Parents ask San Francisco archdiocese to remove controversial parish priests

by Mandy Erickson


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In a packed auditorium at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco on Wednesday, parents told representatives of the archdiocese to remove the parish's two priests.

After describing the changes that Fr. Joseph Illo, administrator, has instituted at the school since his arrival and the effects on their children, most of the parents concluded their talks by saying, "We respectfully ask that Fr. Illo and Fr. Driscoll be removed from Star of the Sea."

The audience frequently clapped and cheered while Illo and associate pastor Patrick Driscoll faced the audience and the speakers. Auxiliary Bishop William Justice and Fr. Raymund Reyes, vicar for clergy, also attended the meeting. Reyes took notes; Justice said they would pass the parents' comments on to San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

Justice added that recently, the archdiocese has received a few, "not a lot," of emails in support of Illo. He said those emails would be considered along with the parents' comments.

Neither Illo nor Driscoll spoke.

About 200 parents and teachers attended the meeting, the majority of them wearing Star of the Sea sweatshirts. Sixteen parents spoke at a dais at the front of the audience that faced the four clergymen. Several started to cry as they spoke.

Related: San Francisco priests' council debates 'P.R. disaster' parish

In November, three months after arriving at Star of the Sea, Illo banned girls from serving at the altar during Mass, a practice approved for the universal church since 1994. He has since revised the policy to allow already-trained altar girls to continue to serve at the school, but girls would no longer be recruited or instructed for altar service.

According to a May 2014 story in the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic San Francisco, Illo and Driscoll were to be the initial residents of what is called a fraternity, the first "step toward the canonical establishment of an Oratory of St. Philip Neri" at Star of the Sea.

An oratory is a "Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right," first begun by St. Philip in Rome in 1575, Catholic San Francisco reported. "Its members are secular priests and brothers who live in community without formal vows and carry out pastoral ministry, usually in an urban parish."

Illo was released to the San Francisco archdiocese by Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen Blaire, and Driscoll was given permission to join the fraternity by St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson.

Also in November, Illo stopped blessing non-Catholic children at Communion and barred non-Catholic students from reading at school Mass, although he later reinstated these practices.

The same month, Illo no longer included non-Catholic children in reconciliation by meeting with them and giving them a blessing; those students now sit elsewhere while Catholic students take part in confession.

In February, parents said Illo told them at a meeting that the school's curriculum needed to cover more religion, adding that families who didn't like his changes were welcome to leave.

Many of the parents said their children have been thriving at Star of the Sea and they didn't want to leave. They praised the school's diversity and sense of community.

But Illo's distinctions between Catholics and non-Catholics and boys and girls, they said, have created divisions.

Several parents said the exclusion of non-Catholics from celebrations reminded them of discrimination they or their families had suffered in other places at other times.

Brian Wu said he felt discriminated against growing up as an Asian-American in Kansas and didn't want his child to feel that way at Star of the Sea. He said his child had asked him: "Does Fr. Joseph think that some kids are better than others?"

Some also said Illo's changes caused them and their children to lose sleep. Ed Wong said his 9-year-old son stayed awake at night wondering "if his school is going to close, if he is going to hell."

Parents also described their shock when they learned that Driscoll had distributed a pamphlet to the students, some as young as 7, that addressed sodomy, masturbation and adultery.

Illo and Driscoll have said distribution of the confessional guide was inappropriate and apologized.

In addition, parents say Illo had asked their children during confession how frequently their families attend Mass.

"I deeply resent the use of confessional as a polling place," said parent Stella Bialous.

Many parents mentioned Illo's blog, in which he described San Francisco as "savagely distorted" and said changes at the school were to effect a "necessary purge." On his blog, Illo apologized for his choice of words.

Brenda Kittredge, a school alumna as well as a mother of four students at Star of the Sea, said: "We are way, way, way past apologies being enough."

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

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