Pulling a guest speaker from Notre Dame High School in Belmont has left former and current students feeling upset, while the administration says the decision was made to protect the school’s relationship with the gay activist who an online publication had criticized for working with the Catholic school.
It all started when “California Catholic Daily” posted an item taking issue with Catholic schools that host Gregg Cassin, a guest speaker of the school who lectured for the Women in Relationships course for the junior class yearly for more than 20 years about self-acceptance. The website took issue with Cassin’s work outside the classroom, as an activist for LGBT rights.
Cassin was scheduled to talk to the four religious studies classes in March but, because he has a new work schedule, could only come for one of two days scheduled. The online post came out between Cassin’s appearance in March and this week. Over Easter break, Notre Dame teacher Barbara Sequeira arranged for Cassin to come back to the school Tuesday to make up for the missed day, which Head of School Maryann Osmond didn’t find out about until Monday. Given the publicity, she felt the best thing to do for the present time was to hold off on having him back again until next year while things settled down.
“I made the decision on Monday that it would best to wait for things to die down with the whole controversy,” said Osmond, who became head of school in February after serving as an interim for the position. “It was my intention to protect my relationship with Gregg and to make sure I could continue the relationship. … I realize that my reasons for the decision could be misinterpreted.”
Meanwhile, alumnae of the school quickly created a Facebook page dedicated to supporting Cassin called “NDB Women Respond” and has nearly 2,400 members. Current students are also expressing their concerns about Cassin’s removal. One alumna showing support for Cassin is Lauren Williamson, now a student at University of Colorado at Boulder, who said there’s been a lot of overwhelming support for Cassin, whose message to the girls was one of love and self-acceptance. She believes Notre Dame’s decision was unfortunate.
“Notre Dame should have supported Gregg — that’s what we’ve always been taught to do,” she said. “Gregg never taught anything against Catholic teaching. … I think an apology would definitely be good for Gregg and the best thing for the school would be for Gregg to be back.”
But Osmond said her intentions were good ones, her mistake was in how she communicated the decision to Cassin, she said. She asked Sequeira to tell Cassin about the cancellation of Tuesday’s speech rather than doing so herself. Since, Osmond said she has been in communication with him by email and is hoping they can get together and talk. She would be interested in having him back this year if schedules align before the end of the school year in May, she said.
“It’s been a challenging time, but it’s a really good opportunity for us and it’s a really important conversation,” she said. “Gregg is a really valued member of this community. He has made a profound difference in the lives of our graduates and current students. It’s an important topic about inclusion and tolerance.”
Cassin said he would like to meet with Osmond and is hopeful the situation will be resolved.
“I think for me the biggest story is this witch-hunt that this right-wing Catholic website has on the LGBT community,” he said. “It’s really damaging and it sends schools into a little bit of a tailspin. They wonder ‘what’s going to happen? Is the archdiocese is going to come down on them?’ Is LGBT staff safe? Is there going to be some sort of mandate?’”
Williamson and other alumnae want to make sure having him back can’t be put off until next year. The head of school’s emails to current students, parents and alumnae acknowledged she did make the decision herself, Williamson said, adding Osmond has been doing a great job talking about it. Williamson thinks Osmond feared the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which the school is under, would make an immediate decision that would cause him to be banned.
“If they (the school) supported Gregg, they wouldn’t have shut down the speaker,” she said. “It proves hate speech works if they (the website) know all they have to do is write an article and Notre Dame will cave.”
Osmond said she has met with almost every girl in the school to talk about the issue. Additionally, Osmond said the quality of postings in the Facebook page impressed and even encouraged students to visit the page since she found the posts incredibly coherent.
“One of the things that concerns me is the perception that is out that we are an intolerant community,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. … We’re committed to creating a caring, diverse community.”
Three other Catholic schools in the area were also criticized on the website for what each of the schools teach, with the site urging readers to contact local officials about the schools’ actions.
“Most important is to contact the principal of your local Catholic elementary schools,” the March 21 California Catholic Daily posting about Notre Dame states. “Almost all enrollment to Catholic high schools come from Catholic elementary feeder schools. The elementary principals may be unaware of the catastrophic state of religious education in Archdiocesan high schools, and they are the persons with the greatest ability to effect change, by their willingness to steer students towards or away from prospective high schools.”
Cassin said the painful thing is there have been schools that have problems with how to respond to these types of posts. He said he knows they were trying to protect their communities.
“All of those schools should have come together immediately and taken a stand,” he said. “I would love to have the four schools meet. It would be a show of unity and not cowering to that kind of bigotry. The Archdiocese is staying out of it, so we should be taking the stand. We know our values and what our hearts require of that and that is inclusion. A much greater majority of Catholics are in support of gay rights and LGBT equality. It’s ridiculous to cower to a few archaic, mean-spirited people.”
In addition to the Facebook page she created, class of 1993 alumna Jennifer Doskow-Perea sent a letter to Osmond asking her to specifically state the reasoning for removing Cassin as a speaker, issuing a statement to the women impacted, inviting Cassin back to the school and hosting a retreat on campus with alumnae, students, parents and the community to come together to hear Cassin’s message of love and self-acceptance.
Cassin himself said he felt the decision was a misstep based around fear of negative publicity.
“I’m really proud of these young women,” he said.
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