Why Chaput acted now on school closings

Posted: January 07, 2012

After just three months as head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput found himself wondering last month whether he should put off the massive Catholic school closings that a special commission had privately recommended to him.

"So I took the question to the priests' council," Chaput said in an interview after Friday's news conference that unveiled the closings, "and I asked them if we should postpone it for a year."

His advisory body of senior priests answered no, Chaput said. "They told me, 'Don't postpone. We have to do this now.' So I'm taking the advice of the priests' council."

The "blue-ribbon panel" appointed a year earlier by his predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, called for the closing of 45 elementary schools and four high schools.

The move could save the archdiocese as much as $10 million a year, according to commission chairman John J. Quindlen, but spells layoffs for at least 200 teachers.

Layoffs are what he finds most "wrenching" about the school-closing process, said Chaput, who was installed as archbishop here in September.

"My heart goes out in a special way to the teachers. To the parents, too," he said, "but for teachers, the incomes for their families is at stake.

"We want to do all we can to find them a place" in the archdiocesan school system, he said. "If not, we'll help them adjust."

He said he had little involvement in the panel's decisions about which and how many schools to close. "I wanted them to have a free debate," he said, but added that he intends to oversee the process as it moves forward.

"If pastors and the people of a parish say, 'This [closing] is a good idea - something we should have done a long time ago,' " then it will proceed quickly, he said.

But if they can show him the schools commission made "errors of fact," he will review its decision.

"I'm very accessible," he said, "but not everyone can visit me in my office." Parents and others eager for his intervention should go through their pastors and principals. "It will come to me, I assure you," he said.

Invitations for him to visit schools slated for closure would likely make little difference, he said. "I trust all the schools are good places," he said, "but I have to make decisions based on facts."

The prospect of more tough decisions awaits the archbishop - still so new here he called it "the Denver archdiocese" at the start of Friday's news conference, a reference to his previous position.

Parish closings and consolidations also lie ahead over the next 18 months, but these "will be much more gradual," he said, "not something necessarily handled all at once."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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