Cross Purposes

The Catholic Church's right turn touches off battles over dogma and diversity at the University of St. Thomas

And as if those factors weren't enough, the rise of blogs did for right-wing Catholic activists what it did for their more established religious-right brethren. E-mails like the one Ashley Sovereign received from a pro-life broadcaster have become increasingly commonplace at religious schools nationwide, St. Thomas faculty members say. Some of the outsiders want to know about staff's past or outside activities. Some want to know whether the faculty's priests are adhering to doctrine.

Raoul Benavides

For a while, Ann Shrooten kept her problems as choir director quiet. She didn't tell the choir about her dilemma before the trip, only that she wouldn't be going because of a family obligation. "I did not want to create a divide within the choir," she told the Aquin months later when the episode went public. "If I had related all the facts of the situation to them, I believe that the tour may have fallen through, and we would have received no refund from the tour agency we were working through."

Students learned the real reason for her absence anyhow. And in July, after the tour was completed and Shrooten's contract with St. Thomas terminated, she sent an e-mail to the choir explaining her decision, according to the Aquin. "Having been placed in the difficult position of choosing between my family and work, I would not, nor could I, dishonor my family by going on this trip without them," she wrote. "Such a decision would have sent a message I am unwilling to send, either to them or to anyone else. It was by far the most difficult, yet the plainest decision I've ever had to make in my life." (Shrooten initially agreed to be interviewed for this article but did not return follow-up phone calls.)

Vice President of Human Relations Edna Comedy told the Aquin that Shrooten should have known that her travel plans were inappropriate. "You have to ask the question, 'What type of institution is this that she's working for?'" Comedy said. "Ann knew that she was working for a Catholic university. Ann knew that she was the director of the liturgical choir. She knew that the tour she and the students were going on was a pilgrimage."

University administrators further contended that the problem in Shrooten's case wasn't that she was a lesbian. It was that she proposed to travel with a romantic partner to whom she was not married. Five days after the Aquin broke the story, human resources questioned the travel plans of two unmarried heterosexual professors.

In October, someone from the International Studies Department approached Leigh Lawton and asked whether he would be willing to take on some administrative duties in association with a "J-term" course his partner, Professor Ellen Kennedy, was teaching in Australia in January. Because Lawton, chair of the Decision Sciences Department, was going anyhow, International Studies would pay his airfare if he agreed.

The afternoon of November 16, Kennedy got a call from an administrator in one of the departments sponsoring the trip. The department head had just gotten back from a meeting with human resources, the caller said, and as a result of what had happened with Shrooten, "we have to ask you a difficult question," Kennedy relates. "I have to ask you what kind of living arrangements you and Leigh are planning for Australia."

Students were to visit the Somali refugee community in Perth to compare their experience with that of Somalis in Minnesota. Kennedy had spent two years planning the course in painstaking consultation with a number of outside groups.

"I have to think about how and whether I will answer that," Kennedy replied, and hung up. She went home and talked to Lawton. The two had traveled with St. Thomas students together in the past, on a 2002 trip to New York and a 2003 semester at sea. No one had said anything either time. They were concerned that they were being targeted to shore up the administration's insistence that its actions in the Shrooten case were not a response to her sexual orientation, but to her unmarried status.

The next day, they met with an administrator. "She said we could both go and stay in different rooms and the school would pay," Lawton says. "Or Ellen could go and I could stay home. But neither of those was acceptable to us."

"Of course, if you rent two rooms there will be no bed checks," Lawton says the administrator countered. "And I said, 'Are you suggesting we do that?' And she said, 'I would neither suggest nor encourage that.'"

Next, the two met with a more senior administrator, who, according to Lawton, repeated the suggestion that they simply rent two rooms and stay in one. "We said we were willing to do that only if [University President] Father [Dennis] Dease would put in writing that he knew we were staying together. And she said she didn't think he would do that." Administrators later denied that this suggestion was made.

The two say they met with administrators nearly every day for two weeks without reaching a compromise. Finally on November 30, a month before the group was to leave, Kennedy and Lawton met with Dease. It was, Kennedy says, "a cordial but difficult conversation." It was also "the first time the idea ever came up that our lifestyle was in conflict with Catholic values."

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