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St. John parents stand by principal

June 15, 2005

Michael Miller

Parents are speculating that St. John the Baptist School has not

rehired Sister Mary Vianney, its principal for 31 years, because of

her opposition to a proposal about same-sex couples.

An official said that the diocese had still not made a decision

regarding Vianney's contract for next year. Father Martin Benzoni,

the church's pastor, has authority to make the final ruling; he did

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not return calls.

According to a May 6 memo sent to teachers at the private Catholic

school, same-sex couples may enroll children at St. John on the

condition that they not visit the campus together. A number of

parents, who held a prayer vigil by the school Monday night for the

retention of Vianney, claimed that she had fallen out of favor with

church authorities over the proposal.

While Vianney was not available for comment, parents close to her

said that she objected to the notion of barring individuals from the

campus, and that this dispute was a possible factor in the church not

offering her a contract for next year.

"As parents, we're surmising this is the reason," said Suzi Brown,

the school's parent auxiliary president. "We can't say that it is.

"Sister, when presented with this policy, felt that it was

discriminatory. She personally couldn't enforce it. It's our

understanding that the policy would be enforced by the pastor."

Father Joe Fenton, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of

Orange, said the memo was something the diocese was still reviewing.

He added that he had not heard of Vianney being opposed to the item,

although he had not spoken with her about it.

"The policy was never implemented," Fenton said. "It was always a

draft. It was interpreted by some people as a definite statement for

some reason or another."

The issue of homosexuality has troubled St. John recently. In

December, 18 parents at St. John signed a petition to protest the

school's decision to enroll two kindergarteners who had been adopted

by a male Costa Mesa couple. At the time, Benzoni said he disapproved

of gay marriage, but he defended the boys' right to attend the

school.

The May 6 memo, which was obtained by the Pilot, does not directly

refer to the Costa Mesa couple but proposes to add a passage to St.

John's 2005-06 parent-student handbook barring gay parents from

visiting the campus together.

"The children adopted by a same-sex couple may enroll/will

continue as students at St. John the Baptist School on the condition

that the same-sex couple agree not to present themselves as a couple

at school functions; in other words, they agree not [to] come

together to school functions or events," the memo reads, adding that

the school will educate children while disapproving of the parents'

lifestyles.

Norbertines priests, a conservative Catholic order, took over

administration of St. John the Baptist Church three years ago. All

the church's current priests, including Benzoni, are Norbertine.

Fenton said that while Norbertines are traditional on issues such as

homosexuality and birth control, he knew of no conflicts between

Vianney and the church officials.

Many parents, however, remain apprehensive about the principal's

status. Today, members of a "Save Sister" campaign plan to hold

another prayer vigil at the offices of the Diocese of Orange.

* MICHAEL MILLER covers education and may be reached at (714)

966-4617 or by e-mail at michael.miller@latimes.com.

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