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Head of Catholic-Schools Association Intercedes in Indiana Contract Dispute

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An ongoing contract dispute between Catholic school teachers and their bishop in an Indiana diocese has entered the national spotlight with the outspoken involvement of the president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers.

In a move he says is unprecedented, John J. Reilly last month wrote a seven-page "open letter" on behalf of the lay teachers in the Fort WayneSouth Bend diocese to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and circulated it to the nation's nearly 400 bishops.

Mr. Reilly's letter decries the "deplorable situation" in the Indiana diocese and says the conduct of its bishop, John M. D'Arcy, "stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Church."

The lay high-school teachers in the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese are in their third year without a contract, and Bishop D'Arcy has rejected an attempt by the lay Catholic elementary-school teachers to organize under the high-school teachers' union.

Several obstacles, including better pay for veteran teachers, stand in the way of resolving the contract negotiations, said Michael Thompsen, president of the union, Community Alliance for Teachers in Catholic High Schools.

The diocese, for example, has asked that the teachers agree never to take the diocese to court over grievances, according to Mr. Thompson, while the teachers have requested access to a neutral third party for recourse beyond the diocesan level.

In addition, Mr. Thompson said, the diocese's contract proposal would put teachers of religion through a grievance process separate from that of other teachers, with Bishop D'Arcy having final say over the teacher's fate.

"Any bishop has the duty to [see] that religion is taught properly in the diocese," Mr. Thompson said, "and we have no quarrel with that."

However, Mr. Thompson said, if a religion teacher has a grievance related to an issue other than compliance with church teachings, the teacher should be able to go through the standard grievance process.

Scott Hall, a lawyer active in the diocesan negotiations, said he could not comment.

Outside Bishops' Jurisdiction

The bishop's conference, Mr. Reilly wrote in his open letter, must address the "injustices" in the Fort WayneSouth Bend diocese, and, more broadly, "must establish clear and unequivocal labor-relations policies."

"These, hopefully, will prevent any further abuses of the rights of Church employees," he wrote.

However, in his response to the January open letter-as well as in Iris reply last October to an earlier entreaty from Mr. Reilly--the council's president, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, said he could not act because local matters lie outside the conference's jurisdiction.

"Church Law simply does not permit an episcopal conference to become engaged in a local dispute," Archbishop Pilarczyk wrote.

But the archbishop added that he would pass on Mr. Reilly's "general policy concerns" to the education and social-policy committees of the bishops' public-policy arm, the United States Catholic Conference.

Those committees have yet to take action on Mr. Reilly's concerns, Chris W. Baumann, a spokesman for the bishops, said last week.

Mr. Reilly said he found Bishop D'Arcy's position and Archbishop Pilarczyk's failure to intervene to be inconsistent with past statements by the archbishop, policies adopted by the Catholic bishops, and the social-justice teachings of the church.

"It blows my mind that a group of Americans can meet in a collective body, cast votes... and then go back to their dioceses as individual bishops and completely ignore what they decided as a collective body," he said.

"The bishops have a moral obligation to stand up and condemn even their fellow bishops when they ignore [their own policy decisions]," Mr. Reilly said.

A 1977 report by the Catholic conference, which Mr. Baumann said still represents that body's policy, supports collective bargaining by teachers.

"Catholic social teaching strongly supports the rights of employees to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers," the report states. "The free exercise of these rights pertains to Catholic school teachers and other school employees," it continues.

Fort Wayne as 'Example'

The national teachers' union took the local dispute to the bishops' group, Mr. Reilly said, after Bishop D'Arcy last August rejected the elementary-school teachers' bid for union representation.

Coupled with the diocese's ongoing impasse with the high-school teachers and longtime concerns about such difficulties in organizing and negotiating, Mr. Reilly said, it seemed to "be good to us to use Fort Wayne as an example to hopefully trigger some action from the Catholic Bishops Conference."

While Mr. Reilly said he recognized that the bishops conference has no formal jurisdiction over Bishop D'Arcy, he hoped pressure from other bishops might have an impact.

"I'm sure that if Bishop D'Arcy's brothers sat down with him over a cup of coffee or a cocktail they might" influence him, he said.

Mr. Thompson said so far the national union's intervention has not had an effect on the contract dispute.

But he said it was "a positive" that Archbishop Pilarczyk said he would refer Mr. Reilly's concerns to the Catholic conference committees.

Bishop D'Arcy was not available late last week to comment on Mr. Reilly's open letter.

However, in a brief statement issued by Christine Benahoom, a diocesan spokesman, Bishop D'Arcy said, "[T]he diocese is continuing its negotiations with [the union] and, at the same time, is continuing its review of the diocesan relationship" with it.

Ms. Bonahoom said she did not know when the contract issues might be decided, nor could she clarify the meaning of a "review of the diocesan relationship."

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