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Bishop relents on vow for Catholic school teachers

Bishop Robert Vasa

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Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 8:50 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 8:50 a.m.

Bishop Robert Vasa acted Thursday to quell a rising tide of unrest, announcing he would not require the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese's teachers to sign a morality clause as part of their contracts if they want to teach next year.

But the bishop, who hews to a strict interpretation of church doctrine, indicated that within two years he intends to put into place something in some way resembling his controversial "addendum." The addendum would have required educators employed by the diocese to affirm that contraception, gay marriage, euthanasia are "modern errors" and "matters that gravely offend human dignity."

"The goals which we had established for this year's teacher contracts will be postponed and we will plan to implement them, in some form, in the spring of 2015," Vasa said in a letter released Thursday that was nearly two pages long and addressed to "Pastors, Principals and especially Teachers."

The plan had provoked fears by teachers, some of them non-Catholics, that they would have to choose between personal beliefs and their jobs. It prompted an outpouring of criticism from parents and students.

"We are extremely ecstatic and grateful to Bishop Vasa," said Lori Edgar, the parent of a Cardinal Newman High School senior and freshman. A Catholic, Edgar had said Vasa's edict did not reflect her understanding of her faith.

Vasa did not return phone calls, and his spokeswoman said she was unable to reach him to explain his decision.

Asked whether considerations of teachers leaving or supporters withdrawing financial support had played a role in the bishop's decision, Cardinal Newman president Mike Truesdell said: "I didn't have anybody call and say that, 'Now because of this (the addendum) I'm not going to send you X thousand dollars,' but there are conversations about what could be the impact."

In the letter, Vasa said his desire to advance and evangelize the teachings of the church led him to "overlook a series of very significant considerations" in trying to install the new policy.

Those considerations, he said, chiefly involved properly consulting principals, teachers and pastors.

In the letter, Vasa described a 21-month period within which he intends to overcome "a number of significant misunderstandings about what the church teaches, as well as why." He said "this presents an opportunity to teach" and that he would prepare presentations -- primarily for principals and teachers -- on "matters of faith and morals" as part of an educational process to take place over the next 21 months.

Asked whether the bishop still wants to in the future require teachers to formally agree to certain Catholic doctrine, diocese spokeswoman Deirdre Frontczak said, "He has said that quite clearly."

But the announcement, made after Vasa met with 10 Catholic school principals, was greeted with gratitude -- though also a little skepticism -- by teachers, parents and students.

"We addressed the bishop respectfully and with open hearts and he responded in kind," said Maryanne Berry, chairwoman of the Cardinal Newman English department.

"I feel it's very hopeful, not just for the teachers and their contracts, but for the whole community," Berry said. Asked whether she would have signed the clause, she said, "I wanted to ask if there was another way, to reach the goals that we agree on."

Vasa's decision followed by a week his granting of a "temporary pastoral accomodation" to 11 teachers at Saint Mary of the Angels Catholic School in Ukiah, exempting them for one year from having to sign the addendum.

That development had spurred Cardinal Newman students and parents to request at least the same.

On Thursday, Edgar said, "I think we got a better outcome than we originally planned."

Allyson Ahlstrom, a Cardinal Newman senior, called the letter a "great step in the right direction" and said she was pleased by the bishop's new tone.

"He seemed willing to talk to teachers and other people to really draft a document that everyone will be happy with and not just pushing something on someone," she said.

But others said that while relieved, they were still wary and unhappy at the bishop's direction.

"The ultimate goal is still to filter out those who aren't followers," said a non-Catholic teacher who has taught at Cardinal Newman for more than five years.

The addendum also would have required teachers to attend church on Sundays and abide by the Ten Commandments.

"I'm not going to feel any different about euthanasia or contraception or gay marriage 10 years from now," said the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity because "because of this continued fear of this power."

At least five teachers she knows had planned on leaving rather than signing the agreement, the teacher said, adding, "Some teachers are excited because they have more time to find another job."

Others said their wish is that the conversations that the bishop has signaled he is open to will bring about a more acceptable plan.

"Our hopes are that it's not the same addendum, it's a reformed version, something that's a litte less discriminatory and hateful," said Natalie Ramirez, a Cardinal Newman senior.

"I think that Bishop Vasa removing that now and giving us a time period to move to work toward something that's not as extreme, something that we can agree to, I think that's wonderful," Ramirez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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