Bishop Thomas Olmsted Expels the ADL's Sensitivity Training from Catholic Schools
Inga Poslitur

Bishop Thomas Olmsted Expels the ADL's Sensitivity Training from Catholic Schools

Editor's note: This is Michael Lacey's second freelance article since selling his interest in New Times about a year ago. The names of the students quoted below have been changed.


Athletic fields throughout the Valley are reconfigured as soccer pitches on Saturday mornings in September. It may be fall in New England, but in Phoenix, when kids begin to play soccer, it is still 100 degrees every day. Parents shelter under makeshift tents, but children kick balls beneath an unforgiving sun.


Bishop Thomas Olmsted Expels the ADL's Sensitivity Training from Catholic Schools

The youngest, the 5-year-olds, haven't a clue. All the players on both teams move as one, like schools of fish with baby fat, arrayed in neon uniforms that would look at home on a coral reef.

In the fall, soccer games are the village commons. Collapsible chairs are autumn's furniture, and even Kate Spade couldn't accessorize your canvas seat into a corporate suite.

Parents socialize as equals.

And if none of the parents know yet what offsides is, everyone knows that a goal, like a loose tooth, is money. A score electrifies every parent every bit as much as the kindergartner in shin guards. Yet all that competitive static fizzles at the end of the game when the shorties from both teams whoop their way through the mom/dad tunnel.

Children play as equals.

Everyone is living the American dream.

And yet . . .

"He's black. I won't play on his team."

The speaker, Mary Seao, is a young adult watching on the sidelines as her peewee charges flail at the soccer ball. She is quoting a first-grader in an afterschool program she manages.

Seao works with Athletes in Training, an organization that provides sporting activities when classes are done.

And though she is caught up in Saturday's soccer competition, she still takes time to describe events earlier that month at Madison Rose Lane Elementary School.

VIDEO: Gilbert School Board hears testimony on the ADL program's positive impact in schools

She recounts that students were playing water sports when a little girl in first grade refused to play for a black coach.

"We never had a problem like that before. We didn't know what to do. She straight-up pointed at him. We only have five kids in the group. Everyone heard what she said."

Seao and her black colleague improvised. He took the boys, and she took the girls — including the one who caused a scene.

"She was willing to play as long as he wasn't her personal coach," Seao says.

Little kids continue to puddle up and down the grass moving between the goals. Soccer moms have other conversations that morning. Snacks, not race, is the focus.

Seao says she told the secretary in the front office at Madison Rose Lane about the racially charged comments. The secretary assured her the principal would be informed.

"I never heard back."

She then told her boss at Athletes in Training. But the owner was dealing with a personal tragedy that week and the issue never came up again. The black coach moved back to his old school and was happy to return to familiar territory.

This is not a story about a 6-year-old's perception of race, no matter how vivid the confrontation. Still, such talk from a little kid is so incongruent with what should be a first-grader's more typical concern: SpongeBob SquarePants. But that child merely is a glimpse, nothing more. She is one of many in our schools who hold unsettling thoughts.

There are industrious people, earnest people, who think about post-racial conditions in Arizona. These are people who address a larger concern about students, people who observe children with no need to label: Jews.

These particular Jews are in the Anti-Defamation League, and they know how to respond to a 6-year-old's racial fit. Furthermore, in a program called "World of Difference," they train willing students as ambassadors against hate.

These particular Jews have been evicted from Catholic schools by the regime of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

Who cannot claim that he is 6.

In 2008, students at Seton Catholic High School in Mesa, like students on many campuses, were no strangers to the put-down "That's so gay."

But in March of that year, the all-purpose, homophobic slur morphed. At a basketball game, unpopular calls by the ref generated a low rumble in the bleachers: "JEW-JEW-JEW-JEW!"

The chanting was not an isolated incident.

Students who'd gone through the ADL program at Seton Catholic were appalled at what they heard from their classmates. These kids approached the school administration. Leaders at the school responded swiftly by calling Bill Straus, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of Arizona.

The school opened its library and brought the entire student body, in eight shifts, to meet Straus. He began by telling those assembled: "I'm a Jew, and I'm proud of it."

He was met with snickering.

But he continued. He held up a large picture of Jesus.

"What would this guy say?" asked Straus. "He's first-team 'All-Jew.'"

Toward the end of his chat, Straus asked how many of the students were Irish. A majority of hands shot up.

"Do you know how insulting it was to call someone a Mick at one time?"

Straus mentioned that a Vietnamese chaplain at Seton had wondered out loud to students: "What do you say about me when I'm not in the room?"

Today, Straus will tell you that the sit-down with those kids at Seton was transformative.

He is not talking about himself.

Without Straus, without students who'd been trained by the ADL, the Jew taunt could have passed without remark.

It is always easier to say nothing.

And Catholic schools, like their secular counterparts, do not have a code of self-reporting. Far from it.

Eileen Fisher, the doyenne of the eponymous clothing line for women of a certain gravitas, remarked in a recent New Yorker profile, "I was fairly traumatized by the Catholic schools I went to. I think it is a part of my silence thing, of just always feeling it is safer to say nothing than to figure out what you think and what you want to say. It was always risky to speak at school."

Fisher must be forgiven for thinking that silence is a particularly Catholic burden.

Again and again, public school students who have been through World of Difference training gratefully confess that peer training helped them find their voice, encouraged them to speak up.

Here's how Carmen summarizes her experience: "As a freshman, I was ignorant of so many things. One of these was bigotry. I never, before ADL, realized the amount of bigotry in my home, my school, my extracurricula — in short, I was blind. ADL opened my eyes. Soon, I was really listening to people and evaluating what they said — how 'Jew' and 'nigger' and 'faggot' and 'retard' were all used as insults, and just how devastating that was.

"ADL is a slow progression, but a progression nonetheless. I have achieved removing 'homo' as an insult, from my father's vocabulary. I have achieved little things like this with a few of my friends, as well."

You may question whether a student's finding his voice is a good thing if it encourages kids to go around jacking up their parents. And you would be correct; this can come off as preachy. It is very close to a kind of cloying political correctness.

But, in Arizona, we are never too distant from a reminder of how we got to the point of training children to find strength in their voices.

In August, President Obama came to Phoenix to explain reform of an ailing mortgage industry. Obama chose a high school, Desert Vista, to stage his remarks.

He was met by picketers.

Matthew Whitaker, founding director for the Center for Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University characterized the protesters as "an angry horde . . . openly reminiscent of the Jim Crow South."

Demonstrators hooted at Obama's race by singing, "Bye, bye black sheep." They called the president "47 percent Negro" and a "half-white Muslim."

It was in this Arizona that teenager Lindsay operated. And, for her, race wasn't just the evening news of President Obama visiting the Valley. She dealt with it at home.

"My grandma is very racist," Lindsay observes. "And I have always known she was wrong in the things that she said; I just didn't know why she really was wrong. Since peer training, I have called my aunt [who also attends this school] on racist issues, and I hope she has become more aware because of me."

The song "It's a Small World" works well in Disneyland, where differences do not spark hostility, but the reality is more challenging.

Consider: According to the ADL, in 1997, Greenway High School had five languages, other than English, as the primary language at home in a student body of nearly 1,600. In a mere six years, in 2003, the number of languages, beside English, spoken in the homes of Greenway students had grown to 29.

Over the schools he monitors, Straus records an average of 40 to 50 incidents of school-based bigotry a year.

In the past year, a Jewish teacher had a red swastika painted on her door.

Bill Straus spoke at Seton Catholic in 2008. A year later, in 2009, the Catholic diocese kicked him to the curb.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted terminated the acclaimed national program of decency in Phoenix Catholic high schools because of personal malice.

In puissant posturing with Jewish leaders, the bishop banned the humanitarian training by the Anti-Defamation League from Seton Catholic, as well as from Notre Dame High Preparatory School in Scottsdale. And the cleric canceled plans to open an ADL program at St. Mary's Catholic High School in Phoenix.

Olmsted's action was driven by abortion politics and was entirely unrelated to the teaching program, which aims to instill civility in juvenile savages.

In fall 2009, the ADL decided to honor Marybeth Mueller, superintendent of education for the diocese, for her assistance with the peer-training program .

Invited personally by Straus to break bread at the ADL's annual fundraising banquet, the bishop, instead, drew a red line by confronting the Jewish community with a pastoral message about abortion that Olmsted wrote for an ad in the dinner's program.

Offered a free full-page ad in the dinner program to honor Mueller, Bishop Olmsted fired not a salute to his Catholic colleague but a salvo at any pro-choice believers who might attend the banquet.

Olmsted expressed his gratitude to Mueller for her defense of "the dignity of all human life from conception until natural death."

The ad was, at a minimum, inappropriate.

Does anyone imagine Jews hectoring Catholics about the scientific plausibility of the Virgin Mary's immaculate conception in a program for a Knights of Columbus dinner?

When the ADL's leaders asked that Bishop Olmsted reconsider his provocation, he refused.

The leaders within Arizona's ADL contacted national colleagues who, in turn, talked to other Catholic clerics: Could someone please reason with Olmsted?

Instead of compromise, the bishop retaliated.

Beyond peer training, the local ADL also participates in the national Bearing Witness program, in which participating rabbis and priests explain to selected teachers what it is that Jews believe, coupled with in-depth examination of the Holocaust.

Bishop Olmsted canceled the Catholic teachers' participation in the Bearing Witness effort.

The Phoenix diocese's vicar general, Father Frederick Adamson, sent a letter terminating participation in the Bearing Witness program, charging that the ADL's request "reveals intolerance for us as Catholics and what we believe and teach."

The peer-training program in Catholic schools came to an abrupt end.

It can be assumed that teachers are able to acquaint themselves with the impact of the Holocaust without the assistance of the ADL.

But what about the kids mired in a teenage wasteland?

To grasp what the bishop destroyed, take yourself out to Mesa's Dobson High, a public school.

"I am not a very popular person," volunteers Paula, a sophomore at Dobson. "People tell me they can't be friends with me because 'you're so smart.'

"They think it doesn't hurt. But it does.

"This is said by more-popular people who think it's cool to be dumb," she says.

Paula's concerns are spoken with a sweet frankness and are the sort of anxieties that grip all adolescents.

Popularity is thick in the air at Dobson. It is the season of homecoming. School spirit is throbbing. Today is mustache day, and girls — schoolwide — have attached all manner of hirsute decorations to their clothes. One inventive lady sports mustache socks.

Go Mustangs!

Students soon will choose a homecoming king, queen, and court. And as in almost all high schools, dweebs and geeks need not apply.

"If someone like me ran," suggests Paula, "it wouldn't work out so well. It's an unspoken stereotype."

And yet it is the very notion of stereotypes that has joined all the students sitting with Paula on this particular morning, in this particular classroom.

Almost 40 kids have gathered to be trained under the Anti-Defamation League's tutelage to foster a sense of community by working to eliminate all bias in the broadest sense: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and bullying at any level.

More particularly this group works on hate.

And here is what elevates the program above some prissy lecture by a teacher.

This is a peer-training program. These upperclassmen, with the administration's backing, will spend three class periods with incoming freshman passing along props for civility and raising the bar of expectations.

Here, you little freshmen twerps; here is what's cool. Here's what's acceptable.

We do not hate on others.

Got it?!

(Oh, wait . . . We don't call these newbies "twerps!")

During the session at Dobson, the big bias discussions are on the shelf while the students and their teachers, Melissa Medvin and Chuck Rinaldi, discuss the more practical ramifications of representing.

What happens when you take your newly minted United Nations peacekeeper attitude into, say, a fight that's about to go down.

The instructors walk the kids through a very practical exercise teaching how to evaluate the situation.

Will butting in get your butt stomped?

This is not abstract drama at Dobson.

"Last year, there were a lot of fights," says sophomore Paula. "Gossip spreads like wildfire. The majority of fights were between girls. Most common excuse for fights was over looks. People get angry if someone is copying their sense of style. You read the copying is the sincerest form of flattery. Not here! A lot of people don't like it.

"And there are fights over boys."

The guidelines for the peer trainers ask the students to evaluate.

"Does the situation need an immediate response or can it wait until later? Is there immediate physical harm that needs to be stopped?"

Spring, in her senior year, explains the dilemma: "If you stand up to a bully who wants to fight you, the school says, after 20 blows [perhaps this number is merely her example], then you can defend yourself. I got into a fight with a guy when I was a freshman. I wasn't going to count the blows. It was over something on Facebook. He told someone he was going to kill me."

Instructor Rinaldi adds context: "No one is asking that you not defend yourself."

This idea of intervention? It's as new as it is tricky. But sophomore Becka testifies:

"These two guys, one was on a skateboard." One guy stepped on the board causing the skater to tumble. When he got up, he tackled the guy who caused his lumps.

"The guy kept saying," Becka continues, "it was an 'accident. I didn't know you were going to fall.'

"While they were wrestling, I kept yelling: 'You need to listen to him. He didn't mean to push you.'

"And they stopped."

Okay. Not weapons inspectors in Syria, but a start.

And starts are important. No one in the class suggests that their work is an end. Randy, for example, pointed out that blacks, Mexicans, and whites self-segregate at Dobson, with each group commandeering a specific piece of the campus geography as its turf. This issue is larger still than peer training.

It is useful to grasp that no kid in Kim Klett's classroom at Dobson High is a goody two-shoes. Between classes, Klett's students do not compare the merits of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and U Thant. The students come to this class recognizing a problem yet unsure of a solution.

But the people who structure the program are very conscious of what's in play, even with the littlest of things.

Take a kid who's a bad actor. At one point, the program identified this teen as a "perpetrator." This term now is considered passé. Today, you call this person an "aggressor."

Why chop the garlic this fine?

Well, think about it. If you've labeled the kid a perpetrator, you've already identified him in cop-speak. He is guilty. Makes it more difficult to have a conversation with someone if you've already convicted him.

But call someone an "aggressor," and you've really only labeled the behavior.

In 2006, Yale University evaluated the ADL's World of Difference peer-training program. After studying 500 students in urban, suburban, and rural settings, they concluded the obvious: "Peer training can have an important effect on reducing bias in schools."

On June 25, the Gilbert School Board entertained the idea of eliminating World of Difference training from the district's high schools.

At least two aisles of former students showed up to comment.

The testimonials are touching. One boy described how he'd been consistently bullied as a child. In his life, World of Difference made a world of difference.

Molly Brown remembered her eyes being opened when an exercise asked: "Is it okay having two gay parents?"

Another young man talked emotionally about suicide intervention.

One young lady read a statement from her friend because the school board meeting had dragged on past his curfew. After concluding her friends' remarks, she observed for herself that World of Difference "cultivated an atmosphere of kindness and friendliness . . . it empowers a student to invite the new kid to sit down at the lunch table."

She added that she had two siblings about to enter high school and that she didn't want them there unless "there is an active promotion of respect and tolerance."

Julie Smith, a Gilbert school board member, is openly hostile to the presence of the ADL in district high schools.

She disagrees with the organization's political positions (separation of church and state, gun control).

Speaker after speaker pointed out that World of Difference training has nothing to do with any of these hot-button topics.

"We do not teach liberal opinions," explained one student. "My father, a conservative Baptist farmer and Vietnam vet, supported this. As a human being he, you deserve respect."

After a distracting swerve into a discussion of prayer, the school board's Smith invited a Highland High science teacher, Bruce Crosby, to the microphone.

The discussion returned to the Anti-Defamation League training.

The ADL has, in the past, been paid to run World of Difference in Gilbert. And Smith said she opposed such funds ending up underwriting the organization's political beliefs.

When informed that World of Difference no longer would charge a fee, Smith still was not mollified. She objected to the time taken away from the study of science.

Crosby, the science teacher, pointed out that he initially opposed taking time away from his class, too, but learned that all subjects taught at the school share in the loss of classroom time for one reason or another. For example, he noted that English periods lose students for school photos.

Board member Smith continued to raise objections.

Crosby informed the board that he had changed his mind completely.

"The program is worth having around," said Crosby, who went on to add that it worked because "kids are running it, and adults are not."

Smith then objected to the thought that teachers get paid to sit and watch kids run the classroom.

The biggest disconnect isn't that the school board wants to say prayers while worrying that the ADL shortchanges science.

The biggest disconnect is that Bruce Crosby teaches at Highland High School, home of the Devil Dogs.

Thirteen years ago, this space was occupied by a cover story on a white-supremacist gang of jocks, wrestlers, and football players who terrorized Gilbert ("Bad Dog," June 1, 2000).

The Devil Dogs admitted to brawling several times a week and routinely putting people in the hospital while delivering their trademark barking during the beatdowns.

But these white power fanatics had an even deadlier angle: They worked with Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, the New York hit man with 19 acknowledged murders.

After ratting out fellow mobster John "The Dapper Don" Gotti, the federal government relocated Gravano to Arizona.

Using the white power gangsters as muscle, Gravano set up an Ecstasy distribution ring reportedly peddling pills and earning up to $500,000 a week.

A year later, in 2001, a high-tech firm discovered that it had trouble hiring people into Gilbert because of the coverage surrounding the racist Devil Dogs.

David Thompson, CEO of Spectrum Astro, asked the ADL to help change the culture in Gilbert.

"At the time," recalls the ADL's Straus, "Spectrum Astro was the largest employer in Gilbert, and [it was] trying to hire the world's best brains. And people would not move to a place where white supremacists had a foothold."

The ADL instituted anti-bias education that extended through every Gilbert high school.

Although the session at Dobson High focused upon personal safety and intervention, the peer-training program has bigger fish in the pan.

Most of these students are on a first-name basis with the impact of juvenile homophobia.

LeeAnn was in Dobson High's first freshman class. Now a senior, she has the natural polish of a leader. She wears an Anti-Defamation League button: NO PLACE FOR HATE.

She has witnessed a lot of stereotyping and more than enough hate in her four years at Dobson.

"There is bias here against Mormons, and a lot of bias against Hispanics," LeeAnn says. "Mormons come off to those who don't know them as one-dimensional, prudish, not very accepting. That's the stereotype.

"Mexicans are often viewed as gangsters who like trouble."

As an Asian-American, she says her accomplishments, too often, are not seen as a product of her hard work but as somehow related to her ethnicity.

But the biggest personal impact of bias upon LeeAnn has been gay bashing.

"I play violin. I'm in music a lot. You meet a lot of gay people."

The homophobia at Dobson became personal for her.

"I had a friend who is gay. Another friend of ours called him fat, called him gay. I never saw my gay friend respond. He just took it because he had a crush on the guy attacking him. He kept defending his attacker.

"I was young and didn't know how to handle it. I was a bystander."

In August, Argentinian Pope Francis warned church leaders to stop "obsessing" about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.

Pope Francis admonished Catholics to stop harping upon divisive topics. He urged priests to radiate an open and welcoming humanity toward all.

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," said Pope Francis. "The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Bishop Olmsted, in contrast, has made his name on the abortion issue.

He routinely leads rosaries in front of Planned Parenthood in Phoenix.

When St. Joseph's Hospital performed an emergency abortion to save a mother's life in 2010, he revoked the hospital's Catholic affiliation and excommunicated Sister Mary Margaret McBride, an administrator who sat on the committee that opted for the procedure.

The woman whose life was saved left the hospital and returned home where her children awaited their mother.

The new pope has not abandoned the church's stand upon abortion but rather has said this subject is not the basis for finger-wagging.

Given the pope's dramatic statements in the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, will Bishop Olmsted reconsider his ban of the Anti-Defamation League from Catholic schools?

The question was put to the bishop's public-information officer, Rob DeFrancesco.

He said he would have to ask some questions of church leadership and then he would call back.

He did not call back.


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