Catholic School Closings
8:39 pm
Fri March 28, 2014

St. Bernadette pastor declines to pursue legal action to keep school open

The pastor of St. Bernadette Church in Orchard Park will not move forward with legal action against the Diocese of Buffalo over the closing of the parish school. 

Parents of students attending the school  were calling on the pastor, Fr. Paul Seil, to begin legal proceedings against the Diocese and Bishop Richard Malone to stop the closing.  But in a meeting with parents Friday night, Seil said he will not move forward with such action. 

Seil described the diocesan process of closing Catholic schools as flawed, saying St. Bernadette passed every "rubric" to remain open.  He said legal action might have delayed the closing, scheduled for this June, but in the end, he believed the parish school would eventually close, "one way or another."

Here is the text of Seil's statement, delivered at Friday's meeting with parents:

In September, 2013, we learned that the Bishop Malone was requiring the submission of a plan to downsize the number of Catholic Schools to strengthen and revitalize Catholic Education and preserve it into the future. It was proposed that about 20 schools may close.

My immediate fear was that this process would be handled like the Journey of Faith and Grace—closing of Parish Churches— and there would be "winners and losers" instead of the strengthening of Catholic education.

Over a brief period of time, we were required to consult, meet, and come up with a proposal which would meet the Diocesan requirements and rubric. Thanks, in most part, to Fr. Sean Paul Fleming we were able to present a logical plan which was submitted to the group.

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

At the first meeting of the entire cluster committee, at one point we were informed by Carol Kostyniak, Secretary of Catholic Education, that one school — OLV — was off the table and would not be considered for closure. She stated that this was the wish of the Bishop and the Diocese' financial officer, Steve Timmel.

I believed that this information should be shared with St. Bernadette's parents and leadership. However, Ms. Kostyniak told me that I was not allowed to divulge this information to anyone outside the Committee. When I asked how I could be expected to lie to my people, our Diocesan appointed facilitator, Ken Rogers, said that "with-holding information" is not the same as lying.

Ms. Kostyniak wagged her finger at me and warned that I was "under the seal of confession" and that I would "be on... [my] head" if that information got out and the "process failed". This despite the fact that it was widely known that Sr. Carol Cimino had said as much as a meeting a parents of another school a month or so before.

At that time it was clear to me that this would not be a "transparent" process; that promised input by parents would not have any impact on the final decision and that the promised goals of "revitalization" and working together and "thinking outside the box" and "Creating new realities" was not a true goal of the Diocese and would not occur.

It should be noted that we were the only school that suggested a new name with a new Board and a truly new "reality".

"If a man has 100 sheep, and one of them goes astray, won't he leave the 99 on the hillside and go and search for the stray?"

The Diocese has estimated that 20% to 30% of those from closed schools would leave Catholic Education. This is acceptable by the Diocese.

The Rubric

The Diocese presented a "rubric" which gave standards by which a school would be judged for suitability. They included building capacity, technology, science lab, green space and other items. In addition to these qualities we made a strong point that we enjoy total handicapped accessibility and a 26 acre campus. None of these arguments moved them. Schools which in no way met the rubric stayed open.

The Decision

Despite our best efforts, Bishop Malone, with the advice of his revitalization committee, decided that St. Bernadette must close at the end of the school year.

The Fallout

I was on a long-planned 25th anniversary pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi with 41 other people including Fr. Adolph Kowalczyk from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. While leaving Mass we had celebrated in the Catacombs, Fr. Adolph and I received word via cell-phone/text that our schools were closed. Fr. Sean-Paul had a meeting after the announcement. We began to strategize.

Rome and the Courts

There is an action challenging the Bishop's decision in Rome. This is a process to which Catholic people have a right. I will not try to stand in the way of the freedom of the People of God.

There was also a request by the parents to begin a legal action against the Diocese and the Bishop. I made it clear at that time that the Parish would and could not be involved in any civil action. While I support their rights to pursue this option, again, I could not put the parish in this position.

A Week and a Half Ago I came in at the end of the meeting with the attorney and an update on the possible legal action which would seek a stay of the Bishop's decision until Rome rules on the complaint previously filed.

I did not realize until the next day, during a Conference Call with John Horn, attorney for the parents, that the only people who have standing to bring this action are myself and/or the trustees of the parish. This opened much further discussion, collaboration, the seeking of legal advice for me personally, and discussion among the trustees and parish and school leadership.

MY OBSERVATIONS:

After consulting with numerous priests, lawyers, Msgr. David Slubecky, member of our Board of Trustees and Moderator of the Curia, Fr. Gary Kibler, whose church of St. Mary in Lockport, won a judgment in Rome when that Church was closed yet has not been reopened (in six years) pending the process of further appeals and Diocesan actions, I believe that there is an excellent chance that we could win a stay holding off the Bishop's decision until the appeal process in Rome is ended. However I also truly believe that the outcome would be no different, that St. Bernadette's will close one way or the other.

We are running on "two tracts". One presumes the school is closed. One presumes there is hope for the school. I believe that there is no reasonable hope that our school will remain open. Several teachers are on the verge of securing new jobs. Our principal is "interim" and will only serve to the end of the School Year. We will meet with Union representatives this Tuesday, April 1, to negotiate a severance plan. This is not fair to anyone, particularly the students who deserve not to live in a Limbo. We need to make the end of the School positive and as peaceful as we can, particularly for the 7th grade class which is losing more than any other class.

In desperation people are now turning on one another. "Traitor" is the moniker given to those who seek to drop the civil action due to a true change of heart after listening to the arguments. Criticism has been leveled that I do not have "spine to challenge the Bishop." I have challenged this decision and the flawed process leading up to it and I am absolutely confident that I have done everything I could to save our school. In addition, people are angry that they have spent upwards of $16,000 in legal fees. I also have legal fees due to hiring my own legal counsel in this matter. These were risks freely taken in pursuing the legal course. Finally, financial threats are made against the parish. If destroying the parish and making sure that we do not have the budgeted and expected funds to end out the school year is your goal, then you have no better scruples than those who have put us in this situation.

There was dishonesty, deceit, politics, and other elements of this "flawed process". We met the requirements of the rubric. Other schools which remain open, did not. Despite that, the rotten fruit of the process is not being changed by the Diocese. There is nothing anyone can do about that.

The experiences that some parents have had in trying to apply to other Catholic Schools has been alienating, cold, and condescending. My only consolation in this is to know that we never treated a child or family with disrespect and we never rejoiced in the closing of any school.

Scavengers looking to swallow up our material resources have been told clearly that nothing is for sale until the very end. Your kids are the priority and I will not allow the possibility that they would walk into partially stocked classrooms. Despite your feelings towards the Diocese or myself, please help your children have the most positive experience possible.

So after wide consultation, and on the advice of my personal legal counsel, the civil action of St. Bernadette Church Society of Armor, NY vs. The Diocese of Buffalo and Bishop Richard Malone will not go forward.

Fr. Paul D. Seil