The head of the religious community that oversees Benet Academy has expressed concern about the school’s hiring of an LGBTQ employee.
In September, the board of directors of Benet Academy in Lisle, Illinois, reversed a hiring decision regarding Amanda Kammes for the position of lacrosse coach after student and alumni protests. The school initially had rescinded Kammes’ employment offer after she listed her wife as an emergency contact.
Now, about a week after the reversal was announced, Abbot Austin G. Murphy of St. Procopius Abbey, the Benedictine community that founded and oversees Benet Academy, voiced concerns over the decision. In his statement, Murphy, as the school’s chancellor, wrote:
“‘The matter raises the question of what a Catholic high school should require from those who work with and form its students. In particular, is it necessary that the witness of their public lives not be in opposition to Catholic moral teaching?’ he wrote. ‘I believe this requirement is necessary and, therefore am deeply troubled by the school’s decision which calls into question its adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic faith. In turn, I want to let everyone know that I am taking this matter to prayer and discerning how to proceed.'”
It is currently unclear what influence Murphy’s position will have on changing the employment decision. CBS Chicago reported that “Benet Academy declined to comment Tuesday on the abbot’s role with the school or whether he has the power to rescind the offer to Kammes again.” What is known, however, is that “St. Procopius Abbey is listed as one of the school’s top donors in its most recent annual report,” according to the Chicago Tribune, suggesting there may be financial pressures on Benet Academy to reverse the decision once again.
Amid the uncertainty of the situation, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, contributed to the Chicago Tribune’s background article on LGBTQ employment cases at Catholic high schools:
“‘Gay Catholic school employees have often been fired when their employers learned of their sexual orientation. Litigation has usually been fruitless as courts have cited religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.’
“‘Student and alumni activism hasn’t fared much better, said Francis DeBernardo of the advocacy group New Ways Ministry. Aside from Benet, which reversed its decision in the face of fierce protest, he could think of just one Catholic school that yielded to a pressure campaign.
“Benet’s board members have said little about their deliberations, but DeBernardo guessed their change of heart might have been prompted by a recent court case in North Carolina in which a judge ruled that a Catholic school was wrong to dismiss a gay substitute teacher since the man did not teach religious subjects.
“Then again, he said, the board might have just seen the writing on the wall.
“‘Not only is the generation attending the school LGBTQ friendly, but so are their parents,’ he said. ‘That’s only going to be increasing as time goes on. There might be an awareness among administrators that it’s a losing proposition.’”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, also noted that “kids who are in middle school and high school today have grown up in a world where queer people and gay people are more accepted than not, and are visible in every aspect of society.” She added that these young people “understand that discrimination is not in keeping with Catholic values.”
In that spirit, many students, faculty, and alumni have spoken in support of the board’s decision and have encouraged Benet Academy to remain unwavering in the wake of Murphy’s comments. Tim Jacklich, a 2016 Benet alum and gay man, told WGN 9:
“‘The impact at the end of the day is depriving students of the opportunity to work with an amazing coach,’ Jacklich said. ‘And again, sending the signal to Benet students that they are made the wrong way and that they are unwelcomed in their institution and school.’”
Speaking about his Catholic school’s values, Jacklich said, “You have been teaching us that we are each created in an image and likeness of God and yet you are saying we were made the wrong way.”
Kim Gannon, a doctoral student who attended Benet for two years, put the current struggle at Benet into a wider context for the Tribune:
“‘A lot of Catholics, especially LGBTQ Catholics who want to remain faithful, feel hopeless,’ Gannon said. ‘The Catholic Church has always been a very top-down institution and we’re going to keep fighting. But people on the inside are starting to feel like it’s not possible.'”
The Chicago Sun Times Editorial Board issued a passionate call for Benet Academy students and allies to “wear those rainbow colors again… It’s time to remind Murphy that gay rights are human rights, that nobody’s going back into the closet, and that when any religious group is deeply divided on a question of right and wrong — as American Catholics are on this one — it is always better to lean toward greater compassion and acceptance.”
In his comments, DeBernardo said: “It’s a competition of Catholic values that’s going on, and which should rule the day — the sexual and gender ethics tradition or the social justice tradition.” While the competition of these values at Catholic institutions is not new or unique to Benet Academy, it is encouraging to see the board of directors responsive to its community. Abbott Murphy’s comments and concern are the newest obstacles in the fight for LGBTQ employment justice and equality, and the future is uncertain. But in the compassion and acceptance of the Benet Academy community, there remains hope that Kammes could one day share her coaching talents on the Benet lacrosse field.
—Barbara Anne Kozee, New Ways Ministry, October 8, 2021