Archdiocese issues no-discrimination admissions policy

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / January 13, 2011

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The Archdiocese of Boston, under fire from all sides after a parochial school withdrew an admissions offer to the child of a lesbian couple, yesterday released a new Catholic schools admissions policy that said parochial schools will not “discriminate against or exclude any categories of students.’’

However, the policy, which was distributed to pastors, parishes, and school administrators by e-mail, said school parents “must accept and understand that the teachings of the Catholic Church are an essential and required part of the curriculum.’’

The new guidelines were developed by a panel of clergy and lay school administrators at the direction of Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in response to a widely publicized incident last year in which St. Paul School in Hingham rescinded the admissions offer to the 8-year-old boy. The archdiocese helped place the boy in a different Catholic school.

The Hingham episode drew sharp criticism from prominent funders of Catholic education in Boston. The Catholic Schools Foundation, which gives millions in scholarships to low-income students, said it would not subsidize tuition at any school with a discriminatory admissions policy. Michael B. Reardon, executive director of the foundation, said yesterday his organization is pleased with the new policy’s “clear message of inclusiveness.’’

“From the perspective of the foundation, the key part of this is that it does not exclude any group of students, and it promotes what is essential to Catholic education, which is inclusivity,’’ he said.

Because the new policy said admissions decisions should be based in part on “the best interest of the child,’’ it remains uncertain whether the Hingham episode would have occurred had the new policy been in place. The specifics of that case remain unclear because the pastor involved, the Rev. James F. Rafferty, has declined interviews.

“The situation at St. Paul’s in Hingham may have taken a different route, but it might have come to the same conclusion,’’ said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Boston. “Father Rafferty still today has the authority to make these decisions as the pastor. But the expectations of the diocese and the guidance the diocese gives in those judgment calls is clearer today than it was then.’’

He added that the archdiocese stands ready to “work hand-in-hand with the pastors and principals when there are judgment calls.’’

Rafferty was among those who participated in the drafting of the new policy. In a statement through the archdiocese yesterday, he said: “I welcome the fact that we now have a clear policy to guide us in the important work of Catholic education.’’

Catholic doctrine defines marriage as a heterosexual union and considers homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered.’’ Some have argued that inherent conflicts between church teachings and a child’s family situation may be harmful to a child in Catholic school, although the Catholic schools are open to children of couples who are divorced, which the Catholic catechism calls “a grave offense against the natural law,’’ and to non-Catholics.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the gay Catholic organization DignityUSA, praised the archdiocese for banning discrimination but wondered whether pastors and principals would interpret what is in “the best interest of the child’’ evenhandedly for all families.

“As long as the doctrine stands, it makes it really hard for the pastoral and the doctrinal aspects of our faith not to come into a clash,’’ Duddy-Burke said. “The people of the church are changing, and by and large very affirming of gay people, and the hierarchy and the doctrine are lagging decades behind.’’

But Charles G. Martel, cofounder of Catholics for Marriage Equality, said he hopes dioceses around the country will adopt Boston’s guidelines. “It very much conveys the message that children of same-sex couples are welcome to receive a Catholic education,’’ he said.

Under the new policy, individual Catholic schools may draft their own admissions guidelines, but they must be “written, included in the school handbook, consider the welfare and best interests of the child and be disseminated to prospective students and their parents prior to registration.’’

Some schools already have such policies in place. St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, which has 1,250 boys in grades 9 to 12, selects students based on entrance exams, grades, and teacher recommendations. The school has a policy that prohibits discrimination “based on race, color, national/ethnic origin, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, social class, or economic status.’’

About 20 percent of students at St. John’s are not Catholic, about the same proportion as in archdiocesan schools generally. Principal Edward P. Hardiman said the question of whether to admit the children of gay parents “hasn’t been an issue for us at all,’’ but he praised the new policy yesterday.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at