Ronnie Polaneczky: Gay priest's firing is proof that truth won't always set you free

Posted: March 01, 2011

FATHER Jim St. George sounded overwhelmed yesterday. Since my column about him on Thursday, the media had descended on his Blue Bell church, St. Miriam.

He'd been interviewed by the local news affiliates of Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC. His story was covered in the Inquirer, Chestnut Hill Local and on a bunch of blogs. KYW (1060-AM) reported his tale, radio host Michael Smerconish interviewed him and his was the lead local story on Yahoo.

A Pittsburgh radio station had even called his 79-year-old mother, who lives in Erie, to ask what she thought of the fact that Chestnut Hill College had fired her son because he was gay.

"She hadn't known, and I had to calm her down," says Father Jim. "She was really angry. She wanted to send me money" because he would lose thousands of dollars in income. "I told her, 'Mom, don't send money! Please!' "

To him, his story was obviously a big deal. But why, Father Jim wondered, was it so big to everyone else?

Why did so many people seem outraged that Chestnut Hill College had fired him after learning he was an openly gay priest in a long-term relationship?

Especially since he was in compliance with the vows of his denomination - the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of America - which allows its priests to be married or single, male or female, gay or straight?

Allow me to explain.

Nothing irks people more

than inconsistency.

Chestnut Hill College is run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph. Its president, Sister Carol Jean Vale, said Father Jim had been fired because his involvement in a same-sex relationship is "contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church."

So why hasn't the college targeted others whose behaviors are equally contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine? What about staffers who are divorced (a no-no), use birth control (ditto), engage in premarital sex or masturbation (ditto again) or are pro-choice (really ditto)?

And what about the non-Catholic teachers at Chestnut Hill? If they can earn checks from the school, why can't Father Jim?

People hate hypocrisy.

Chestnut Hill College appeared to have no problem with Father Jim being gay. They just didn't like him acting gay. (Think "Don't Ask, Don't Tell").

Yet this is an institution that brags of its "atmosphere of communal respect in which all may clarify and articulate personal values and beliefs while exploring the ethical and moral dimensions underlying all relationships."

It's cruel to fire a man who has done an exemplary job.

At Chestnut Hill, Father Jim received the highest student evaluations among the 56 adjuncts in his department. The school must have appreciated that, because it offered him courses in every semester since that first one in January 2010.

This is despite Vale's assertion that "Adjunct contracts are not offered consistently or sequentially."

Except, in Father Jim's case, they certainly were.

Father Jim didn't seek a teaching job at Chestnut Hill. He was solicited by the school.

He got a call at St. Miriam Church from the college, met with an administrator, passed a background check and was hired on the spot.

"I said, 'Doesn't it matter that I'm not Roman Catholic?' and they said, 'No, we have non-Catholics here,'" says Father Jim.

This, too, is at odds with how Vale characterized Father Jim's relationship with the school. In her press statement, she said, "He presented himself as Father St. George and wore a traditional Catholic priest's collar."

That's because he is a "Father" and earned the collar in divinity school. But Vale's statement reads as though Father Jim, seeking a teaching gig, tried to pass himself off as something he is not. That's wrong, and decent people know it.

But you know why else Father Jim's story is "big"?

His firing occurred within days of the release of a second grand-jury report into sexual abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Both reports are riddled with accounts of outrageous deceit and betrayal, perpetrated at the highest levels of leadership in the archdiocese. In contrast, Father Jim, who has never portrayed himself as anything but what he is - a gay priest in a committed relationship - was punished by a Roman Catholic institution for being truthful.

His story has nothing to do with the sex scandal of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, but people are seeing an infuriating irony:

Priests who were dishonest remained employed by Roman Catholic institutions for years. Yet Father Jim, who has never pretended to be anything other than who he is, was fired for being up front.

Good people find that outrageous. And that's a big deal.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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