Monica Yant Kinney: Suspicions fester over Catholic school closings

Students (from left) Alexis Mutt , Claresa Nathaniel, and Alexa Bradley react to learning St. Hubert's will survive.
Students (from left) Alexis Mutt , Claresa Nathaniel, and Alexa Bradley react to learning St. Hubert's will survive. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 29, 2012

Two months ago, Archbishop Charles Chaput and a blue-ribbon commission delivered a death sentence to 49 Catholic schools, 20,000 students, and 1,700 teachers. Two weeks ago, the diagnosis for nearly half the afflicted was dramatically upgraded, from terminal to alive and kicking.

Should relieved families credit a modern miracle? Or is the rightsizing of religious education being handled as clumsily as the clergy sex scandal was cynically?

Put another way, did archdiocesan leaders know the threat of widespread school closures would generate millions in emotional donations at a time when the church - presumed to be sitting on a fortune - is actually hard up for cash?

Lost in the celebration of overturned decisions is the businesslike explanation Chaput gave for creating classroom chaos: The archdiocese would save $10 million.

"My first reaction to that was, 'Are they running out of money?' " asked John Grady, whose three children attend St. Bridget's in East Falls. "Closing schools just to save money is a different objective than building a plan for sustainable Catholic education."

Money matters

To his credit, H. Edward Hanaway, the former Cigna CEO who chaired the archdiocesan commission, answers the question head-on.

The biggest misunderstanding about the archdiocese, he told me, "is that it has a lot of money." The reality, he insists, is the opposite.

Hanaway won't say how bad off the church is, but he agrees that more transparency would help. "You have to have leadership willing to talk about it," he assured, "and we have that now" in Chaput.

The image-conscious archbishop has won praise for answering tough parishioner e-mail and announcing plans to sell the cardinal's mansion, a move that could bring in millions and boost morale in the pews. But Hanaway disputes rumors that his group targeted any school for closure based on its real estate value or the prospect of alumni rising up to write big checks.

Even critics of the process suspect that acting on outdated information was a more likely cause for the reversals than a cold conspiracy to scare parishioners into giving.

"I'd like to think they are that clever," said lay teachers union president Rita Schwartz, "but if they were, they could have done it a lot less painfully."

Still seeking answers

Joe Mattson, president of the Monsignor Bonner alumni group, counts himself among the elated locals still puzzling over how and why schools like his and Archbishop Prendergast were spared.

"Chaput wanted to show that he could be fair and that we'd be heard," Mattson theorized. While enrollment and costs of upkeep remain unchanged, $5 million in pledges was hard to ignore.

Yet parents like Tom Castaldi, of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Media, remain hurt and confused by the commission's abrupt decision to reverse plans to house a regional school at Nativity, Hanaway's alma mater. After St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford appealed, Nativity families were informed that their school would close and they would have to relocate to St. John's.

"I'm not bashing the archbishop or our pastor, I'm bashing the inconsistency of the process," Castaldi said. "When you aren't open and transparent about how decisions are made, people are left to guess."

Castaldi has skeptical company at St. Bridget's, whose supporters presented an airtight case for why a regional school should be housed there in East Falls (home to a 110 percent increase in infant baptism and almost a third more marriages), not at Manayunk's Holy Family.

Grady helped prepare the losing appeal and sent e-mails seeking an explanation from superintendent of schools Mary Rochford.

His first note generated a response telling Grady she would not "renegotiate" and that it was time "to move along." As of Tuesday, his follow-up remains unchallenged and unanswered.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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