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Published in Print: April 30, 2003, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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Catholic Educators' Group Marks
Centennial With Look Ahead

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called attention to the accomplishments of Roman Catholic education and the problems it faces during his keynote address to the 100th convention of the National Catholic Educational Association last week. In honor of the centennial of the Washington-based group of educators, the ncea returned here to St. Louis, the city where it first met in 1904, for this year's convention.

Bishop Gregory, who attended Catholic schools in Chicago as a youngster, thanked the 12,000 educators in attendance for carrying out the church's goals of passing the Catholic faith on to future generations and for "making Catholic education a joy and blessing for the church and our nation." He estimated that Catholic elementary and secondary schools save U.S. taxpayers $20 billion each year. And students at Catholic schools tend to score higher on standardized tests and are less likely to drop out of school than their counterparts at public schools, he said.

But the bishop of Belleview, Ill., also named several challenges that Catholic schools must overcome. They lack adequate financing and need to do a better job of training teachers, he said. They also need to take more responsibility for serving the nation's ever- growing population of racially and ethnically diverse children and youths, Bishop Gregory said.

In addition, he urged Catholic educators to actively support the growth of publicly financed voucher programs, so that more parents who want to send their children to Catholic schools can afford to do so.

At the meeting, the NCEA released a statement supporting vouchers that reaffirmed the position it first took in 1992. The new policy statement says: "We support programs such as tax credits, vouchers, and scholarships to ensure that all parents have the financial means to select the appropriate school for their children."

While the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year that the voucher program in Cleveland—which includes many Catholic schools among its participants—was constitutional, public policy on vouchers is still undecided at the state level, Bishop Gregory said.

"This probably will be a long and difficult struggle for us," he said.

Bishop Gregory didn't mention in his address the crisis that unfolded in the past year in the Catholic Church over incidents and allegations of priests' sexual abuse of minors over many years. It was Bishop Gregory who presided over the much-publicized meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas to adopt strict new policies in response to such offenses.

Several breakout sessions at the NCEA conference, however, did tackle the issue.

Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy, a lawyer and a professor of education at Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., talked frankly with the Catholic educators about the kinds of "boundaries" they should draw at schools to keep children safe and to help adults to avoid lawsuits.

"The church is bigger than the abuse, than the sins of a few people, but [the sexual-abuse scandal] makes us look at how we run our schools," she said.

Sister Shaughnessy emphasized that definitions of appropriate everyday behavior have changed in the 32 years she's been involved in Catholic education.

For example, she said, years ago, she didn't think anything of driving a student home alone from a school function at 11:30 p.m. if his or her parents didn't arrive to pick up the child. But she hopes that educators would not do that today. Throughout her talk, she repeatedly said that educators must avoid the appearance that something inappropriate could be occurring. That means that any time they are alone with a student in a room, they should make sure that others can see into the room, or they should leave the door open.

Likewise, she said, many Catholic educators in the 1970s didn't hesitate to conclude notes to students with the word "love." Today, such a closing would not be appropriate, she said. She said that many complaints of sexual harassment or abuse are based on notes or letters from adults to minors. And she cautioned educators not to use home e-mail accounts to communicate with students.

Sister Shaughnessy told Catholic school administrators that they can be held legally liable for the actions of people at their institutions. She recommended that administrators observe their staff members at times when the administrators aren't personally in charge, such as by being present at extracurricular activities.

And she stressed that educators are not to view themselves as investigators, but rather to report suspected sexual misconduct or abuse to the proper authorities immediately.

"You can say, 'I don't believe it.' You can say, 'She's made up stuff before,' but you have to report it," she said.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 33, Page 14

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