Melinda Henneberger

Was KC Catholic school teacher really fired because she wouldn’t have an abortion?

Michelle Bolen’s lawyers argue that she lost her teaching job at a Kansas City Catholic school, St. Therese, because she refused to get an abortion.

If the jury decides that’s what happened, it will make news the world over.

But it seems a lot more complicated than that, and I would not want to be on that panel.

Bolen’s attorneys say this is the first case they’re aware of based in part on an alleged violation of the 1986 Missouri Abortion Act, which protects women from being fired for refusing to terminate a pregnancy.

On that, if on nothing else, officials at the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph agree with Bolen’s team. “It’s a novel use of the law,” says diocese spokesman Jack Smith. “I don’t think that particular law has ever been enforced, and oddly enough, it’s against the Catholic Church.”

During a break in testimony on Friday, Bolen told me, “I will see this through until the end,” which should be soon, since the case is expected to go to the jury this week. “I’m so proud of myself for persisting, so no one else has to go through this.”

She has testified that in 2015, when she and her then-fiancé went to her pastor (and boss, which is maybe not the best possible combo) to tell him that she was pregnant, Fr. Joseph Cisetti told her she’d done the right thing in keeping her baby. You couldn’t exactly “return to sender,” he noted, which sounds even more glib and awkward unless you know that’s a phrase Pope Francis likes to use. But Cisetti also suggested that had she terminated the pregnancy, St. Therese wouldn’t have to navigate the “scandal” of an unmarried pregnant teacher.

“He’s basically speaking out of both sides of his mouth,” said Bolen’s attorney, E.E. Keenan. Yes, that is what it sounds like, but it also sounds more like a statement of fact than one pressuring her to do what he’d just said would have been the wrong thing. Cisetti testified that he was commending rather than coercing her. But she had indeed violated her contract, the priest said: “Pregnancy is not the problem. Fornication is.”

An unpopular point, but one her contract is clear on: “As a teacher in a Catholic school, I am directly involved in the formation of youth in the name of the Catholic Church. In carrying out these solemn responsibilities as a teacher, I will conduct myself in a manner that does not contradict her doctrinal and moral teachings. I understand, by entering into this contract, that I freely adhere to and shall carry out my responsibilities faithfully in accordance with the requirements of church law.”

There’s more, including mandatory church attendance and faithfulness to Scripture, the Catholic Catechism and canon law. And that no human since Jesus could keep that contract perfectly doesn’t mean it isn’t binding.

Still, Cisetti felt she should not be terminated under the circumstances, and told the school principal that he did not want to do anything that would send the message that pregnancy is punished and abortion rewarded. From a moral or even a PR standpoint, he was right about that, and his first impulse should have been the end of it.

It wasn’t, of course, and there was a disconnect in what he said, Bolen’s attorney Keenan said, “between one thing being preached and another done.”

“I’m sure you haven’t heard about that before with the Catholic Church,” Bolen attorney Sonal Keenan Bhatia told me. As it happens, I have, but that doesn’t mean that’s the case here. And the legality of Bolen’s ouster is a lot less clear than how it looked for St. Therese to turn its back on a woman with a new baby after 15 years.

Faith-based institutions have enormous leeway in hiring and firing, and for good reason, if you think as I do that it would be even worse to have the government telling them what to do. Even if Bolen was terminated for violating her contract — and the diocese says she wasn’t — it’s hard to imagine why they would not have been within their legal rights to do so.

“They don’t have total leeway” though, Keenan says, arguing that Bolen should have been shielded by the anti-abortion law, and also by whistleblower protections because she’d complained about another teacher for making Bolen’s son and another student feel uncomfortable when she rubbed their shoulders in the lunchroom.

The diocese argues that she’s no whistleblower. “It’s not a crime to touch a kid on the shoulder,” said Pat Miller, an attorney for the diocese. “And she didn’t think it was a crime either, because she waited six months to tell anybody about it, and she’s a mandated reporter.”

On Friday, a couple of Bolen’s former teaching colleagues testified unflatteringly about her, and bolstered the case that her contract was not renewed over various performance issues.

She often left her first-grade students unattended, said Emily Keefe, who now teaches second grade at the school and took a video that showed Bolen leaving her classroom for less than two minutes.

“I was fed up, so I recorded it,” she told the court. “I felt like she wasn’t pulling her weight on the team.”

If you were so worried for the safety of her students, Bhatia asked her, why didn’t you bring them to your classroom instead of videotaping Bolen?

Whether Keefe sees Bolen as a subpar teacher because she dislikes her, or dislikes Bolen because she sees her as a subpar teacher even Keefe herself may not know.

It does seem that Bolen’s job was only in jeopardy after that conversation with her priest, who in both her testimony and his own comes off as blunt, insensitive and too frank for his own good.

Bolen doesn’t come off like a “Teacher of the Year” nominee, either, and with teachers so busy reporting one other’s shortcomings, St. Therese doesn’t seem like such a wonderful place to work. If Bolen really chronically wandered the building and let her colleagues shoulder her share of the work, a decent manager would have forced her out years earlier.

Still, the argument that Bolen was let go because she refused to have an abortion doesn’t seem supported by her own testimony. And God knows the church has enough to answer for without any embellishment of its sins.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.