Déjà vu: Gay Catholic teacher recalls his firing

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Michael Griffin (right) and his husband, Vincent Giannetto. Griffin was fired from his job after he applied for a marriage license.

Michael Griffin knows what Margie Winters is going through.

He experienced the shock of being fired from a Catholic-school teaching job for wanting to marry his longtime partner, even though administrators knew he was gay.

The aftermath is familiar:

The outpouring of support from parents and students.

The Facebook page dripping with indignation at what is seen as the hypocrisy of the school and the church.

And finally, in Griffin's case, the rebuilding of his career as a Spanish and French teacher, along with his life with his husband, Vincent Giannetto, an elementary school teacher.

For Griffin, who lives in Mount Laurel and now works at a private school in New Jersey, watching a replay of those "dark days" unfold at Waldron Mercy Academy, where Winters was fired when two parents found out she had a wife, was tough, he said.

"When I first saw it, and I feel awful, sort of, saying this, I thought: 'Haven't people learned their lesson working in Catholic schools?' " said Griffin, 37.

In reading about the drama at the private Main Line Catholic academy, he said, he felt as if he was reliving his own ordeal at Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem, where his relationship with Giannetto was well-known. An administrator even attended his civil union in 2008.

"She was at a school where she felt loved, accepted, and people knew her status, and suddenly it's ripped out of her," he said of Winters. "I completely identify with her."

Holy Ghost and Waldron Mercy are independent schools not overseen by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But in an e-mail sent to parents explaining Waldron Mercy's decision, principal Nell Stetser, said that while the school is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order, it "recognizes the authority of the Archbishop of Philadelphia, especially in the teaching of religion, because we call ourselves Catholic."

Griffin was fired on Dec. 6, 2013, by Holy Ghost's president, the Rev. James McCloskey, after Griffin mentioned in an e-mail to his principal that he was applying for a marriage license in New Jersey.

McCloskey said at the time that he had "no choice" but to fire the teacher, since Griffin had violated the terms of his contract, which requires all staff to uphold church teachings.

While the staff and administrators knew he was gay, Griffin said, he never told parents and students. Winters maintains that administrators knew she was married when she was hired and that they told her not to tell parents and students.

The school, Griffin quipped, "outed me."

Rita C. Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, as well as the Philadelphia chapter that represents teachers at archdiocesan schools (which Waldron Mercy is not), said anyone who teaches in a Catholic school agrees to abide by church teachings.

And while there's often a "don't ask, don't tell policy," teachers "shouldn't stick a fork in their eye" by going public with their nuptials, she said.

"Once it became public, I don't know that there was anything else they could have done," she said of the schools.

"If they're going to be considered a Catholic school, they've got to practice what they preach."

The same holds for divorced teachers, she said. If a school finds out a first marriage was not annulled, the teacher can be fired.

While federal laws offer no protection against discrimination because of sexual orientation in private workplaces, almost half the states, including New Jersey but not Pennsylvania, have laws that prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination in both public and private jobs.

"The laws haven't changed in Pennsylvania since I've been fired, and that's sort of sad to me," Griffin said. As for the loud chorus calling for Winters to take legal action, "that's not going to happen," he said.

He said he hired an attorney and "resolved" the matter with Holy Ghost - without explaining what that meant - but felt he had no legal recourse.

"I got through it, and she'll get through it, too," he added.

Now, Griffin can even laugh at some of the more absurd aspects of the ordeal. He recently got put back on Holy Ghost's mailing list and gets requests for donations.

"It doesn't really bother me," he said. "If they're wasting 50 cents, then good. I'm costing them some money every time they send me something."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella