Former KC Catholic school teacher says she was fired for being pregnant and unmarried

Michelle Bolen, a former teacher at St. Therese Catholic elementary school, is suing the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the school’s principal, saying she was fired for being pregnant and unmarried.

The suit will go to a jury trial starting Monday, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Charles McKenzie said last week.

The diocese denies the lawsuit’s claims of why Bolen was fired. It attempted to get the case dismissed, arguing that under the First Amendment it had religious liberties. It said that since Bolen was a teacher at a faith-based school and was spreading church doctrine, the diocese could not be sued, regardless of the reasons for her termination.

“The factual claims of the case are completely spurious,” Jack Smith, a spokesman for the diocese, told The Star on Monday. “She was not fired. She worked until the end of her contract. Her contract was not renewed by the school for reasons that have nothing to do with her pregnancy.”

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 12, 2016, claims that when Bolen found out she was pregnant, she went with her fiance at the time to meet with the Rev. Joseph Cisetti, the priest at St. Therese Parish, where she was a member. According to the suit, Cisetti implied that had she “terminated her pregnancy, the school would not have to deal with whispering and the ‘scandal’ of an unmarried teacher being pregnant.”

The suit says that Cisetti told Bolen she had made the “right choice in terms of keeping the baby, but that she had violated the terms of her contract by being pregnant while not being married.” In that same conversation, according to the suit, Cisetti implied that if she had quietly had an abortion, she might have kept her job. The suit says he told Bolen she “could not return to sender,” but if she had, “they would not have been there that day having the discussion about her pregnancy and its repercussions.”

Smith said Bolen’s lawyers twisted the facts of the case to make it appear to be “something nefarious when it was not.”

He said Cisetti “was adamant that she stay in her job through her pregnancy. He is one of the most pastoral and loving leaders we have in our church.”

But in the suit Bolen says that in a later meeting that included then-school principal Carol Lenz, Cisetti cautioned her “not to say anything about her pregnancy, and to wear loose clothing to conceal it,” because it would be “considered a scandal in the eyes of the church.”

Even though Bolen kept her pregnancy a secret, as she was asked, according to the suit she was told that rumors about her began to circulate among school staff.

The suit says that Bolen was harassed by the school principal and assistant principal and eventually was told by Cisetti that the entire staff of St. Therese — numbering dozens of people — would have to be told about her pregnancy.

An “invasive, humiliating, public letter” was sent to the staff announcing that Bolen was pregnant, the suit says.

The letter referred to Bolen’s pregnancy as “less than ideal,” and informed the staff that Bolen was not married to the father of her child.

Bolen had worked at St. Therese, 7207 NW Highway 9, in Kansas City, North, from August 2000 to July 2015. She started out as an assistant director in the school’s Early Childhood Center, and at the time she was fired she was a first-grade teacher.

According to the lawsuit, Bolen’s performance in the classroom was “positive and she consistently had her contracts renewed by the Diocese until late 2014.”

After her pregnancy became public, Bolen reported that another teacher in the school “had bullied a student,” making Bolen’s older son, who was in that teacher’s classroom “uncomfortable.” Weeks later, the diocese told her that her contract would not be renewed, the suit says. Her contract officially ended on July 31, 2015.

The suit says that Bolen is not the only teacher to be fired by the diocese for being pregnant while not married. “Even if the Diocese does not actually intend to encourage abortions, its policy and practice of disciplining and terminating unwed mothers has the effect of punishing women who carry their children to term instead of participating in abortion.

“This policy and/or practice affected Ms. Bolen, resulting in her shunning and ultimate termination from employment.”

Bolen, who now works at another school in the Kansas City area, is seeking monetary compensation to be determined by a jury.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.