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Christopher Atamian Headshot

Honesty Needed From Catholic Church in Wave of More School Closings

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In the spring of 2012, a young high school student by the name of Kristina Reyes triumphed in the annual Shakespeare speech competition sponsored by the English Speaking Union. Among the many interesting facts about Ms. Reyes is that she was a student at Preston High School, an all-girls Catholic school in the Bronx. Her medley of speeches included her nuanced, perfectly-cadenced delivery as Viola from Twelfth Night. In the end, she triumphed over representatives from every other high school in New York, including finalists from well-known schools such as Riverdale, Packer Collegiate and Trinity. (Not a single student from one of the city's eight specialized public schools even made the finals). Going back to the mid-19th century, Catholic schools have educated tens of millions of Americans, including many of the nation's most successful citizens, all the way down to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

Reyes' outstanding result underscores the tragic nature of the New York Diocese's announcement last week that it will soon close another 24 schools, including such neighborhood standouts as Holy Cross in Hell's Kitchen and Our Lady of Angels in the Knightsbridge section of the Bronx. The New York Diocese likes to describe itself as "cash-strapped" -- but this is barely believable given the fact that it makes a hefty income just from voluntary donations during mass and the fact that it established a Diocesan Fund some years back specifically in order to raise money for its parish schools. (Not to mention a voluntary church tithe in certain places of 5 percent.) Worse yet, Diocesan representatives like to imply that individual schools are to blame for their own mismanaged funds, and while this may be partly true, the church itself rarely accepts responsibility for the continued debacle of school closings that it is witnessing in every diocese around the country.

From 2003 to 2009, it is estimated that nationwide the Catholic Church spent over one billion dollars in settlements in cases of priests who sexually exploited, abused and raped thousands of young boys across the country. In the meantime, this same Catholic Church cannot find a few million dollars to keep the 200 or so schools in its second largest parish, New York City, afloat -- a parish, mind you, where literally millions of Latino parents, not to mention others, would kill to send their children to any one of their institutions of learning.

Watching Archbishop Dolan squirm on television as he states that "he wouldn't be here if it weren't for Catholic education," and his slick PR representative Joseph Zwilling explain that the latest round of closures is part of their "master plan" for catholic schools is nothing short of sickening. What about the Diocese's own continued ineptitude in managing its own schools? In today's highly competitive education market the Church needs to snap out of it and, if anything, improve the academic quality and financial management of its parish schools, instead of closing them down. Pointing a finger at local nuns and priests -- none of whom have ever claimed to be fund raising experts -- is beneath contempt.

Secrecy -- another Church specialty -- has always reigned inside even its most hallowed institutions, but it cannot continue to do so. In the case of Catholic schools, the Church should first publish this so-called "master plan" for all to see, down to how they intend to spend every last nickel. Then the Church should re-open schools like Holy Cross which they obviously -- denials to the contrary -- hope to sell off in order to make huge real estate killings. (43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues is now prime real estate -- it was anything but when the school opened decades ago.) And when the Church finally begins to let priests marry, and turn in sexual offender priests rather than defending or re-settling them elsewhere -- then maybe the lawsuits will stop coming in with such blinding rapidity. Then Archibishop Dolan can say the required number of mea culpas and perform a few thousand of Hail Marys to make up for the the turmoil that he caused thousands of Catholic families by closing their parish schools. And then he and his minions can finally get on with one its most historically important task: properly educating the city's poor and middle class youth.

P.S. I am all too conscious of the witticism "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic." In spite of this somewhat unpleasant truism, I now practice Buddhist meditation while trying to recognize the good the Church does and decrying the bad.