Thursday, January 12, 2012

On Philly Schools, The Fallout Continues

Picking up another of last week's rippling threads, emotions are still running high across the Philadelphia church in the wake of Friday's announcement (video) that 48 Catholic elementary and high schools had been slated for closure or consolidation in June.

Stacking out at a loss of four of 17 high schools and 44 elementaries of a current 156 should the plan be fully implemented, the recommendations of the archdiocesan Blue Ribbon Commission have sparked vigils in city streets and rallies on suburban athletic-fields, as pastors report feeling the fury of "lynch mob" parishioners, administrators discern appealing their fate, students walk out in protest, and all of it still tops the news in the nation's fourth-largest TV market.

The 68,000-student system's enrollment down 35 percent within the last decade -- now standing at just 28 percent of its early 1960s peak of 271,000 -- much as last week's move would make for the most sweeping overhaul of Catholic education in the history of the American church by far, it's merely the biggest shake-up of an apparatus that had already shed close to 40 additional schools over the last several years in annual increments. Among the previously-closed venues were two city high schools which had each borne the distinction of being the global church's largest secondary institution in their respective primes, and
Southwest Philadelphia's vaunted Most Blessed Sacrament, whose student body of nearly 4,000 through the postwar years comprised the world's largest Catholic elementary school. (Barely a century after its founding, MBS parish would likewise shut its doors in 2008, with all of 80 people left.)

In other words, what's come to pass isn't merely the day of reckoning for any venerable, old-guard education system, but the very one which had been the Catholic world's most prolific engine of the work through most of the 20th century.

With at least 1,500 teachers set to be affected by the Blue Ribbon proposals, either by moving to a new school or losing their jobs, pastors and administrators of impacted entities were given their first in-depth briefing on the mechanics of their mergers at a Tuesday meeting that, unsurprisingly, is said to have turned heated at points. At the same time, the details of an appeal process were rolled out, reflecting the concerted intent of Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. that an opportunity for reviewing the 16-member commission's recommendations be provided should the group have erred on "issues of fact."

The appeal window having come as a seeming surprise to archdiocesan officials, any requests for reconsideration are expected to be taken up quickly, with final decisions tipped to emerge by mid-February.

Having closed all of two schools over his 15 years as archbishop of Denver -- where he spent a prior decade as a parish priest and Capuchin provincial -- Chaput inherited the Blue Ribbon panel and its mandate on his arrival last September.

Much as the numerous dimensions of the story have echoed widely across broadcast and newsprint, coverage and reaction have been dominated by what's likely the most surprising proposed casualty of the list: a complete shuttering of the two-in-one operation of Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast High School, which occupy separate single-sex buildings on a campus in Drexel Hill, just outside the city's western edge, but have shared an administration since 2007.

As a result of their recent merger at the top, Bonner and "Prendie" are now counted as one entity by the archdiocese, and the overwhelming expectation going into the Blue Ribbon report had been that the twinned schools would be consolidated into a single, co-ed unit in one of the buildings.

Their property first utilized as an orphanage in the 1920s, the schools' roots date to the 1950s-era flight of white Catholics from the city's western neighborhoods. Yet while images of grief-stricken kids and emotional gatherings have been splayed across front pages and the airwaves since Friday, the duo's combined current enrollment stands at around 950 students -- a drop of more than half in the last decade, and an 86 percent plunge from a peak student-body just shy of 7,000 in the early 1960s. In making its recommendation for total closure, the Blue Ribbon report additionally cited the $900,000 annual maintenance costs of the plant, the most expensive upkeep of any archdiocesan school.

Amid a sudden deluge of support from their alumni and the wider community, Bonner-Prendie administrators were said to be "moving toward" making an appeal as of mid-week.

Notably, with the proposed closures of the Drexel Hill outpost and its next closest counterpart, the city's century-old West Catholic -- the alma mater of, among others, New York's legendary John Cardinal O'Connor -- in one fell swoop, Catholic secondary education would vanish from a 12-mile (by driving, half-hour) stretch across the congested hub of the city and its inner-ring suburbs, where the sum total of the closings have exacted their biggest bite.

* * *
The final bell for 30 percent of its schools makes for just the first major blow of what promises be a historically challenging and dramatic 18 months for a local church long seen as American Catholicism's "last great china shop."

In the coming weeks, final decisions are expected on the fates of the 21 priests placed on administrative leave in the wake of last February's grand jury report, marking the end of a yearlong "second review" into allegations of misconduct or boundary violations previously lodged against them. Despite the claims, the men had remained in ministry until the civil inquest's explosive aftermath, when their mass suspension on Mardi Gras made for the largest single removal of American clerics from ministry in the quarter-century history of the nation's clergy sex-abuse scandals.

Then, in March, the criminal trial of three other suspended or laicized priests accused of abuse in the late 1990s is slated to begin, alongside the day in court of Msgr William Lynn, the former clergy-personnel chief whose indictment by the grand jury made him the first US church official to be charged with a cover-up.

Their cases compiled into a single proceeding, the trial is expected to last around three months amid an intense media atmosphere. As of last count, seven civil lawsuits related to the archdiocese's handling of abuse reports are likewise pending. And from there, warnings of a significant, albeit unspecified outbreak of "budget discipline" have already started to swirl in Chancery circles in advance of the next diocesan fiscal year, which begins on July 1st.

Along the way, the historic Cardinal's Residence (above) -- placed on the market by its latest occupant at the New Year -- is likely to be sold and vacated for its new owner. And even as the new archbishop was preparing to address the school closings, the next major plank of reorganization was quietly rolled into gear last week as a video from Chaput on parish planning was sent to pastors and began circulating on the internet.

Its preparations begun in late 2010, while the parish study is only now beginning in earnest, common estimates anticipate that upwards of 60 of the 266 churches serving the five-county fold could be closed or merged by the realignment's targeted completion in mid-2013. At present, some two-thirds of the parishes are said to be in some form of financial hardship. In the process, statistics reported by the Blue Ribbon commission have indicated a 55 percent drop in Catholic marriages witnessed locally between 1985 and 2010, and a nearly 40 percent tumble in baptisms over the same period.

According to earlier indications from the archdiocese's planning arm, given the decline in the number of active clerics due to deaths and retirements, the current parish structure -- its last major tinkering in the early 2000s -- would be limited to one priest each, regardless of a community's size, by later this decade. To meet the 1.2 million-member local church's current needs in the future, three times the number of today's seminarians would reportedly be required.

All around, the "perfect storm" of the months to come will result in a drastic reshaping of ecclesial life in these parts... then again, this crowd already knew that.

SVILUPPO: In Thursday's edition of his weekly web-column, Chaput focused on the report's fallout, noting that while the intensity of reaction was to be expected, "No family can run on nostalgia and red ink."

The system's needed reconfiguration "can’t be done without suffering, and nobody wants to be the cause of other good people’s pain," the archbishop wrote.

"But the work needs to be done. It can’t be delayed."

Meanwhile, as late chatter reports plans for a "human chain" to surround the cathedral and chancery to protest the closings tomorrow afternoon, one exurban priest from a religious community is attempting a novel approach to short-circuit the commission's recommendation to fold his school: declaring that the call is tantamount to "taking away [his] canonical rights" as pastor, and asserting that "the ultimate decision regarding recommended closures and consolidation continues to rest with" him, not the archdiocese.

On a related note, the first meetings to consider appeals were held earlier today.