schools. The stories were shared in response to the schools’ statements on the death of George Floyd that the student and alumni communities deemed insufficient, often ignoring George Floyd specifically, ignoring racism in general, and never including the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Students and alumni also complained about the schools’ cultures of homophobia and transphobia. A student at Archbishop Molloy recalls that a teacher constantly made homophobic jokes that implied, “gay people should die.” Others at Molloy recall students using transphobic slurs and teachers allowing them to be said unchecked, with one student recalling his time at Molloy as one filled with homophobia. Kirsten Erika Paulsen, a 2013 graduate of Archbishop Molloy, told QNS:
“I understand that Molloy, as a Catholic school, probably can’t promote LGBTQ rights, but that does not mean it needs to tolerate bigotry against gay and trans people. Like it or not, many Stanners [the school’s nickname for its teams and students] are part of the LGBTQ community, just as many Stanners come from different faiths, countries, and cultures.
A student at St. Francis Prep recalls a can being thrown at him and being called a homophobic slur by a student for holding a friend’s hand.
Current students at The Mary Louis Academy, whose charism is one of “unity, reconciliation, and all-inclusive love,” commented on the school’s most recent statement on racism to insist that administration take LGBTQ students’ concerns seriously along with students of color.
In several cases, faculty members at the Catholic schools are named as the perpetrators of the overt racism, homophobia, and bigotry. In other cases, faculty fail to intervene when students bully other students, and administration rarely punishes or corrects the bigoted behavior.
A recent alumna of Molloy said the staff and faculty, who are predominantly white, “convey a message that their rhetoric and behavior is acceptable by using it themselves or allowing it to happen, and the students mimic that.” The alumna continued:
“No one’s correcting them, because who would correct them? Our teachers are enabling them. Molloy has never held themselves, their students or their faculty accountable.”
There is no greater betrayal of the trust families place in our Catholic schools to educate and form their children in the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition than faculty, staff, and administrators at those schools harassing students of color, LGBTQ students, and other marginalized groups. When schools fail to address the racism, bigotry, and homophobia in their staff, they will consistently fail to form students who are antiracist, all-inclusive, and morally just. So long as Catholic schools fail to address the racism and homophobia in their schools, they fail to respect the dignity of each person, and therefore fail to live up to their Catholic identity.
The Diocese of Brooklyn acknowledged that the schools are all private and their relationship with the diocese was mainly in the area of “spiritual and religious guidance.” The diocese should take seriously the pain and trauma its schools have caused in the life of Black students, LGBTQ students, and students of color and invest in eradicating discrimination and bigotry in its schools. Racism, bigotry, and homophobia are spiritual and religious issues. Racism destroys the personhood of Black people. Homophobia and transphobia strip the LGBTQ student of their dignity and worth. Both are an affront to God’s beautiful creation.
The schools and the diocese must take concrete steps to eradicate ignorance, hatred, and discrimination against students of color alongside LGBTQ students. Only in this way will they authentically live up to their Catholic mission of building God’s reign of justice.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry commented:
“Our nation’s wake-up to racial injustice this summer has made us all more aware of discriminatory behaviors in so many areas of our lives and in so many of our institutions. All the schools mentioned above have strong reputations for Catholic principles of equality and justice. It is only since this summer’s events that these schools, like so much of society and our church, are being called to take a closer look at the way we have tolerated, encouraged, and perpetuated discriminatory practices.
“The students’ comments should be viewed not as condemnations of these schools, but as calls to awareness for the need to reform injustices that have been overlooked. New Ways Ministry trusts that these schools, who have for so long worked at living up to and instilling Catholic principles in their educational communities, will meet the challenge to go even further, as their students and alumni are calling them to do.”
—Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, July XX, 2020