Catholic college fires gay teacher

The Rev. James St. George was ordained in a splinter church.
The Rev. James St. George was ordained in a splinter church.

The Rev. James St. George said he had never hid his sexuality from officials at Chestnut Hill College.

Posted: February 27, 2011

In a move that infuriated some students, Chestnut Hill College abruptly terminated the teaching contract of an adjunct professor, saying his 15-year relationship with another man defied Roman Catholic Church teachings.

The Rev. James St. George, 45, of Lansdale, was due to teach two courses - world religions, and theology and justice - starting Tuesday at the Catholic college in Northwest Philadelphia.

That all changed Feb. 18 when the priest, who is pastor at St. Miriam Catholic Apostolic Church in Blue Bell, received a terse note from the school saying his services were no longer needed. He was floored.

"I'm still trying to find my sea legs," he said Saturday. He said he could not get college administrators to return calls to give him an explanation.

On Friday, though, the college issued a statement accusing him not only of being gay, which it called contrary to traditional Catholic doctrine, but also of misrepresenting before he was hired that he was a member of an independent branch of Catholicism.

He denied both accusations Saturday, saying he never hid his sexuality or his affiliation with the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of the Americas from school officials.

The college recruited him, not the other way around, he said. In a meeting with officials, he recalled asking: "You know I'm not a Roman Catholic priest, right?"

They replied, "We have all denominations here. It's no problem," St. George said.

"Now they say, 'He fooled us,' " St. George said. " 'He calls himself Father St. George.' Well, I am a priest. I have always been Father Jim. From the day I was ordained, I have never made any secret of what church it was."

He said he had been validly ordained through the Old Catholic Apostolic Church, which some consider illicit because it has no ties with the Vatican. The branch allows its priests to be gay or straight, celibate or married, male or female.

"They are trying to say, 'He really isn't a priest because he belongs to this other church,' " St. George said. "It's all lies. There's no other word for me to use."

St. George said his homosexuality hadn't been specifically discussed before his hiring, although he has referred to it on his blog, "Venture of Faith."

"What am I supposed to do?" he said, "Say, 'Before we go any further, I'm gay'? Who says that?"

College officials could not be reached Saturday for comment. But a statement issued by the college president, Sister Carol Jean Vale, said:

"At the time St. George joined our faculty, he presented himself as Father St. George and openly wore a traditional Catholic priest's collar. While St. George appears to be an ordained pastor - he leads St. Miriam, an independent and self-described reformed Antioch-rite Catholic house of worship located in Blue Bell, Pa. - his church allows priests the option to engage in same-sex partnerships. This is contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

"It was with great disappointment when we learned through St. George's public statements of his involvement in a gay relationship with another man for the past 15 years. It is important to note that this information came to our attention only after St. George chose to make his private life public information on his blog.

"While we welcome diversity, it is expected that all members of our college community, regardless of their personal beliefs, respect and uphold our Roman Catholic mission, character, and values both in the classroom and in public statements that identify them with our school. For this reason, we chose not to offer an additional teaching contract to St. George."

St. George said he and his partner had celebrated their 15th anniversary this month.

On its website, St. Miriam says members can receive Holy Communion. St. George said the branch separated from the Vatican in 1870 over the issue of the pope's infallibility.

Since fall 2009, St. George has taught Bible studies, religion and culture, justice and theology, and world religions at Chestnut Hill College. He also officiates at weddings and teaches online for the University of Phoenix.

He said he believed Chestnut Hill College had become aware of his sexuality and Old Church affiliation when James J. Pepper, a lawyer with the firm Elliott Greenleaf in Blue Bell, sent an e-mail to college officials and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Daily News reported that the e-mail had described St. George as "quite plainly a heretic" and called his teaching at a Catholic institution as a homosexual "scandalous."

Pepper's letter went to Vale, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and another college official.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Farrell confirmed Saturday that the archdiocese had received Pepper's e-mail but said it had taken no action regarding St. George.

"We have had no conversation with Chestnut Hill College," she said.

Vale and two college public-relations officials did not return calls seeking comment Saturday.

One of St. George's students, senior Jessica Murray, 23, described him as a passionate teacher who led students closer to their spirituality, not away from it. She called him open to any discussion, but said his homosexuality had never come up in class.

"Nobody cares about his personal life. He's an amazing teacher. Now, because some stranger is angry, the students are missing out," she said, vowing to picket and organize a petition drive among students this week.

"I feel slighted," said Murray, who will graduate this year with a degree in early-childhood education. She said the college had blocked her from its Facebook page when she pressed for information about St. George's status.

"I'm absolutely livid. I have recommended him to numerous students. They transferred to Chestnut Hill to take classes with him, and now he's not there," Murray said.

Fran Wasserman, 54, of Fort Washington, a senior studying human services, called St. George "a fabulous teacher."

"I like his compassion, his openness, and interest in hearing other opinions. He just embodies what good teaching is all about," she said.


Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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