Kenney calls archdiocese leaders 'cowardly' after teacher firing

Jim Kenney listens to Darryl Clarke speak at a press conference to announce City Council President Darryl Clarke's endorsement of Jim Kenney for mayor in North Philadelphia on Thursday, May 14, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )

Jim Kenney, the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia mayor, is blaming the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the controversial firing of a Catholic school faculty member who is in a same-sex marriage.

Kenney on Thursday urged Waldron Mercy Academy, an elementary school in Merion, to reinstate Margie Winters, the director of religious instruction, who was fired June 22 for being in the marriage.

Winters has said she told the school about her marriage when she was hired in 2007. The couple married in Boston.

The archdiocese has repeatedly denied playing a role in Winters' firing.

"The personnel decision was one made by Waldron, not the archdiocese, and the archdiocese did not influence the decision," spokesman Ken Gavin said when asked for reaction to Kenney's comments.

Kenney, a Catholic who has clashed with the church on LGBT rights issues, said he doesn't buy it.

While saying he had no direct knowledge of the decision, he contended that "cowardly men" in the archdiocese made the call.

"If you're a church official and you feel that strongly that this woman and her partner are such a threat to society, stand up and say so," Kenney said.

About 200 parents of students from the school gathered Wednesday night to talk about Winters' firing, which came after one parent complained to the school and another took the issue to the archdiocese.

"The children she teaches love her. The parents love her also," Kenney said of Winters. "I just hope the pope comes in September and really puts some people in line."

Pope Francis - who in 2013 told reporters, "Who am I to judge" homosexuals - is scheduled to visit Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27 for the church's World Meeting of Families.

Winters' wife, Andrea Vettori, said she had written to Francis asking for a meeting when he comes to Philadelphia.

She said she wants to tell the pope, "Look at our lives. Judge us by what we do, not by who we love."

Winters said she and Vettori would also seek the meeting through local contacts and the pope's representative in Washington.

"We are families in the church, so we think we should have a seat at the table as well," Winters said.

In an e-mail sent Friday to parents, Waldron Mercy's principal, Nell Stetser, explained that the school "is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy," a Catholic religious order. "Along with the Sisters, our school recognizes the authority of the Archbishop of Philadelphia, especially in the teaching of religion, because we call ourselves Catholic."

Stetser said in her e-mail that she fired Winters after consulting with the school's board of trustees and the Sisters of Mercy order.

In both her e-mail and a statement Monday, Stetser stressed that the school's Catholic identity could have been at risk if she had not fired Winters.

Sister Patricia Vetrano, president of the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, said in a statement Thursday that her order had consulted with the archdiocese on the issue.

"At no time during the last few weeks did the archdiocese give any specific instructions to the Sisters of Mercy," the statement said.

Along with Kenney, a prominent parent of Waldron Mercy students is also blaming the archdiocese for Winters' firing.

"I know this came from an archbishop who is absolutely not as progressive as our pope," said Al Perry, who for 28 years has had one or more of his four children enrolled in the K-8 school, where the library is named for his father.

Perry, who served on a committee to increase diversity at the school and who spoke at Wednesday night's meeting, said he believes Winters' firing was the result of the board and the Sisters of Mercy having their "arms twisted" by the archdiocese.

"I think the Catholic Church stood on top of them and said, 'You have an opportunity here to lose your Catholic status,' " said Perry, who said he heard the school leadership was warned that the Sisters of Mercy "would come under a bad light" unless Winters was fired.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who was out of town Thursday, has no plans to comment on Waldron Mercy's "personnel issue," Gavin said.

On Monday, Chaput used his weekly column on an archdiocesan website to decry what he termed an "abuse of judicial power" - the U.S. Supreme Court's June 26 ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

"And the last thing we need from religious - including Catholic - leaders in the face of this profoundly flawed Supreme Court decision is weakness or ambiguity," Chaput wrote.

He followed that with a "special edition" column Wednesday, reprinting a theologian's essay that said "accepting gay marriage would do much more damage" in Catholic schools than divorce.

That special edition appeared the same day as newspaper reports about the Winters controversy at Waldron Mercy. The archdiocese said the second column was not issued in response to the controversy.