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School Dazed

How a few complaints about our little parish school suddenly became a world-wide campaign of lies and calumny.

A GROUP OF disgruntled parents had come into my office to complain about our school principal and his wife, Joan. The principal, they said — a big man with a typical Polish face who was also our head usher — was gruff, stand-offish; you didn’t dare suggest anything to him. He didn’t smile. Everyone was afraid of him and his wife. They treated the kids unfairly. They were ruining the school. They controlled the priests and ran the parish. We were tolerating child abuse, and the state would be informed…

The foregoing scene played out, not in West Chester, Ohio in 2009, but on Long Island, New York, in 1979, when I was just two years a priest. The targets of the parents’ ire were Gerry and Joan Mallon, a lovely couple who ran St. Pius V School for us. They put in countless hours to make our little school work. Joan used to say that we managed to hold it together with spit and chewing gum. Both Joan and Gerry put in hours of volunteer work to help us with administrative tasks and our publishing operation.

And for all their selfless work, the only thanks they got from a certain faction in the parish was jealousy, criticism, rumors and backbiting. No good deed, the joke went, ever goes unpunished.

And so it went throughout my priestly life. Despite all the wonderful benefits that a Catholic education bestows on children, wherever there was a school, there was also always conflict, complaints and trouble, most of it from adults. The principal is too strict or too loose, too gruff or an incompetent glad-hander. There’s too much religion in the curriculum, more science is needed, you don’t teach geo-centrism, daily Mass is unnecessary, languages are a waste of time, the school is full of bullies, my kids never lie, teachers raise their voices at the kids, teachers don’t control their classrooms, the dress code is too strict, there are too many punishments, the bad kids aren’t being punished enough, you don’t expel troublemakers, you should always give a kid a second chance — the litany of contradictory complaints was endless.

In traditional Catholic chapels, since they are small operations, disputes over these issues spill over into parish life in general. Soon everyone — even parishioners without kids — is taking up sides and has a strong opinion on the subject.

As you have no doubt heard, the parish where I now work, St. Gertrude the Great in West Chester, Ohio, has recently been caught up in such a dispute. Because of the Internet, word of it has spread throughout the trad world.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion or wants to take a side about what we’ve been accused of here. Child abuse, financial shenanigans, unjust dismissals, porn-watching teenagers, pampered kitties, heroic whistle-blowers, and maligned priestly champions of “truth and justice” — these are all issues you can weigh and then issue your judgments on, courtesy of the Internet forum of your choice. First-hand knowledge of how our school or parish actually operates is not required; just a rumor, a grudge and high-speed access.

But since I do have first-hand knowledge of how our school operates — there are no paddle-swinging ogres roaming the corridors, and the kids seem plenty happy to me — I thought I would set down my thoughts on the causes and course of this unfortunate controversy.

What got all this started?

Initially, the green-eyed monster of jealousy.

After we moved our parish and school operation to West Chester in 2005, two men, both former seminarians who had serious difficulties holding down steady jobs, had set their sights on becoming principal of St. Gertrude the Great School. One of them taught in the school for several months and was fired in 2007; the other ran a tutoring business.

Each one approached me on at least one occasion to propose that I fire our current principal and hire him. Now, neither man has any organizational skills; indeed, one of them is unstable, and later confided to some students that he was “the prophet of the last days,” not part of the ideal skill set I look for in a principal.

When I rebuffed these offers, both men made themselves into magnets for any and all petty gossip and criticism against our school and our principal. If one of them couldn’t have the principal’s job, well, neither could he.

So, beginning around Christmas 2008, they started cranking out e-mails and web-postings attacking our parish and our school. These included all sorts of wild calumnies, distortions, speculations and denunciations directed against our principal, his family, our students, Bishop Dolan and myself.

And then?

Everything metastasized, Anyone who had a gripe of any description against any of the targets piled on.

Internet forums are ideal breeding grounds for sowing such dissension and wickedness. Postings can be made anonymously or under a pseudonym. Slackers who have nothing better to do can keep the controversies stoked. Lies and distortions stay posted forever, and by merely by repetition, they are eventually assumed to be “true.”

If it’s all really lies and distortions, though, why can’t people see through it?

Traditional Catholics are particularly susceptible to any bad news, because they tend to be pessimists anyway — about the Church, politics, the economy, human nature, etc. So, it’s relatively easy to con them into believing or suspecting the absolute worst.

And if you dress lies and distortions up like some great moral crusade (Stop child abuse! Save the children! Financial shenanigans!), the truth or falsehood of the underlying allegations becomes irrelevant in the fog of righteous indignation.

How many times since this campaign started have I heard otherwise sensible traditional Catholics say “Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

But what they should be saying is, “Where there’s steam, there’s fresh manure.”

Soon, there was a torrent of lies flowing about our parish and school, so many that no one could possibly correct them all, even if he had the inclination to do so.

And that’s the “beauty” of how calumny works, and why it appeals. In Barber of Seville, a 19th-century comic opera, one character sings a satirical aria praising calumny, because what you start as a tiny breeze ends up “a mighty cannon roaring,” and your target (“reviled, trampled”) finally bursts under his public scourging.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the character is both a tutor and a priest.

One of your former ushers got involved. If all this stuff isn’t true, why would he say what he said?

I had inadvertently gored his ox in 2005, when I wrote an article criticizing a pompous doctor who presumed to pronounce on matters of moral theology. It turned out to be the usher’s son. Ouch! Though I personally apologized to the man for giving offense, it seems he never got over it.

When on Palm Sunday 2009 our school principal (also the head usher) tried to get the usher to ring the bell at the proper time during the procession, said usher took offense. Later in the week, he wrote to tell us he was leaving the parish.

But this wasn’t enough. In July 2009, he produced a nine-page letter denouncing the school (he had no kids in it, and no first-hand knowledge about how it ran), where we located the church, procedures for ushers, koi fish in the grotto pond, my article on his son, my opinion on the Terry Schiavo case, my taste in restaurants, staff management, elaborate liturgical ceremonies, church flowers, my ideas on SSPX, building an “extravagant” rectory (at $127 a square foot?), pastoral trips to Europe, funeral costs and a “kitty spa” (he misunderstood a joke in the church bulletin).

All this sounds petty, and it is. I mention it only to illustrate one sad truth that resurfaces throughout this whole affair. Many people seem to nurse smoldering resentments forever; they simply can’t let go. One perceived offense or even a simple misunderstanding is enough to dredge up everything — everything — you can think of against your target.

So, if I’ve criticized your son four years ago, or if the school principal uses the wrong tone of voice when he asks you to ring the bell, well, you have the automatic right by any means available to portray me as venal and the school principal as a nasty child abuser.

Never forget, never forgive. And if anything bad is said about someone who once crossed you, believe every word and put it on the Internet.

Was this sour outlook common among your parishioners?

Only with a few. But the lies and distortions these folks believed and then endlessly repeated eventually upset other, more charitable souls, who then began to swallow at least some of the lies. They mistook steam for real smoke, and then assumed there was fire.

And remember: anyone who has been in a position of authority in a church for a long time — priest, principal, teacher, choir director — will have inevitably offended someone, no matter how hard he may try not to.

Some offendees keep score. So in a dispute like this, all the old baggage has to be sent up the chute and ride around the conveyor belt for anyone to claim.

But the Gospel, the faith, prayer, and the sacraments are supposed to be the antidote to such bitterness.

I heard that you fired a qualified high school teacher who criticized your school.

Here, unfortunately, the back story descends to the level of soap operas and telenovelas.

Beginning in May, the teacher in question had inserted himself into an internal dispute in the principal’s family, and had taken up the cause of an adult daughter against the rest of the family. This was not a wise move, since (naturally) emotions run high, and it is almost inevitable that a conflict like this will spill over into the workplace.

Nevertheless, I tried to reconcile the parties when school began in September. I treated the teacher to a lunch; he treated me to a denunciation of the principal and various school rules.

I tried to maintain a truce, but by mid-October this became impossible for another reason. Bishop Dolan and I learned that the teacher had been feeding the Prophet of the Last Days derogatory material about the principal and his family. The Prophet would then post the material on the section of a web forum he had dedicated to attacking our church and school. Imagine if your family were being mercilessly pilloried this way.

The teacher admitted these contacts to Bishop Dolan, and made no apologies — the school was paying this guy’s salary, remember. That night, another derogatory nugget that could only have come from this teacher popped up on the Prophet’s web-site. We immediately fired him by e-mail.

This wasn’t easy for us. Bishop Dolan and I had known this man since 1978, when he entered SSPX. He was on the same side with us in many theological and liturgical wars, and we considered him a good friend.

But imagine what he did being tolerated where you work: interfering in a dispute involving your supervisor’s family, and then feeding someone information to attack your employer on the Internet. We had no choice.

A young priest at St. Gertrude’s who taught in your school, Father Markus Ramolla, got involved in the controversy. What is his background and what were his duties?

Markus Ramolla, a German, was trained at our seminary, Most Holy Trinity, which is now located in Florida. Bishop Sanborn is the Rector, and I am one of the professors. St. Gertrude parishioners provide regular financial support for the seminary, and many have contributed very generously to the seminary building fund.

In 2007, during his final year of seminary studies, Father Ramolla was ordained by Bishop Dolan here at St. Gertrude’s.

On March 8, 2007, prior to his ordination to the subdiaconate, Fr. Ramolla signed a promise that, upon ordination to the priesthood, he would “assist and obey” Bishop Dolan or his designated successor, according to norms laid down for an Assistant Pastor in the Code of Canon Law and the 1954 Cincinnati Archdiocesan Statutes.

The latter (§§ 39–40) state that the is assistant “is subject to the pastor in all matters of the ministry of the parish,” that he “shall keep the pastor informed of all things in connection with his duties,” and that “he shall not initiate anything new without the consent of the pastor, and shall not interfere in any matter which the pastor has reserved to himself.”

The rationale behind such legislation was that a newly-ordained priest should serve a fairly lengthy period of “apprenticeship” during which his pastoral ministry would be supervised by a more experienced priest who was a Pastor.

In September 2008 Father Ramolla began his pastoral ministry as an Assistant. He taught religion and German in the school, supervised sacristy work, and took care of St. Clare’s Church, our mission in Columbus.

These duties he performed zealously and competently. He was personable, friendly and a good preacher. Bishop Dolan looked upon him as an eventual successor as Pastor here.

We had enough confidence in Father Ramolla to announce on September 23 that he would become school principal once the Second Quarter began on November 7. Experience shows that having a priest or a sister in that position in a traditional Catholic school often heads off many of the complaints you inevitably get with a lay principal.

So, Father Ramolla’s appointment seemed like an ideal solution, and it was well received all around.

Great. So what was the problem?

The whole thing immediately blew up in my face.

In October Bishop Dolan went with Father Ramolla on a pastoral visit to Europe. One of the priests expressed surprise that Father Ramolla would be travelling with Bishop Dolan, because during his July vacation, Father Ramolla had been very vocally criticizing our seminary, our parish, our school, Bishop Sanborn, Bishop Dolan and our clergy. Word of this had spread through Europe.

In the meantime, a friend of Father Ramolla informed me of the contact between the soon-to-be-fired teacher and the Prophet of the Last Days. Father Ramolla surely knew of this. Why didn’t he tell us? And what was going on?

At the same time, I noticed that one of our faithful benefactors had not passed along his generous monthly contribution to our school. This occurred after Father Ramolla had taken the man to dinner, supposedly to “reassure” him about the school. The gentleman had never needed “reassurance” before, and always spoke admiringly of our school, its students, its principal and his family. Again, what was really going on?

Other bits of unsettling news about Father Ramolla’s conversations with various laymen started to surface: Complaints about his clerical peers. Statements that he would not recommend our seminary. Encouraging someone to read a web site that calumniated our church and school.

A picture started to form. Instead of being a priestly peacemaker, Father Ramolla was engaging in a stealth campaign to foment unrest about seminary, school, parish, and fellow clergy. Petty complaints were welcomed and then sympathized with. All this was done behind the back and in secret.

This was a long way from the duty of a new Assistant to assist a Pastor and to be subject to him in his ministry. In this case, you’re not only biting the hands that feed you, but also the ones that ordained you. And why? Certainly not over any doctrinal issue. Power? Resentment? Who knows?

One year on the job, and you’re already undermining thirty years’ worth of work. And the man who built it all up from nothing suddenly has to watch his back.

How did this all end?

On Tuesday, November 3, Bishop Dolan and I met with Father Ramolla. Bishop Dolan outlined these problems, expressed his reservations, and laid down the conditions Father would have to fulfill in order to serve as school principal. If the conditions were not agreeable, Bishop Dolan would arrange another assignment for him. Father deferred giving an answer at that point.

The next day, however, another priest informed us that Father Ramolla was leaving St. Gertrude’s. His chalice, an ordination gift from Bishop Dolan, had already disappeared from the safe, a sure sign that a priest is leaving.

On November 5, Bishop Dolan met with Father Ramolla and asked him to leave quietly without doing further harm. He encouraged him to make a retreat in Europe with Father Schoonbroodt, perhaps with a view towards another assignment in Europe.

This advice went unheeded. Father remained somewhere in the area, where he immediately set up a competing chapel, complete with a deceptive web-site with “information about” (=attacks on) St. Gertrude the Great Church. The mask was off.

What about some of the various stories circulated about your school?

When I asked a worried parishioner about specific charges, he referred me to the November 15 and 8 postings on Dr. Thomas Droleskey’s Christ or Chaos.

Here’s what I found: “tragic events,” “scandals,” actions “not tolerated,” “wrongdoing,” “suffering sheep,” “tarnished glories,” “shame,” “minimizing evils,” “mind games,” “problems,” “longstanding patterns of stonewalling,” “abuse of clerical authority,” “misrepresentation of the truth,” “sanctimoniousness,” etc.

No factual allegations, just gas — and I don’t mean the type that powers an RV.

The goofiest charge to surface against our school was the catch-all smear of “child abuse.” This can mean anything. We heard this accusation from parents when I was on Long Island in the 1980s. If a teacher raised her voice at a misbehaving child and the child complained to mom, “child abuse” could be solemnly intoned. It was generally uttered in close proximity to the phrase “My child never lies.”

In fact, the teacher whom we fired in West Chester earlier this year had worked with me on Long Island in those days. He even wrote a little ditty about the accusation:

“Wars and tumults fill the school,
No one there obeys the rule;
Crazy parents on the loose,
Charging us with child abuse.”

You can sing it to the tune of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

We don’t have corporal punishment in our school. Mostly, misbehavior is punished by writing lines. This is rarely necessary, because in general the children are extraordinarily well behaved, a credit not only to the school but to their parents.

In the one case where we administered corporal punishment for a serious offense, this was done in my presence, with parental consent (indeed, encouragement), and with a paddle provided by the parent. My only regret was that the cheap paddle broke on the first whack; I would have recommended one of my father’s favorite weapons, a paint stirrer. It concentrates the mind.

If any of that shocks you, sorry, but you may have unwittingly bought into some liberal theories on child-raising.

As for the rest of the horror stories, if you’re a parishioner who has concerns about our school, please make an appointment with me.

But otherwise, I don’t feel any obligation to answer lies and distortions spread by chat forum slackers and then debated by Internet busybodies.

Are you instituting any changes in your school anyway?

We’re inviting parents to spend one whole school day per quarter in the school. We’ll provide the baby sitting, when necessary.

This way, parents will be able to see first hand the great job our teachers are doing and how the school actually runs. This will give the parents themselves a powerful weapon to debunk many of the lies that have been endlessly recycled.

Our faculty consists of one bishop (an over-qualified middle grades religion instructor, if there ever was one), two priests, four lay teachers, and two sports instructors (fencing and archery). The kids get daily Mass with a sermon, and there are lots of “extras.” We have a lot to offer.

How about some of the other stories spread since the departure of Father Ramolla? That you’ve seized bank accounts, closed a church, expelled parishioners, refused sacraments, etc.

More lies and distortions.

After this problem became public, I phoned the man who handled the money and church maintenance for us at St. Clare’s in Columbus. He had his child hang up on me, didn’t pick up when I called again and then didn’t return my call. Another man in Columbus tried to walk off with some books that were church property.

So, I froze the bank accounts and had the church locks changed. Otherwise, what? Risk someone declaring open season on church assets?

Shutting down the Columbus church? Bishop Dolan appointed Father McGuire, a priest-son of the parish, to be acting Pastor. He will be assisted by Father Larrabee.

We were accused of “refusing the sacraments” to the teacher we fired. Hogwash. We told him to stay off the property, because we don’t want him proselytizing against our school.

We were also accused of expelling parishioners who did not agree with our decision about Father Ramolla. More hogwash, indeed, pure fantasy.

“Excommunicating” the tutor and SGG principal wannabee in early 2009? The man sent out a circular letter suggesting that some students were engaged in “repeated sexual perversion,” a vile and false accusation for which he had no proof whatsoever. Since some of the students had heard of his campaign, I asked him to sign a simple retraction for me to keep on file. He refused. I told him he couldn’t return until he signed.

“Shooting the messenger”? Never. Liars and calumniators? Lock and load…

Any lessons learned? Or any words to parishioners who may have left you over all this?

• Forget and forgive. Don’t hang on to the memory of someone’s past offenses, and then send all the old baggage up the chute whenever you perceive another slight.

• Internet forums can be sewers of gossip, calumnies, distortions and lies. Mortify your sinful curiosity and refuse to read such garbage.

• If you have a problem or a worry about something at church, make an appointment to speak with the Pastor about it. In our own case, Bishop Dolan built St. Gertrude’s up from nothing over thirty years, so he is in the best position to help. It is remarkable what good such face-to-face communication can accomplish.

• Take your worry or complaint to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, too. Often, it will fade into insignificance before the tabernacle.


POSTSCRIPT, June 2015: I am occasionally asked about developments in the controversy after I wrote the foregoing in November, 2009.

In brief, Fr. Ramolla founded another Mass center in the area to draw off parishioners from St. Gertrude the Great. In short order, the group purchased a small school building to use as a chapel. But by late summer 2011, the group had already experienced a number of internal difficulties, and Fr. Ramolla himself had come into conflict with other traditional clergy as well. One of the clergymen Fr. Ramolla had invited to function in the rival chapel, moreover, turned out to be a sexual predator. The situation deteriorated and financial difficulties arose. Fr. Ramolla returned to Europe in Spring 2012 and the chapel building was repossessed in September 2012. 

The most rabid internet critics of SGG eventually turned their fire against Fr. Ramolla, then other traditional Catholic clergy, and finally limited their own religious practice to writing anonymous blog posts.

Fr. Ramolla eventually received episcopal consecration from a married man and former employee of the New Jersey Turnpike authority, and thereafter has spent his time wandering Europe and the U.S., attempting to convince small groups of Catholics that they should avail themselves of his services.

It is not hard to see the hand of divine retribution at work in all these subsequent developments. 

For our part, were very happy to welcome back to St. Gertrude a substantial number of families who had left us in 2009. Our parish has recovered very nicely from the ’09 crisis, our apostolate has greatly expanded, and during the past academic year (2014-2015), St. Gertrude School has had the largest enrollment in its twenty-year history. Deo gratias!