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The tree and the forest

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Last week’s decision by the archdiocese to abruptly close Our Lady of the Presentation school in Brighton caused a shock wave of anger throughout the archdiocese.

Even the most disinterested person was aghast at the sight of crying children standing in the rain across the street from their closed school, or 4-year-olds receiving graduation certificates in Oak Square because access to their school had been denied. The rush by local politicians to accuse the archdiocese of foul play and of re-victimizing children compounded the anger.

Many asked themselves, “How could this be allowed to happen?”

Faced with the growing rumors about the possibility of children being drawn into a protest and occupation, the archdiocese made the difficult decision to close the school to avoid the possibility of children being used as “wedges” in a conflict.

With its past experience of protestors occupying eight churches, the archdiocese apparently took those rumors very seriously. The following day, local residents confirmed for the media that rumors of an occupation had indeed been circulating in the neighborhood.

Still, while the archdiocese made the decision to close the school two days early, primarily to safeguard Presentation School students, the move backfired, and was widely perceived as an attack on those same students. Miscalculating the consequences of a decision, particularly when taken in a crisis situation, is always a risk.

At a joint press conference with members of the Presentation School Foundation June 13, Archbishop O’Malley said he deeply regretted the “unpleasant events of last week” and the pain caused by the untimely closing of the school.

That press conference came after a three-and-a-half hour meeting between representatives of the archdiocese and the foundation.

That meeting was the first step in a new effort at dialogue launched with the assistance of Catholic Charities president Father J. Bryan Hehir.

Asked about the possibility of having avoided the conflict by beginning dialogue earlier, Father Hehir explained that the archdiocese is currently evaluating the future of many properties. He admitted that the extensive effort to reorganize the archdiocese “sometimes leaves things either unsaid or undiscovered.”

That reevaluation of the future of the Presentation School property could bring both sides to an agreement but, at this point, nothing is final. The archbishop has committed to working “in a good faith effort to pursue the goal of a negotiated sale” of the property.

In the larger picture, the process of reconfiguration has created tensions and misunderstandings.

To help ease those tensions and address those misunderstandings, the archbishop delayed many of the scheduled closings and opened new lines of communication with those protesting his decisions. Last October, he appointed an independent group, the Meade-Eisner commission, to review the reconfiguration process.

Based on the committee’s recommendations, the archbishop changed some decisions. He revoked some planned closures and revisited the reconfiguration plan in several areas of the archdiocese. The commission also confirmed a number of decisions made by the archdiocese.

The reversal of the closure of St. Albert the Great Church in Weymouth is a concrete example of the flexibility introduced into the reconfiguration process. Even in the case of Presentation School, its closure was delayed for a year to give parents more time to transition their children to new schools.

As much as a particular action may be criticized as unnecessary, insensitive or simply wrong, the fact is that decisions in reconfiguration are made taking into consideration the needs of the individuals, groups and communities affected. Mechanisms have been put in place to assure, as much as possible, the fairness of those decisions. Of course, not everybody will agree with every decision, but let’s not lose sight of the forest … for one tree.

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