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Bishop exempts Ukiah teachers from morality vow

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 9:34 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 9:34 a.m.

Bishop Robert Vasa has exempted nearly a dozen teachers at Saint Mary of the Angels Catholic School in Ukiah from signing a controversial morality clause that he is requiring of about 200 educators employed by the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese.

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Bishop Robert Vasa in 2012.

PD FILE, 2012

As news of a reprieve for 11 full-time St. Mary's faculty members reached Sonoma County, parents of students at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa said they planned to request a similar exemption for teachers at that school.

Vasa, reached by phone Thursday afternoon, refused to comment about the "temporary pastoral accommodation" at St. Mary's.

"It's a private matter between me and the pastor and I won't discuss it," he said.

In a letter signed by the school principal, Mary Leittem-Thomas, and Rev. Alvin Villaruel, the local pastor, parents were informed that Vasa had made an exception for St. Mary's teachers and they would not have to sign the clause, which is an addendum to the teachers' contract for the 2013-2014 school year.

The letter states that, "Father Alvin met with Bishop Vasa on Monday and the bishop offered a Temporary Pastoral Accommodation which allows teachers to remove the addendum from their contract . . . we are grateful to Father Alvin for taking our concerns to the bishop."

A St. Mary's teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the move as a one-year reprieve Thursday and said that she and other faculty members have met with Villaruel and shared with him their strong objections to the language in the addendum.

"Teachers shouldn't be put in a position where they have to sign something that they may not believe in," the teacher said.

The addendum calls on educators employed by the diocese to reject "modern errors" such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage and euthanasia as "matters that gravely offend human dignity."

It also requires teachers to abide by the Ten Commandments, go to church every Sunday and heed God's words in thought, deed and intentions. The addendum is an effort by Vasa to clearly delineate specifically what it means for teachers to be a "model of Catholic living" and to adhere to Catholic teaching.

"He can't tell me what to believe," the St. Mary's teacher said. "That is up to me."

In 2004, while Vasa was the bishop of eastern Oregon, he asked lay ministers to sign an "affirmation of faith" that called on them to accept the church's prohibition against contraception, premarital sex, masturbation, fornication, pornography and homosexuality as "gravely evil."

Leittem-Thomas did not return a phone call Thursday and Father Villaruel, who had the day off, could not be reached by cellphone.

By Thursday evening, the Ukiah letter had made its way to the Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club, where more than 60 parents, students and teachers from Cardinal Newman High School met privately to discuss Vasa's addendum. Faculty from St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma also attended.

The meeting, which was largely organized by several Cardinal Newman students, was closed to the media so that attendees would not be afraid to speak freely, one student organizer said. No one from the diocese was invited.

After the meeting ended, several parents spoke to a reporter and said they strongly objected to Vasa's addendum, calling it "heavy-handed" and a "bullying" tactic. Some parents said the addendum was unnecessary because Cardinal Newman faculty already adhere to Catholic teachings.

Lori Edgar, the parent of a Cardinal Newman senior and freshman, said attendees at the meeting had agreed to draft a letter to Vasa expressing their concerns about the addendum.

"We're hoping to get the same results that Ukiah got -- a stay and to express our disappointment," Edgar said. "We feel the bishop has threatened our teachers. We hope to approach him as a group and that he will listen to keep our teachers and Cardinal Newman with its original faith."

Mary Walsh, the parent of a Cardinal Newman senior, said she was "upset and confused."

She asked why "the contract would need to be changed now, when the teachers have fulfilled the mission statement of the school. We value our faculty and staff."

Vasa could not be reached for comment on Thursday night's meeting in Santa Rosa.

You can reach Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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