A Catholic grade school teacher who says she was terminated because she was pregnant and unmarried lost in court because “the evidence in this case never supported any of these claims,” the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said in a statement Thursday.
Throughout the more than three-week-long trial, the diocese maintained that Michelle Bolen’s contract was not renewed at St. Therese School near Parkville because of poor performance, and had nothing to do with her pregnancy.
After deliberating eight hours, on Wednesday night a Jackson County Circuit Court jury ruled in favor of the diocese.
Bolen, a first grade teacher at St. Therese for nearly 14 years, had sued the diocese, as well as the school’s former principal and the priest at the school and parish, where Bolen was a member.
“In the process, we are saddened by the fact that the good names and reputations of the parish pastor, Fr. Joe Cisetti, and retired school principal, Carol Lenz, were dragged through the mud,” the diocese statement said.
“Fr. Cisetti is well known throughout the diocese for his kindness, integrity and personal sensitivity,” Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. said in the statement. “Commitment to the dignity of every human life is a motivating factor in Fr. Cisetti’s entire ministry.”
Bolen’s attorney, E.E. Keenan, said that after the verdict, a juror told him that had he been able to prove that Bolen was discriminated against because she was pregnant, he might have fared better.
But, “Missouri pregnancy law exempts churches,” Keenan told The Star. “We could not sue them for pregnancy discrimination. We were severely limited in what legal claims we were able to present. We could only present a few other limited claims that were supported by the facts but harder to prove.”
“This verdict is not an endorsement of what the diocese did and not a criticism of Michelle, just that there is a huge gap in Missouri law as it pertains to workers in religious-based schools in Missouri.”
The case hinged, in large part, on whether by not renewing the teacher’s contract the diocese violated the 1986 Missouri Abortion Act, which protects women from being fired for refusing to have an abortion.
Attorneys said that as far as any of them knew this was the first time the law had been litigated.
According to her lawsuit, when Bolen found out she was pregnant, she went with her fiance at the time to meet with Cisetti. 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, filed three years ago, 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.”
During the trial, Bolen testified that Cisetti told her that had she terminated her pregnancy, the school would not have to deal with the “scandal” of a pregnant, unmarried teacher. Soon after, her contract was not renewed.
Attorneys for the diocese argued in court that, contrary to Bolen’s claims, the school and parish kept her in employment through the end of her contract despite performance issues.
Cisetti testified that her pregnancy was a reason to continue her employment.
“I was trying to encourage Michelle and her fiance because they did not take the easy way out by having an abortion,” Cisetti said. “I met with them and unfortunately, sometimes words can be taken out of context. At the end of the meeting, we prayed together.”
He also testified that he was concerned that terminating Bolen’s contract during her pregnancy might send the wrong message. “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.
Joseph Hatley, the attorney who represented the diocese during the trial, argued that the diocese had not violated the Missouri Abortion Act. He said Bolen never had to refuse to have an abortion because she was never asked to terminate her pregnancy.
Witnesses testified that Bolen had been tardy to class several times and had left her students alone for a couple of minutes after asking another teacher a few doors down to keep watch. Others testified that Bolen had been warned more than once about not adhering to the school dress code.
Bolen had received positive performance reports every year she’d worked there until after she told Cisetti about her pregnancy. And while the school subsequently put Bolen on a performance review plan, poor performance was not listed among the reasons in the letter notifying her the contract would not be renewed.
She was let go just days after reporting that her older, school-age child and a classmate felt uncomfortable when a teacher massaged their shoulders. Her contract officially ended on July 31, 2015.
On Tuesday, before closing arguments came from both sides, Bolen’s attorneys grabbed her hands, formed a circle and prayed.
“For justice and righteousness,” Keenan whispered as the group stood in the middle of the courtroom.
After the verdict was announced Wednesday night, Keenan would not say whether his client intended to appeal the ruling. “We are evaluating our next step.”