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.

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."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey