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Bishops’ letters seek to thwart misconceptions

By Glen Argan
Western Catholic Reporter

01/07/2015

EDMONTON (CCN) — Alberta’s bishops want to overcome “a narrow and distorted” presentation of the church’s response to bullying in schools by speaking directly to their parishioners, says Rev. Stefano Penna.

Critiques of Catholic schools’ resistance to a government bill that would have mandated so-called gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Alberta high schools have presented “a caricature of Catholic schools as being narrow and exclusive,” said Penna.

Because of that, some Alberta bishops have issued pastoral letters on the issue, he said in an interview.
Penna, a professor at Newman Theological College, is serving as the Alberta bishops’ spokesperson on the issue.

In the face of growing criticism earlier this month, Premier Jim Prentice withdrew the contentious Bill 10. The bill would have allowed establishment of GSAs in schools, but would have forced their meetings off school property if local school boards objected to their presence.

Some critics contended that would have given too much power to school boards to prevent the operation of clubs which they say aim at preventing the bullying of students with non-heterosexual orientations.

Penna countered that the parental right to educate their children according to their vision of life is guaranteed by the Universal Charter of Human Rights. In Alberta Catholic schools, that right is exercised by local school boards.

Religious voices are often being marginalized in a secular society that has a non-holistic view of the human person, he said. Catholic schools want their students to develop a holistic understanding of what it means to be human.

Penna referred to meetings in October held among teachers, chaplains and school counsellors as well as himself and Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith on how to best manifest in Catholic schools compassion and sensitivity to students who have same-sex attractions.

Catholic schools are seeking “to create an environment in which all forms of unjust discrimination are seen as repugnant to the call of Christ Jesus to see and love in others what God sees and loves in us.”

Catholic superintendents, meanwhile, are meeting to develop protocols for clubs in schools that reflect the church’s inclusive understanding of the child, he said.

Some students, he said, have transferred into Catholic schools to find a respite from the bullying they have experienced in other schools. For them, the Catholic school is “a safe haven.”

Students, he noted, can experience bullying for a whole host of reasons other than same-sex attraction, including race, body weight and academic achievement. All forms of bullying needed to be combatted.

The government withdrew Bill 10 in early December in order to allow more time for public debate on the issue. It has not said whether the bill will be reintroduced in the legislature.

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