Scandal's fallout: the new struggle of Catholic schools

The 140 girls at Boston's Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School - most of whom sport trademark pony tails - weren't supposed to be victims of the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal.

But in a way, they are.

Their 85-year old school is one of at least three that the scandal-plagued Archdiocese of Boston will shutter this spring. The imposing brick building in Boston's immigrant-rich Dorchester neighborhood - with its lavender classrooms and stained-glass windows - will likely be sold to a charter school.

The story of MRM's closure is a story about the ripple effects of the abuse scandal - and a convergence of long-term trends affecting Roman Catholic schools nationwide.

In fact, school closings are now a fact of life in American Catholic education, especially in urban neighborhoods. Schools are plagued by shifting demographics and urban flight, competition from charter schools, and fewer priests and nuns filling low-salaried teaching jobs. Now the scandal - and a corresponding drop-off in donations - may be accelerating the trend.

"There's a definite cause and effect here," says Mary Ferrucci, MRM's principal, in her high-ceilinged office next to a bustling hallway. When people are irked by the scandal, she says, their chief means of protest is witholding cash - a response that hurts the schools. The Boston archdiocese raised just $8 million toward its $17 million goal in its most recent fundraising campaign. For now, it's closing three schools, but it may have to close more.

Behind closings, confluence of trends

In the past decade, the number of Catholic schools in the US fell nearly 5 percent, from 8,508 to 8,114. And despite a burgeoning Catholic population, enrollment at church-affiliated schools also declined slightly for the first time in decades - from 2,645,462 students in 1997 to 2,616,330 last year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington.

Chicago's archdiocese closed 16 elementary schools last year. New York's closed three. Philadelphia plans to close four schools this year, and Buffalo, N.Y., will shut down five.

But behind each closing is a confluence of larger trends:

• A decades-long demographic shift toward the suburbs. Most closings are in urban areas, where 45 percent of Catholic schools are concentrated. Suburbs, in contrast, are seeing many new Catholic schools - but not enough to keep pace with the urban closings.

• Rising salaries - and costs. In 1965, 95 percent of Catholic-school staff and teachers belonged to Catholic orders, taking little or no salary. Today, in a huge shift, 96 percent of staff and teachers are laypeople, who need salaries - and boost costs.

• Competition from charter and public schools. To attract students, Catholic schools increasingly must boast computers and extracurriculars aplenty, along with smaller class sizes and other amenities. "A nun in a habit with a blackboard and 60 kids is not a model that works in the 21st century," says Joseph O'Keefe, who studies Catholic education at Boston College.

The challenge of fundraising

Given these trends, funding Catholic schools, especially in poor urban areas, has become much tougher - and requires strong leadership to spearhead support.

"The more credibility the church has," says Fr. O'Keefe, "the more willing people are to give." But with many dioceses plagued by the scandal, such leadership is harder to muster.

That's why a group of MRM alumnae is hoping to raise at least $1 million to start another all-girls school in the area - one that's independent of the archdiocese.

Indeed, that separation would boost the school's financial prospects, says Christine Regan, MRM's fundraiser. As it is now, money given to the school goes into "one giant account" controlled by the archdiocese, she says. "And people aren't willing to give, because they fear it'll be used for the lawsuits or lawyers' fees."

'The teachers expect you to succeed'

Meanwhile, MRM's freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are scrambling to find schools for next year. But in this city neighborhood, there are few alternatives.

One of the closest options is Savio Prep, a coed Catholic school in East Boston. But many MRM girls don't want to go to school with boys.

"We all know that guys take your mind off your studies," says Mayra Hernandez, a big-eyed sophomore with curly brown hair.

Or there's the nearby public school. But few MRM girls like that option. Tiffany Qualls, a tall, confident senior, went to a public elementary school and she says she learned too much - about the world. "I was growing up faster than I should have been in fourth grade," she says. "The thing about MRM is it teaches you values - plus the teachers expect you to succeed."

Indeed, nearly 90 percent of MRM's graduates go to college - an impressive figure given that, according to Mrs. Ferrucci, the incomes of MRM's families range from $15,000 to $23,000.

In the end, Ferrucci is confident all "[her] girls" will find decent schools. But in the long run, one of the biggest impacts of MRM's closing may be on the church itself. "Women tend to be the ones who carry on the faith in the family," she says. "So if a church cuts off its women, it's going to pay a price."

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