Hundreds attend forum opposed to San Francisco handbook changes

This article appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

San Francisco — Several hundred students, parents and teachers of schools in the San Francisco archdiocese packed a University of San Francisco conference room Monday night to galvanize their opposition to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s changes to a handbook for teachers at four high schools.

“Cordileone, who with his imported crew of orthodox, smugly ideological and intentionally provocative zealots, is trying to shove his sex-obsessed version of Catholic identity down the throats of Catholic high school students and teachers,” said Brian Cahill, former executive director of Catholic Charities of San Francisco, one of the speakers at the forum.

Hear Our Voices: Teach Acceptance was hosted by the university’s Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership and by Concerned Parents & Students: Teach Acceptance, a group that has organized over the past seven weeks to fight Cordileone’s revisions to the teacher handbook.

The handbook affects teachers and staff at the four high schools owned and operated by the San Francisco archdiocese: Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory and Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, Junipero Serra in San Mateo, and Marin Catholic in Kentfield.

For the 2015-16 school year, the handbook asks that teachers adhere to Catholic teaching, particularly on sexual issues. It includes 15 “affirm and believe” distillations of church teaching and practice including prohibitions of abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, homosexual relations, masturbation, artificial birth control, “artificial reproductive technology,” women’s ordination and human cloning.

About 400 attended the forum, many of them wearing black T-shirts that read “#teach acceptance” — which, along with buttons, were on sale outside the conference room. The audience frequently interrupted the two dozen speakers, including students, parents and teachers at the four high schools, with enthusiastic clapping and standing ovations.

Organizers informed the archdiocese of the event, which was open to the public, but didn’t extend an invitation for a formal response.

Kathy Curran, who helped organize the event and whose daughter attends Sacred Heart, said the purpose of the forum was to “deepen people’s understanding and deepen people’s commitment to continuing the struggle.”

 The university opened its room to the group, but was not a sponsor of the event. Anne-Marie Devine Tasto, senior director of media relations at the University of San Francisco, emphasized that USF’s hosting of the forum was not an “automatic endorsement” of the views expressed. “As part of our role as a university, a place where genuine differences and diverse opinions can be addressed openly and honestly, USF hosts dozens of community and external organizations throughout the semester.”

Since the archdiocese released the revised handbook Feb. 3, parents and students have held several protests, including an Ash Wednesday candlelight vigil at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Eighty percent of the teachers at the four affected high schools have signed a petition asking the archbishop not to include the changes to the handbook. And San Francisco city leaders, including City Attorney Dennis Herrera, have spoken out against the revisions.

While forum attendees were heading to the conference room, about 15 people stood silently outside Saint Ignatius Church on campus, holding signs saying “We support the archbishop.”

“The schools have been infiltrated by people who are teaching the aberrant as the norm,” said Dorinda Sears of Tiburon, across the bay from San Francisco. “We’re just trying to stand up for what the church has taught for 2,000 years.”

At the forum, students and parents told personal stories about their struggles with their sexuality, about their relationship toward a church they once felt rejected them, and about overcoming infertility. Many spoke of the damage they believe Cordileone will cause with his language in the handbook, especially the phrase “grave evil.”

Gus O’Sullivan, a senior at Sacred Heart, said, “The language is offensive and damaging. As a gay student, I understand the severity of this language.”

O’Sullivan said his struggle to accept his sexuality was difficult enough, but had such language been present at his school during that time, “It would have been detrimental to my mental health and self-worth.”

Parent Lynn Schuette said she had some hesitations when her son wanted to attend Serra. A lesbian who grew up Catholic, she wasn’t sure she wanted her son, whom she’s raised with her partner (now wife) of 22 years, to attend a school that’s part of a church she left.

“Pope Francis changed all that,” she said. Because of Francis, “I felt called to the Catholic faith for the first time since I came out 33 years ago. It was starting to feel like it was the right time to come back. All this could come to an end” if the archbishop’s handbook revisions create an atmosphere of discrimination, she said.

Micaela Presti, the mother of twin boys at Marin Catholic, added, “I don’t understand why God did not allow my husband and me to conceive naturally.” Noting that God created scientists who could address their fertility problems, she added, “Archbishop Cordileone, your language tells our sons that their conception was wrong.”

Speakers also rejected the idea that the handbook additions reflect church teaching. “I do not believe that the archbishop is representing the whole truth of Catholic teaching,” said Jim McGarry, former religious studies teacher at Catholic schools. “I believe that the archbishop is actually distorting Catholic teaching.”

“If Archbishop Cordileone is calling us, as he says in his proposed document, ‘to conform… hearts, minds and consciences, as well as … public and private behavior, ever more closely to the truths taught by the Catholic Church,’ let us at least be sure we are considering all those Catholic truths, which include and indeed prioritize the demands of justice, the practice of compassion, the avoidance of discrimination and the protection of the vulnerable.”

Cahill added that the Catholic church may hold certain beliefs, but its teachings are “not unchangeable. The church no longer teaches that the earth is flat, that slavery is acceptable and that women are inferior to men,” he said.

John Ahlbach, a teacher at Riordan, said he felt the archbishop was trying to move the church’s evolution on humanitarian issues backward. “My most memorable moments as a teacher were when LGBT teachers have shared their stories,” he said. “That kind of trust enriched me as a teacher and as a human being.”

“I don’t want to go back to that time of shadows and doubt, and that’s where the archbishop seems to want to take us.”

The archbishop wasn’t the only one singled out for criticism at the forum. Fr. Joseph Illo, pastor of the elementary Star of the Sea School, came under attack for a sexuality pamphlet young students received last month.

“Before he was stopped, Father Illo was apparently on a mission from God to root out all those second grade masturbators, fourth grade fornicators and sixth grade same-sex couples,” Cahill said.

[Mandy Erickson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.]

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