Priest says, ‘Pregnancy is not the problem, fornication is’ in fired teacher case

Teacher fired from Kansas City Catholic school sues diocese

A former teacher at St. Therese Catholic elementary school says she was fired because she was pregnant and unmarried.
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A former teacher at St. Therese Catholic elementary school says she was fired because she was pregnant and unmarried.

A Kansas City priest, accused of telling a pregnant, unwed, teacher that if she had quietly had an abortion she might have kept her job at a Catholic elementary school, defended his statements in court Wednesday.

The Rev. Joseph Cisetti took the stand in Jackson County Circuit Court in the second week of a trial that has pitted former St. Therese School teacher Michelle Bolen against the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Cisetti and a former principal.

“I praised her decision not to have an abortion,” Cisetti said.

In her lawsuit, filed three years ago, Bolen claims that she lost her job because she was pregnant and unmarried. It says that when Bolen found out she was pregnant, she went with her fiance at the time to meet with Cisetti, who is the pastor at St. Therese Parish, where she was a member.

Earlier this week, Bolen testified that Cisetti did not congratulate her on the pregnancy, but instead told her that had she terminated her pregnancy, the school would not have to deal with the “scandal” of a pregnant, unmarried teacher.

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 school contract by being pregnant while not being married.”

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.”

On the witness stand Wednesday, Cisetti, speaking in a soft and deliberate tone, explained that he was quoting Pope Francis, who he said scolded priests who refused to baptize the babies of unwed mothers by saying, “Look, she chose life. Look she did not return to sender,“ Cisetti said. “I was saying, look, she did not return to sender. But in no way was this saying that she should have had an abortion.

“It was an affirmation of her choosing life. It was a statement of support for what they did.”

The priest said that when Bolen and her fiance came to him, he was challenged “to navigate waters of dual relationships.” He had to talk to her as a pastor and also as an employer.

He said that Bolen brought up her contract with the school, and he told her she was in violation of it.

E.E. Keenan, the lawyer representing Bolen, said Cisetti had made pro-con lists while deciding whether the teacher’s contract should be renewed. Similarly, the lawyer scribbled lists on a giant pad of paper propped on an easel in front of Cisetti and the jury.

Among the list of reasons to let her go, Keenan wrote: “Violated contract.”

“By being pregnant and not married?” Keenan then asked the priest.

“Pregnancy is not the problem. Fornication is,” Cisetti said. He explained that “sexual relations must take place exclusively in marriage.”

But Cisetti, who in court said that he is a pro-life advocate who has given speeches and written letters to newspapers about the issue, went on to say that as the school’s pastor, he was concerned that dismissing a pregnant, unwed mother might create an environment that would be conducive to abortion.

“There is a possibility that someone else might be in the same situation and think, ‘Oh my God, I am pregnant. I will have to get an abortion if I want to keep my job,’” Cisetti said.

“My intention was to offer her a contract.”

He said the school’s principal at the time, Carol Lenz, and the assistant principal favored not renewing Bolen’s contract. When he told Lenz one Sunday after church that the school could not terminate Bolen, tears “welled up” in Lenz’s eyes. “I think she realized she was going to have to continue working with Miss Bolen. But that is just speculation,” Cisetti said.

Bolen had testified earlier that she believed administrators at St. Therese School closely watched her after she disclosed her pregnancy. The assistant principal documented Bolen’s performance, she testified, so the school could choose not to renew her contract and give reasons other than “being pregnant out of wedlock.”

Joe Hatley, a lawyer representing the diocese, said last week in his opening arguments that a performance improvement plan showed that Bolen’s job was in jeopardy because she had been late getting to her classroom in the mornings before her first-graders, she had trouble following the school dress code, and did not accept constructive criticism well.

“Ms. Bolen was an OK teacher,” Hatley said. “She was not a rock star.” He has argued that the case was not about her pregnancy, and that Bolen filed the suit intent on getting “revenge.”

Includes reporting by The Star’s Luke Nozicka.

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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.