Chris Damian writes
Mezzo: the in-between
Catholic priest: You can keep your job if you get married next month.

Catholic priest: You can keep your job if you get married next month.

An unmarried Catholic school teacher found herself with an unplanned pregnancy, a sick baby, and a school that wanted to buy her silence.

In December of 2021, Clare Friis was contacted by a woman living in the Twin Cities. Clare had worked as a doula, and the woman was referred to Clare by a friend. The woman told Clare that she was trying to process her complicated pregnancy. The woman shared that she was worried about losing her job. Clare responded by informing her that firing someone because of her pregnancy was illegal. The woman told her, “I teach in a Catholic school.” Clare asked her which school. The teacher named Epiphany Catholic School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

Clare had experienced her own challenges in the parish attached to the school. Roughly nine months earlier, Clare had publicly shared her story of being abused as a child in the parish, how the pastor Father Thomas Dufner had encouraged her to be silent about what she had suffered, and how he had allowed Clare’s abuser to continue to volunteer with children until she shared her story publicly. I had worked with Clare to try to address this with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. After speaking with this teacher, Clare quickly connected me with her, and we listened to her story and worked with her to navigate the complex process of addressing harms caused by and within the Church.

We learned that she had shared the news of her pregnancy with her principal, who then told her she needed to speak with Father Dufner. Over a series of interactions, Father Dufner communicated to this teacher that the only way for her to keep her job would be for her to get married the following month, that he would do an abbreviated marriage preparation, that her boyfriend was “sexually ready” to get married, and the matter of whether or not the boyfriend would marry her was a matter of whether he was going to “show up” for her. The teacher shared that she was not in a state to prepare for the sacrament of marriage so quickly, and that she needed to focus on her pregnancy and the health of her baby. The school responded by presenting her with a contract which would maintain her salary and health insurance, in exchange for her silence and a guarantee to never sue the school. They gave her until the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to decide. She felt that she had no choice but to sign it. I recorded a conversation with her, which she gave me permission to eventually share publicly, before she signed the contract.

I’ve written previously on the scandal that the approach taken by Epiphany here creates. This was a grave scandal on the part of the school, the parish, and their leadership. They subtly communicate to unmarried Catholic school teachers: really, the only way for you to keep your job is to secretly get an abortion. Consider also these messages that were shared with me over the last week (which I am sharing with permission):

From another individual:

I can’t undo those harms. But I still hope that we can learn from this. There are two ways that Epiphany and other Catholic institutions can begin to move in the direction of healing and support.

First, Epiphany Catholic School should waive the confidentiality obligations in this teacher’s contract. This obligation was put upon a woman in exchange for her ability to pay for medical bills for herself and her very sick baby, at a time where she would have had difficulty finding another job which would have enabled her to take off for her necessary medical appointments. Other Catholic institutions which have similar confidentiality agreements should waive the confidentiality provisions.

The provisions which bind the former Epiphany teacher are cruel. They bar the teacher from processing the traumatic circumstances surrounding her termination from the school with friends. They prevent her from seeking comfort from her family. In trying to make sense of what has happened to her here, she is utterly alone. She can only speak with her spouse (she is unmarried), attorney, or financial advisor. She is not even permitted to speak with a mental health practitioner. Other former employees of Catholic institutions across the country continue to be bound by similarly cruel provisions.

From the teacher’s separation agreement with Epiphany Catholic School.

Second, Catholic schools and other institutions should adopt a policy stating that no students, faculty, or staff will face disciplinary or adverse actions because of an unplanned pregnancy. The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and other dioceses should adopt such a policy. No woman should have communicated to her, no matter how subtly: the only way for you to stay here is to secretly have an abortion. If we want a culture of life, a culture where abortion is unthinkable, we must lead.

If you are a Catholic and are horrified at what happened here, I would highly encourage you to reach out to your diocese and local Catholic schools and parishes to encourage such a policy. Connect with other parents, parishioners, and community members to push for these necessary changes together. Lives are actually at stake.

UPDATE (08/26/22)

I have received the following from the friend of the teacher, who said I had permission to share:

A couple of other things to note.

First, one might be inclined to think that the school was generous by paying out her salary and benefits. But in reality, the school likely saved a lot of money. They forced her to give up her right to sue the school, as part of the contract. A lawsuit likely would have cost much much more than they would have had to pay. The school put itself in a financially advantageous position.

Second, this situation continues to be extremely unjust. People like her old coworkers, the school’s leadership, and others are allowed to talk about what happened to her. They can reach out to her and say whatever they want. But she can’t say anything. This is how injustice is put upon injustice when it comes to victims in the Church.

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Chris Damian writes
Mezzo: the in-between
Catholicism, intersectionality, dialogue, deconstruction, sexuality, race, creativity, zebra pants, etc. Lectures, papers, and conversations. By Chris Damian.