Ronnie Polaneczky: Gridiron girl trying to score with Chaput

Caroline Pla, 11, was told last fall that she could no longer play for Our Lady of Mount Carmel's football team. (Photo: Seal Pla)
Caroline Pla, 11, was told last fall that she could no longer play for Our Lady of Mount Carmel's football team. (Photo: Seal Pla)
Posted: February 22, 2013

YOWZA!

More than 107,000 fans of Caroline Pla have signed an online petition stating that the Doylestown sixth- grader should be allowed to play CYO football in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Pla's supporters hail from Pennsylvania, Colorado and Illinois, from Turkey, Spain and Belgium. They're as young as 9, as famous as Ellen DeGeneres and as angry as Gordon Clay from Hillsboro, Ore.

"Just one more example of the Roman Catholic Church exclusion of women, keeping them in their place," fumed Clay, who signed Pla's petition last month.

All of them believe that Pla should be allowed to continue doing what she's done for two seasons: play defensive end and offensive guard for Our Lady of Mount Carmel's football team, the Romans.

But their support doesn't appear to mean much. Last week, a panel of archdiocesan advisers met to discuss Caroline's pigskin passion and the broader question of whether any girl should be allowed to play Catholic Youth Organization football with the boys. The panel was to make a recommendation to Archbishop Charles Chaput, who will make a ruling by mid-March.

A source familiar with the deliberations tells me the panel wants the boys-only rule to remain. The overwhelming reason seems to be that young boys and girls could wind up, um, touching each other.

"Someone said they might sit on each other's chests. Have they never seen little kids play football? They basically just tackle each other," says the source.

And many panelists bristled when someone noted that Pop Warner football leagues have had boys and girls playing together for years, without incident.

"It was like, 'We're the Catholic Church. We don't give in to pressure from society!' And they mentioned the Ellen show 15 times," says my source.

Ah, Ellen DeGeneres. Pla appeared on the comedienne's show last month and handled herself with amazing poise.

Early last fall, Pla told Ellen, the Archdiocese learned she'd been playing for the Romans and demanded she be pulled from the team. The order came shortly after a game in which Pla's plays were stellar. Her parents think someone with the opposing team ratted her out to the Archdiocese.

"We didn't know that girls weren't allowed to play CYO football" which runs through eighth grade, says her mom, Seal Pla. "Even the coaches didn't know."

After a week of begging from Pla's coaches and pastor, the Archdiocese allowed Pla to finish the season. Jason Budd, the Archdiocese's deputy secretary for Catholic education/external affairs, said he'd discuss Pla's future after the season ended.

So Pla sent Budd an email thanking him for allowing her to play and asking his help to change the CYO rule. She wanted all children to "experience the wonderful family the CYO football program brings, regardless of their gender."

Pla never heard back from Budd, so the Pla family took Caroline's plight to the media. It quickly went viral as everyone asked the question: Shouldn't this talented young girl, who is physically bigger than some of her male teammates and made the leauge's all-star team, be permitted to continue playing the game she loves?

Besides DeGeneres, CNN and "Good Morning America" interviewed Pla. On each, she stayed on message: Keeping girls out of football, only because of gender, is unfair. Period.

The media attention has irked Archbishop Chaput.

With her parents' permission, Pla emailed him three weeks ago, asking if they could meet.

"At the end of March," Pla wrote, "I will receive my Confirmation. I will be considered an adult in the church. As an adult, I feel it would be important for me to have a conversation with you regarding this rule. One of the most important parts of a conversation is being able to listen to each other. I'd like you to hear my thoughts, and I would like to hear your thoughts. Do you think it would be possible to either meet or talk on the phone about this?"

Chaput responded with a gracious email that both praised and scolded Pla's zeal.

"I'm perplexed that you would contact me last, after publicizing your situation in both the national and regional media," he wrote. "Perhaps that's the way these problems have been handled here in . . . the past, but as people will . . . discover, that kind of approach has no effect on my decision making.

" . . . it's important to understand that pressure is not a good way of showing respect for dedicated people who are simply fulfilling their duty to protect young people in sports."

Pla responded that she hadn't known he was in charge of the decision. She contacted Chaput only when her calls to Budd went unanswered.

"I will pray that God guides you in your decision," she wrote.

Chaput hasn't responded.

My fear is that Chaput, whom many regard as a reasonable man, will be unreasonable in this case, simply to show the public that he won't be swayed by public opinion.

Even if it's aligned with his own heart.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog

Columns: philly.com/Ronnie

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