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A Response to a Catholic Teacher and Parent

Here is a comment from a Catholic teacher and parent that was recently posted in response to my blog post on Glen Argan’s editorial in the most recent Western Catholic Reporter.  I am making my response to his comments in a blog post because it may be of interest to other readers:

Comment from Michael Bombak:

Mrs. Grell, your response to Glen Argan has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on this topic as a Catholic teacher, and parent.

I see here a false dichotomy between taking care of children and receiving council from the Archbishop. Pitting the Archbishop- and the Church- against the welfare of students is simply an unclear picture of events and quite a destructive vision at that.
Pope Francis is an excellent witness to call upon. We must accompany all students (staff and parents for that matter) in whatever situation they find themselves in, and this is the calling of the Church. Pope Francis has also said the following about the new gender theory:
“For instance, I wonder, for example, if the so-called gender theory is not also an expression of a frustration and of a resignation, which aims to cancel the sexual difference because it no longer knows how to address it. Yes, we risk taking a step backward. The removal of the difference, in fact, is the problem, not the solution. To resolve their problems of relation, man and woman must instead talk more to one another, listen more to one another, know one another more, love one another more.
-General Audience, April 15, 2015

We must as the Church meet everyone where they are at. We must patiently walk with them side by side. But we must never forget that we are leading them somewhere. Pope Francis is careful that they don’t slip along the way. We should be too.
You are certainly right about the difficulty of being “the servant of two masters,” and it is not a unique experience it you. It is a difficulty shared by all Catholic School teachers in this province. These teachers are anxious for guidance and support. Let’s work at providing them a good witness by serving the right Master- God; in His Holy Church.

My response:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts — especially from the perspective of a Catholic teacher and parent.  Let’s go back to how this whole issue began.  A mother and father visit a professional, accredited psychiatrist and he diagnoses their daughter with gender dysphoria.  The psychiatrist suggests that for the sake of their daughter’s mental health, they allow her to live out her gender identity as a girl in every respect.  The parents bring a letter from the psychiatrist to the school with the psychiatrist’s diagnosis and recommendations.  The school district denies their daughter access to the bathroom with which she identifies.  Their daughter is told to walk down the hallway –accompanied by a couple of her classmates because it is so far away — to a “gender neutral” bathroom because it could be upsetting to the other girls if they see her in their washroom. The first question here is:  why would a Catholic school district dispute the diagnosis and recommendations of an accredited psychiatrist?  When a child is diagnosed with a peanut allergy and needs an epipen we don’t question the doctor’s diagnosis but immediately accommodate this child by ensuring there is an epipen available at the ready everywhere that child goes.

The next question is:  who initially decided that this transgender girl could not use the girls’ bathroom?  I didn’t and neither did 5 other trustees who govern our district.  Prior to May 5, 2015, this decision was made by the chair of our board, the superintendent and the archbishop in private meetings.  When I asked that the trustees have a meeting on this case on May 5, 2015—after the parents had filed a Human Rights Complaint reported in the media–we were given incorrect, inaccurate and misleading information.  We were also informed that the archbishop did not want us to change our stance on the bathroom issue.  Based upon this inaccurate information and wanting to be in communion with the archbishop, the majority of trustees voted to allow the case to be decided by the Human Rights Commission.  I need to make note here that Trustee Marilyn Bergstra, due to illness, was not present at this May 5 meeting when this decision was made.  I know from her support of this child, that she certainly would have voted as I voted: to allow this child to use the bathroom with which she identifies.

You also need to know that our Board established an ad hoc committee to develop a policy for our transgender students and the archbishop chose not to meet with the committee, nor join in a conversation we were having with the psychiatrist.  Instead, he wrote a letter to trustees telling us to stop writing our policy and follow the policy he was developing with Catholic superintendents.  I respect that the archbishop is the ecclesial authority that determines the Catholicity of our district but does he respect our roles as tax payer funded, elected officials who are legislated through the School Act to govern our school district?  In not being willing to meet with us, to collaborate, to share ideas, I feel that it is unfair to say that I am out of communion with the archbishop.  I have not chosen to do this—he has made it impossible by his lack of communication and his lack of respect for my role as legislated in the School Act.

Another question I have been asked of late is:  why are we spending so much time and so many resources on an issue that only affects a very small number of our students?  It seems to a lot of people, that there are more important issues to worry about!  Parents of autistic children and other special needs children are beginning to complain.  I couldn’t agree more!  Who decided to make this bathroom issue the hill to die on to protect church doctrine and our Catholic identity?  Not me–I wasn’t invited to any of the meetings.  And so now, we are spending an enormous amount of time, money and energy developing a gender identity policy to protect these students because our Inclusive Communities Policy wasn’t specific enough.

Now let’s turn to what I have talked about all along in this whole matter:  what is our pastoral response?  In a recent Western Catholic Reporter issue (Sept. 14, 2015 Church Must Respect Persons and Tradition, Pope Says) the Pope is reported as saying that “theology should be for ‘the people we have before us.  Without encountering families and the people of God, theology runs the great risk of becoming an ideology’”.  The article goes on to report that “The Pope said that any attempt to limit or cut off the relationship between ‘received tradition and concrete reality puts the faith of the people of God in danger’. Theology and reflection should not be at odds with pastoral ministry and the lives of real people, he said”.  I have always maintained from the beginning of this controversy that no one is suggesting that church doctrine must change—not even the parents of this child are suggesting this.  What I am suggesting is a pastoral response to people in their situation.  You have spoken of this and you have suggested that “we must never forget that we are leading them somewhere”.  By welcoming our transgender students as they are, I would hope we are leading them to a safe, supportive place where they can thrive. A recent study Being Safe, Being Me by Elizabeth Saewyc (Edmonton Journal, May 7, 2015 Many Trans Youth Harm Themselves, Study Finds) suggests that “Young people who have supportive adults in their lives, whether it’s their parents or members of their communities, were four times less likely to harm themselves…And the minority of transgender youth who said they felt connected at school were much more likely to report good mental health”.  I hope that in accepting these students as they are and supporting them in their school environments they will be less likely to self harm.  According to Saewyk’s study, the stakes are high:  Trans youth, just like other LGBTQ youth, are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their non LGBTQ peers.  Taking a pastoral stance in regards to our transgender students is very important for their safety—it will save lives.  This is enough to convince me that we need to take a pastoral approach rather than an ideological one.

Finally, when we don’t welcome and accept our transgender students as they are, what affect does that have on their families?  How will their parents react?  How will their brothers and sisters react?  If we tell them that our church does not accept gender theory and therefore they must be segregated in various ways while at school, what message does the family take away from this?  In my conversations with not only the Catholic parents of the transgender child who lodged the Human Rights Complaint but many other Catholics, there is a great sense of disappointment and even scandal that our faith which is based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ who reached out to the most marginalized of his day, is choosing to stand by church doctrine over saving the lives of our most vulnerable children.  Some see this “digging in of our heels” in order to ensure our “Catholic identity” as a reason to stop going to church, to renounce their faith, to be disillusioned with Catholic schools and even call for their dissolution.  When we are seen to be following in the footsteps of the Pharisees rather than those of our Lord, we create great scandal.  I fully agree with you that we must “work at providing [teachers] a good witness by serving the right Master – God; in His Holy Church”.  This is exactly what I am trying to do by finding a safe place for our transgender students in our schools.  What I am up against though, are clergy who are choosing to follow the letter of the law over the Spirit of it.  It is not a new problem as we know.  In reading the Gospels we learn that Jesus faced the same struggles with the religious leaders of his day.

Thank you again for taking the time to write and giving me this opportunity to respond.  I believe that it is only in having these conversations that we can better understand one another and resolve how together, we can best serve the common good of all our students.  Thank you for all that you do in teaching our students both through our curriculum and your example, that all our students are cherished by God, made in the image of God and have their dignity as human beings in the fact that they are made by God.  This certainly is the core message of Jesus Christ, not where a transgender child chooses to go to the bathroom.

Setting the Record Straight

Yesterday I sent an email to my supporters (56 to be exact who sent me supportive emails in May).  I wanted to thank them for their support and update them on what was happening in regards to the development of an ECSD transgender policy.  I told them that a very good policy based upon Edmonton Public School Board’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Policy would come forward at the October 13th public board meeting and encouraged them to please register to speak to this policy.  So I sent out a copy of the policy as well as the policy I attempted to bring forward to the Sept. 15th public board meeting.  I wanted my supporters to see that our Board has been working very hard on developing a policy that would protect our transgender students.

I also sent out a copy of the policy that was put together by the Council of Catholic Superintendents of Alberta.  The trustees were sent a letter by the Archbishop telling us that we were to “wait for and follow” the “protocol” being prepared by the superintendents.  I fully assumed that if the Archbishop wanted us to follow this protocol/policy (whatever you want to call it) then it was a public document since there is no way for our Board to adopt a policy on transgender students without it going to a public board meeting for three readings.  As well, when the “protocol” finally did come through on the morning of our raucous public board meeting Sept. 15th, it did not say that it was confidential.  Why would it be confidential if it was being touted by the Archbishop as the policy we were being asked to follow–a policy that needed to go to a public board meeting for three readings?  So I would disagree with Chair Engel who stated that I “leaked” a confidential document– I did nothing of the sort.  In fact, I sent the document to Braeden from Metro News on Sept. 20, 2015 again believing that it was not a confidential document and he did a story on it.  I believe that what is happening here is that some people are embarrassed about the contents of the superintendents’ policy.  Well, this is the policy that is now being suggested is only a guideline for superintendents.  Now that the public sees it, perhaps they need to ask if they really want to see the superintendents use it as a guideline.  I encourage you to contact ECSD trustees and the Minister of Education to express your opinion on this issue.

Regardless, all I was trying to do in my email to supporters, was give them a report on what the Board was doing to support transgender students and line up speakers for the October 13th meeting.  I am fully in favour of the policy we are bringing forward which is based almost completely upon Edmonton Public School Board’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Policy.  The policy will be posted on the Edmonton Catholic website prior to the October 13th.

This policy is not much different from the one our ad hoc committee brought forward on Sept. 15th because it too was based upon EPSB’s policy.  The original policy was deferred at the Sept. 15th meeting because of a lack of consultation with the public.  I beg to differ — we consulted a wide variety of people including a psychiatrist specializing in gender identity issues, a transgender Catholic woman, a parent of a transgender child, parent council chairs, retired teachers, and a representative of Safe and Caring Communities.  We did try to consult with the archbishop but he was unavailable and did not offer any future dates for meeting.

We are now bringing forward another similar policy — without any public consultation as the Board has decided that these consultations will take place after it is brought forward for first and possibly second reading at the October 13th meeting. My question remains:  why could the original policy not have been accepted for first and second reading on September 15th and have further public consultations after, just as we are proposing to do with this new policy?

I also want to set the record straight in regards to whether we were coerced or not to follow the Archbishop’s policy.  We were sent a letter by His Grace asking us to “wait for and follow’ the superintendents’ policy.  That is why there was so much rancor at our Sept. 15th meeting — our board was divided over whether we should follow his policy or our own. After meeting with the Minister of Education we have decided to go forward with a very good policy which I believe will protect our transgender students.  I am looking forward to the October 13th meeting and hope that as many electors as possible can come out to support this good policy.  If you wish to speak to it, you must contact ECSD Board Secretary Klotz no later than Friday, October 9th, 4:00 pm. Call 780-441-6000.

Letter to the Editor: Response to Glen Argan’s Editorial, Western Catholic Reporter, Week of Sept. 28, 2015

Dear Mr. Argan,

I am disappointed that you have written an editorial based upon your viewing of a chaotic ECSD public board meeting without contacting any trustees to ask what led up to such chaos.  I would have hoped that your education and training as a journalist would have included getting all sides to a story.  The events of Tuesday, Sept. 15th didn’t just happen – there are many events that led up to a meeting which you describe as having left you with a bad taste.

I don’t think you really appreciate the catch 22 of being a Catholic school trustee.  First of all we are publicly elected officials paid for by the government by way of tax payers’ dollars.  We are also Catholic officials and so by Canon Law our school districts are only considered Catholic by the local competent ecclesial authority – in ECSD’s case, Archbishop Richard Smith.  We therefore serve 2 masters:  the Archbishop and the taxpayers through the Minister of Education.  My experience these last 2 years on the Board of Trustees has led me to conclude that indeed “no one can serve 2 masters” as Scripture says.  As Catholic trustees, we live an incredible tension trying to serve these 2 masters.  That our meetings are often filled with rancour and bitterness is an indication of the tension we are attempting to deal with to the best of our abilities.

Consider for example our current situation:  we are told by the Archbishop that we must follow his protocol for our transgender students.  The church does not accept the science of gender identity and therefore his protocols do not accommodate transgender students to participate in their school according to the gender with which they identify.  If we choose to ignore the Archbishop’s protocol then there is the concern that our catholic designation will be taken away, our district will be dissolved and we would see the end of Catholic education in Edmonton.  No trustee wants to see that.  If we do follow his protocol however, then we are neglecting our other master—the Minister of Education — who wants to see us protect all our students – especially our most vulnerable.  If we follow the Archbishop and not the Minister then our Board risks being dissolved because we are seen as incapable of producing appropriate policies to protect our students.

The only way through this catch 22 in my opinion, is to have an ecclesial authority who is willing to collaborate with us in creating welcoming, loving and truly Catholic school communities in which all our students can learn, grow and thrive.  It is not against church teaching to welcome transgender students and help them feel at home in their school communities. As Pope Francis said in his 2013 interview with Fr. Spadaro, SJ “We must always consider the person…In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation”.  Our schools accompany students in their situation – some students are gay, some come from divorced and re-married parents, some have Catholic parents who use contraception, some come from single parent families, some live with their gay parent and their partner, some students are not even Catholic—but we accept them as they are and hopefully by the time they graduate they will have a deep sense of God’s love for them and their dignity in the eyes of God.  Hopefully they will take this understanding out into the world to share with others.

I am sorry you believe that in making my comments at the public board meeting that I was not in solidarity with our bishop.  In making my comments to the public on Sept. 15th I was alerting the tax payers of the fact that the Archbishop has chosen not to meet with the Board’s ad hoc policy committee and that he has even gone so far as to tell us to stop writing such a policy and follow his.  I can show you his letter which expresses his wishes very clearly.

The tax payers who pay my wages, need to know that an unelected person is attempting to circumvent democracy and in point of fact, is disrespecting our role as elected officials to write policies for the district we govern.  I’m sorry that you do not like hearing the truth however, those who elected me have a right to know the truth.  Yes, I will write to the Apostolic Nuncio about this issue but getting a response back could take many months.  In the meantime, the Archbishop has put himself in the centre of our Board and caused through his intransigence, deep divisions on our Board.

In the mean time, those who actually hired me—the electors –need to know what constraints all our trustees are under in going forward with a policy to protect our transgender students.  The public has a right to know that there are some trustees who are following their conscience in following the Archbishop and other trustees who are following their conscience by not following the Archbishop.  Yes, I am willing to go against the Archbishop for the sake of the welfare and safety of our vulnerable transgender students.  Their high suicide rates are enough to convince me that I must in good conscience as a Christian and a Catholic, forgo communion with the local ecclesiastical authority.  This time, the Archbishop is wrong and the kids come first.


ECSD Trustee Patricia Grell, Ward 71

Speech for “Don’t Be a Bystander” Candlelight Vigil, Sept. 26, 2015

I believe that the most important way that we can stop bullying in our schools is for adults to be an example to our students of how we care for the most vulnerable of our society.  If students see teachers, principals, administrators, chaplains, trustees and yes, church leaders, supporting our LGBTQ students, our special needs students, our English as a Second Language Learners, our FNMI students, I believe they will grow up to be compassionate adults.

Why did I stand up for a transgender girl’s right to use the washroom she identifies with?  Because I grew up with Christian parents who taught me the true message of the Gospel—that Jesus stood up for and reached out to the marginalized, the outcast, those without power.  I think that my father who was of mixed race, particularly appreciated Jesus’ affiliation with the marginalized. My father grew up in Toronto during the 1930s.  He told me the story how he was asked to leave a public swimming pool because users thought he looked Jewish.  His sister (my aunt) recently told me that one of her cousins would wear makeup to lighten their skin whenever they came to visit.  My father also shared with me his disgust that during World War 2, Canada turned away boat loads of Jewish refugees due to anti Semitism.

These experiences left a deep impression on him and so my brothers and I were raised with the understanding that everyone’s dignity was to be upheld.  I hope that in standing up for the grade 2 transgender student, I am passing along to my 3 children what my Catholic parents passed along to me and that is that we must always stand on the side of the vulnerable.  Our humanity demands it, civilized society expects it and as Catholics, the Gospel impels us.  If we envision a future where everyone’s rights are protected, then we need to teach our children not only by our words but by our example.  Our children are watching us and it will be our actions not so much our words from which they will learn.  If in the face of injustice we remain bystanders they will become bystanders.  Rallies such as this one tonight teach our children the vision we hold of a society where everyone’s dignity is maintained —  no matter what their gender identity and expression, their sexual orientation, their race, colour or creed, etc. We need to go forth from this rally to realize in action our vision of a just and equitable society.

One last thought I want to leave with you comes from Blessed Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered for standing up for the oppressed in his country.  He suggested that “when we hate, we become like that which we hate”.  I know I have had to remind myself of Romero’s words many times in the last few weeks and months.  We need to take the high road, to be an example even to bullies of how we are to treat everyone with dignity.  We need to be strong and firm in showing them a more dignified, more Christ like, more loving way to exist in this world.  Hatred begets hatred, love begets love.  Let us bring love into this world by standing up for what we believe is right and not be a bystander. And let us do this in a manner that provides an example to our children of everyone’s dignity in the eyes of God.

Patricia’s Bible Quote of the Day, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015

I think after the events of last week, it is helpful to hear what the New Testament would say about my motion on transgender policy at our Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015 Board meeting.

In discussing the church’s teaching on gender identity, Catholic clergy often will quote Genesis1:27:  “So God created mankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”. This passage then becomes a means by which the clergy substantiate discrimination against transgender members of our society.

But what does the New Testament say?  Galatians 3:28-29 “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”

So the question of the day that goes with my bible passage of the day is:  why do clergy insist on quoting the Old Testament instead of the New Testament when it refers to transgender issues?

Address to Public Board by Mother of Transgender Child, Sept. 15, 2015

Today I am here for not only my child but all the Transgender children in the Catholic system.

I am not going to stand here and remind you all that on May 19th you publicly promised a policy will be drafted with the help of myself and others educated on this matter; I also won’t to remind you of the profound difficulties  that your decisions or the lack thereof put a little girl and our family through. What I will do is  confirm a very disturbing statement that the chair of this board has stated: “we serve two masters; we exist at the will of the bishop”. You are accountable to all that elected you and mostly importantly the children you promised to have the best interests of. We will hold you accountable for every tear shed, blood spilled, and unsuccessful or successful suicide attempts of the Transgender kids an uneducated policy will impact. I question whether the committee of superintendent’s along with Archbishop Smith and Bishop Henry have consulted with experts in this field or at the very minimum anyone that has personal experience of being transgender. To date their resources have not been identified.  By allowing a policy to be adopted without education on, compassion for, nor understanding of the topic of Transgender, is blasphemy all in its self. This policy isn’t about me, Marni Panis, or even the Catholic faith.  It’s about the children you promised to nurture, guide, and educate which should include cisgender and transgender alike.

Today is not only about the rights, responsibility and obligations of care of all children, its also about accountability of our actions. I hold myself accountable for being naïve enough to believe what this board has told me about having my child’s best interest at heart, when to date, that wasn’t the case. I hold myself accountable for begging on more than one occasion for this board to do what is right, when that too should not have been required.  I hold myself accountable for not making a bigger fuss when this board passed around a utube video where a priest compares being transgender to the equivalent of pretending to be a dog or having anorexia. I have entertained this board for many months now. I have offered support, education, and have been silent on your absurd accusations about my parenting skills.

I would like you to do the same for me. I’m going to ask that you close your eyes and picture a little 7 year old girl being told no you can’t use this washroom. Now picture a teacher following the little girl into a washroom telling her she doesn’t belong, that there’s a bathroom that was made just for you– that’s the one you use. Now the girl is told she needs someone to walk her to the washroom, she can’t go alone. See the little girl curled up crying asking why God would do this to her and asking for her short life to end. Listen to that 7 year old girl as she looks at you and tells you she endured this treatment even though she  was born a female that identifies as female. Take a moment and ask yourself would I have done anything different for this cisgender child or would I have handled this girls situation the same as what recently happened in our system. If your answer is yes then hold yourself accountable and vote on a well-educated policy. If your answer was no then hold yourself accountable for not being honest with yourself.

As a final remark I would like to remind this board and more importantly Bishop Smith and Henry, that religion does not trump human rights. I chose to have my children enrolled in a school system that allowed them to share in my faith. This ordeal has challenged both my children and I about what our faith holds. As noted by Pope Francis, our faith must reflect basic human rights. As such this policy needs to be aligned with human rights rather than archaic religious principles.

As a final remark I would like to remind this board and more importantly Bishop Smith and Henry, that religion does not trump human rights. I chose to have my children enrolled in a school system that allowed them to share in my faith. This ordeal has challenged both my children and I about what our faith holds. As noted by Pope Francis, our faith must reflect basic human rights. As such this policy needs to be aligned with human rights rather than archaic religious principles.

Motion and Speaking Notes on Gender Identity and Expression Regulations

Here are my speaking notes on my motion to have administration develop a series of regulations based upon the following issues:

Confidentiality and privacy

Requirements for ‘Proof’/Identification

Names and Pronouns

Official Records and Communication

Gender Segregated Activities

Athletics, Locker Room and Change Room Access and Accommodation

Extra- Curricular Activities

Restroom Accessibility

Dress Code

Resolving Conflicts

Support Services

Educational opportunities for raising awareness Curricular integration and Access to accurate information

Professional learning, advocacy support, and role models

Student engagement and student leadership

Speaking Notes:

I was intrigued to find a pamphlet The 5 Marks of Catholic School Identity sent home from my son’s Catholic school.  Under Mark 5 it states that “An excellent Catholic school recognizes that each and every stakeholder is responsible for the common good” but the Board of Trustees which runs our district is not mentioned once as a stakeholder in any of the 7 points.  Parents are mentioned, school councils are mentioned, the parish is mentioned, the parish priest is mentioned, the archbishop is mentioned but not one statement on the role of the democratically elected School Board.    I think this pamphlet underlines for me the general impression I have had as a Catholic school trustee over the last 2 years—that trustees do not play a very crucial role in providing for the common good of the students and staff they serve.  And by the number and ways that I have been hindered in trying to do my job as an elected official, I am beginning to wonder why I am here.  We have no protocols on how we are to be introduced at functions so often we go to functions and are not introduced.  We have policies in place that state that we must go through the Superintendent in order to be welcomed to functions at our schools and so we are often not invited.  If we contact a principal directly to ask to attend a school function–even if we cc the superintendent on the request — we are threatened with sanction (this happened to me in my first year as a trustee).  We embark on a promise to provide policy for our transgender students and we are hindered by the possibility that if we don’t follow the Archbishop’s policy, our Catholic designation will be removed. I ask my fellow trustees to show the public why you were elected and are being paid to be here.  Is it to rubber stamp or to lead?  Our ad hoc committee has placed before you tonight a motion to request that our administration develop regulations which would protect and include our transgender students in our schools and to bring back these regulations to public board for our approval. I ask that you vote in favour of this as the duly elected officials that you are.

It is my hope that in doing so you will help protect our transgender students so that they never have to experience what one of our precious students had to experience in our school district last school year. Let us remember Jesus’ example of how he reached out to the marginalized of his day, welcomed them in, entered into a relationship with them, and showed them their dignity in the eyes of God.  And let us also remember the words of Pope Francis:  “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, is not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. (America Magazine: Pope Francis Interview)


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