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Published in Print: June 13, 2001, as Sports League To Reconsider School's Rejection

Sports League To Reconsider School's Rejection

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Officials of a Chicago athletic league for Catholic schools plan to reconsider a widely criticized vote denying membership to a predominantly black grammar school on the city's South Side.

Since the vote last month, leaders of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago have scrambled to resolve the dispute, which centers on charges of racism and questions of student safety.

Representatives from the Southside Catholic Conference, which sponsors basketball, football, and soccer in 5th through 8th grades in 21 city and suburban parishes, voted 11-9 on May 24 to deny St. Sabina Academy membership in the league. Opponents expressed concern that the neighborhood around the school is unsafe. St. Sabina, a pre-K-8 school with about 550 students, is located in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, where 98 percent of the mostly low- to middle-income residents are black.

Conference officials have scheduled a revote for next week after a series of meetings between pastors and representatives of the member schools' 21 athletic boards, said Jim Dwyer, a spokesman for the archdiocese. The initial vote became public after the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina Church, which runs the school, told a reporter about the decision.

Father Pfleger, whose 17-year-old adopted son was killed by stray gunfire a few blocks from the church in 1997, told the Chicago Sun-Times that safety concerns should not be an issue.

"To say that a whole neighborhood is unsafe because of a violent incident, if that was true, then every neighborhood in Chicago and the suburbs would be too dangerous to go to," said Father Pfleger.

The Gresham police district, which includes St. Sabina, ranked ninth highest in crime out of 25 city districts last year. It posted 32 homicides. In the first three weeks of May, police recorded four robberies, two assaults, two batteries, two thefts, one burglary, and four narcotics arrests within a quarter-mile of the church.

Some conference members reviewed crime statistics before the vote and were concerned about having children and parents travel to St. Sabina's neighborhood for games.

But Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard told local media that the area around the school, where he lives and where he once commanded the police district that includes St. Sabina, is a safe environment.

Cardinal's Letter

The decision to exclude St. Sabina from the sports league came six weeks after Chicago's archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, released a pastoral letter on racism. The letter, released April 4 to mark the 33th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., called on Catholics to reject racism that can be manifested in fears of violence.

Cardinal George, who was traveling abroad when the conference made its decision, told the Chicago Tribune that he hoped "we might find a way to take care of safety concerns so we can have interracial leagues. I think it's very important that children of different races play together and become friends."

Archdiocesan officials said in a May 31 statement that they were "saddened and disturbed" by the athletic league's vote. "While safety for all children is a concern that we all share, it must not be used as a racially motivated reason to deny African-American Catholics the right to participate in Catholic organizations. ... We are committed to racial justice and will not tolerate any manifestation of the sin of racism in our parishes, schools, or athletic organizations."

Sister Anita Baird, the director of the Chicago Archdiocese's office of racial justice, said she hoped a positive resolution could be reached. "There is opportunity in every situation," she said. "We can use this as a teaching moment and as a call to conversion."

Father Pfleger turned down an offer from Hank Lenzen, the executive director of the conference, to have St. Sabina enter the league with conditions such as having the school's team play no home games for a year and letting conference members tour the grounds around the school to assuage their concerns about safety. A few years ago, a predominantly Hispanic parish was admitted to the league under the requirement that it wouldn't host any home games for a certain period of time.

"Some members felt there were security issues, but I felt we could work this out," said Mr. Lenzen, who voted to include St. Sabina in the league. "This is not an issue entirely about race."

Mr. Lenzen acknowledged he was stung by the accusations of racism, and he said that the conference, made up mostly of volunteers, had worked hard to provide a well-structured sports league for all youths. "All of us want the kids to play together regardless of race or religion," he said.

Vol. 20, Issue 40, Page 3

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