About that ‘complex’ doctrine Catholic teachers must follow

Imagine this lede atop a national wire service story:

CINCINNATI (AP) — Parochial teachers are so ignorant of basic Roman Catholic doctrine the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving them a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

That is, of course, not the spin that The Associated Press took.

Here’s the actual opening paragraph of an AP story published this week:

CINCINNATI (AP) — The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is so complex the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving teachers a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

Complex doctrine, huh? According to whom?

The story continues:

A new contract proposal from the diocese specifies some violations of Catholic doctrine that could put teachers out of a job — including abortion, artificial insemination and “homosexual lifestyles” — and extends forbidden behavior to include public support for those kinds of causes, drawing some complaints that the language is overly broad and a cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue.

Again, the story seems tilted — and tell me if I’m wrong — toward the teachers’ perspective.

Notice that the proposal is characterized as a “cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue,” not a “crafty attempt to make it harder for rightfully terminated teachers to claim naiveté.”

AP quotes an archdiocese spokesman as saying the proposal clarifies what is expected of teachers, then provides background on a lawsuit filed by a teacher fired for getting pregnant through artificial insemination and a separate lawsuit filed by an unmarried teacher fired for getting pregnant.

Keep reading, and the story gives three sources critical of the proposal an opportunity to bash it, one after another. That tag team of critics starts with a union leader not even from Cincinnati:

The president of the Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic School Teachers says some educators in the archdiocese have contacted the union with contract concerns, even though the union doesn’t represent them.

“This contract is way over the top and very oppressive,” said union president Rita Schwartz

Later in the piece, there’s this twist:

The new contract also for the first time describes every teacher as a “teacher-minister,” wording legal experts view as an attempt to prevent fired teachers from bringing wrongful termination charges.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling has said religious groups can dismiss “ministerial” employees without government interference, although Andriacco says the archdiocese has always considered all of its teachers as ministerial employees.

David Ball, co-chairman of the Religious Organizations Subcommittee of the American Bar Association, said labeling someone a minister doesn’t necessarily make them one.

“I’m not sure that would hold up in all cases,” he said.

Ah, legal experts. Apparently, Ball is the only one of the “experts” with a name since he’s the only attorney quoted. How does the archdiocese or its attorney respond? No idea, since AP doesn’t give them a chance to defend the proposal’s wording.

To its credit, the story ends by quoting a father who supports the proposal and a mother who opposes it.

But by that point, the slanted nature of the piece makes it impossible to salvage the story. It’s that simple.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Gail Finke

    It’s better than the local coverage!

  • Julia B

    With all the court cases where teachers claim they didn’t know – why is it wrong to clarify? That would seem to be a good thing – fair warning about what will get you fired. More and more I see news reports and politicians taking their cues from how trial attorneys characterize facts in closing arguments. With the clever use of words obvious situations and logic are stood on their heads. Readers and jurors are sucked in to topsy-turvy land. [I'm a retired attorney so I'm not bashing what happens in the courtroom]

    There is a Supreme Court case now that recognizes teachers in religious schools as having ministerial duties. If the teachers are not expected to disseminate and exemplify church teaching, why the hxxx have religious schools? Too many people now send their kids to these schools because they don’t like the public schools and resent the religious aspect to the religious school! Non-religious private schools are more expensive is the only explanation that comes to mind.

    This reporting bias is inexplicable to me. I’d like to see an in-depth article about why parents go to the expense of sending their kids to religious schools. That would be really interesting and might explain a lot of what is going on here.

    • Julia B

      To clarify: it’s the trial lawyer’s job to present and characterize facts in a manner that puts the client’s case in the best light; it’s up to the jury [or the judge in a bench trial] to decide what they believe is true about the presentations by both sides.
      That shouldn’t be the job of a news reporter who is supposed to present both [or all] sides, unless it’s commentary, an editorial or an opinion piece. Even then, the opposing position should be fairly described.

      Problem with on-line news: it’s hard to tell sometimes whether something is meant to be commentary, editorial or opinion – even if the hard copy has clearly labelled sections of the paper.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This makes total sense. The blatant bias in the coverage is not at all surprising. This is clearly written by people who want successful suits. In the end, religious schools should be able to fire people for violating their religious teachings, and the more upfront they are about what teachings these are, the better off everyone will be, except lawyers who thrive off of wrongful termination suits.

  • Jettboy

    Isn’t this a private school? Can’t a private school fire anyone for any reason at any time, or has freedom eroded that much in the United States?

    • Julia B

      Nope, just like any other business – if there’s a contract you have to have a reason to fire somebody. “At will” employees can be fired/”let go” for just about any reason, but it depends on the state.

      • Jettboy

        So, in other words, the United States is no longer a free nation.

    • Gail Finke

      Private schools cannot fire anyone for any reason. Equal opportunity laws apply to schools as well, so if the EEOC or your state has declared certain groups to have a protected status, employers can’t fire them if the reason their status is protected is even part of the reason for the firing. The only exception is ministerial employees — because government cannot be involved in determining who is and is not an appropriate minister.


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