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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Catholic school governors tie themselves in knots to explain McClain absence

NASA astronaut and Gonzaga Prep grad Anne McClain prepares to speak to G-Prep students at an assemble in the school gym, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Spokane, Wash.Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
NASA astronaut and Gonzaga Prep grad Anne McClain prepares to speak to G-Prep students at an assemble in the school gym, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Spokane, Wash.Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The three priests who govern Cataldo Catholic School – including the No. 2 official at the Spokane Diocese – issued a statement insisting that they had not blocked a student field trip to see Cataldo alumnus and astronaut Anne McClain because she is a lesbian.

No, they said: The school’s Board of Governors blocked the field trip because McClain had been married in a civil ceremony. Meaning, apparently, she didn’t have a church wedding.

Her sexual orientation, the priests said, had nothing to do with it.

Their statement read, in part, “recent local and national news reports surrounding certain events in Ms. McClain’s life have been made widely public including her civil marriage which is not in accord with Catholic Church teaching on the nature of marriage. … It is important to note that, contrary to media reports, this decision was not made based on Ms. McClain’s sexual orientation.”

You read that right. Clergy members of a church that does not recognize marriage between gay couples announced that they kept school kids away from an astronaut’s first local presentation since her return to earth not because she is a lesbian but because her now-ended marriage to another woman was not a church marriage.

Talk about your circular arguments.

That one’s a cyclone.

McClain is a true daughter of Spokane, a remarkable example of accomplishment for the community’s young people. And she’s not done: She’s now a contender to become the first woman on the moon, as one of a dozen women under consideration to participate in NASA’s Artemis program to return to the moon by 2024.

She grew up and attended schools here – including Cataldo, Gonzaga Prep, Spokane Community College and Gonzaga University’s ROTC program. She went on to a distinguished career as an Army pilot, flying combat missions in Iraq, and she joined NASA as the youngest astronaut in training. Earlier this year, she spent about six months on the International Space Station, including two space-walks.

And, in case I haven’t emphasized this: She was once a student at Cataldo. The very school that just took a pass on ferrying its students across town to hear her speak – though lots of parents there, as well as at other local Catholic schools, excused their kids from class Thursday and took them to see McClain on their own.

Try to think of other examples of a school saying “no thanks” to the chance to show off their alumnus astronaut for students.

You can’t.

Plenty of people in Spokane understand what a great example McClain offers, thankfully. Gonzaga Prep welcomed her and invited schools from all over town to join them, just as it did earlier this year during a video chat from space.

Cataldo students attended that presentation, by the way. You know, back before the Board of Governors heard about her civil marriage.

McClain’s personal life entered the public sphere when her ex-wife filed a complaint about McClain accessing some of her bank accounts from space. Those news reports were the first time that McClain’s orientation – as well as her civil marriage to a woman in 2014 – became public.

That complaint isn’t resolved, but it looks more like a bitter divorce dispute than a crime, honestly. McClain has cooperated with investigators and insists upon her innocence, saying she was just checking bank accounts in the same way she had done for a long time. She had been involved in raising her ex-wife’s son, and was checking on finances that she had similarly checked on many times before, she said.

The decision to skip the field trip is a sensitive subject among people in and around the school, as well as for other local Catholic schools who did not attend. Cataldo parents were upset that their kids’ school had decided to stay away, and several sources were unequivocal in saying they’d been told it was because of McClain’s “lifestyle.”

Almost all of those people asked to remain anonymous. But one Cataldo parent, Emma Owen, echoed the sentiments of many.

“It’s not about her lifestyle,” Owen said earlier this week. “It’s about her coming from Spokane, being an alumnus of Cataldo, being an alumnus of Prep, and she’s an astronaut. She’s going to speak about her experiences. She’s not going to speak about being gay.”

But was she going to speak about having a civil marriage? That was the question the Board of Governors said they wrestled with.

The Board of Governors is comprised of the Rev. Darrin Connall, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese; the Rev. Kevin Codd of Sacred Heart Parish; and the Rev. Brian Mee of St. Augustine Parish. I began attempting to contact the three men last week. Only Mee returned a call.

“I think school kids should be in the classroom,” he said last week. “To spend half a day going to see some speaker … some parents might like that. Other parents paying tuition might want their children in school.”

When asked if it had anything to do with her sexual orientation, Mee said, “No comment.”

He did not mention civil marriage.

The Board of Governors issued the written statement about the field trip Wednesday. It said that the first reason for staying away was, as Mee had said, a reluctance to cancel classes.

“We have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the class schedule for all our students,” the statement said.

To that, it added the concern about the “mature themes” raised by McClain’s civil marriage.

“Not having been made aware of any parameters to the program in advance, we had concerns these issues could become a matter of discussion during a time of question and answer,” the statement said. “In our opinion, the possibility of introducing elementary school children to such mature themes would not have been prudent.”

That’s gonna be a doozy of a standard to uphold: field trips involving church marriages only.

Maybe if Anne McClain ends up going to the moon and coming back to Spokane to tell us about it, the Board of Governors will consider an exception.

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