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Black parish school shut out of league

Special Report Writer

On a day in early June, Chris Mallette, the athletic director of St. Sabina’s Academy on Chicago’s south side, spoke to a seventh grade class about the storm of controversy swirling around the school. But there was no storm, no anger, in the class, he said. “There was only hurt and embarrassment that people would think their neighborhood was so bad.”

The storm struck May 31 when the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that the Southside Catholic Conference, a league of 21 archdiocesan grammar schools, predominantly white, had voted to deny admission to St. Sabina, predominantly black, on the grounds that visiting teams and parents would be unsafe in the Sabina neighborhood because of its high crime rate. The vote to bar was 11-9. Concern about safety was the only factor, said the conference treasurer, who worried about what might happen to “a young mother going over to St. Sabina on a Thursday night for a fifth grade girls basketball game in August by herself.”

But Fr. Michael Pfleger, the outspoken pastor of St. Sabina, one of the largest and most active black parishes in the country, saw it differently. He immediately wrote letters to the pastors of the 21 parishes charging that “racism continues to be alive and well both inside society and inside the church. To be denied admission on the sole premise that certain coaches and parishes feared for the safety of their children is illegitimate, ridiculous and insulting. It is very troubling that the conference would insinuate that we would place their children in harm’s way.”

During the next few days archdiocesan officials including Sr. Anita Baird, head of the office for racial justice, and auxiliary Bishop Raymond Goedert, vicar general, said indications of racist motivation in a Catholic athletic league were most alarming.

No one denied that the Auburn-Gresham community in which St. Sabina is located has a demonstrably higher crime rate than white communities to the south. But St. Sabina parishioners have worked to upgrade the area, vigorously opposing gangs and drugs. On the other hand, the Beverly neighborhood and the Oak Lawn suburb, where the conference schools are clustered, are the areas to which whites fled from St. Sabina and nearby parishes in the 1960s as blacks began moving in. Many left harboring grievances.

Leaders of the conference defended their position, saying they had originally offered to admit St. Sabina to the league on condition that it play all its games on the road for five years, so that other teams would not have to enter the community. To which Pfleger responded, “This is not a dog-and-pony show. We’re not putting ourselves on the block to be approved.” The dispute became a staple in the Chicago area press, TV news and radio talk shows, some accusing Pfleger of “playing the race card,” others castigating white parishioners for hiding their racism under safety concerns.

When Cardinal Francis George, who had issued a pastoral letter against racism only six weeks earlier, returned to town following a trip to Poland, he took a conciliatory tone. He said he could not judge anyone’s motives without talking to them and expressed “hope we might find a way to take care of safety concerns.” He then chided Pfleger, who, he said, “should have gone through” the auxiliary bishop for his area when the dispute began instead of speaking out publicly. “That’s the way the church is governed,” he said. “If a priest has a problem he goes to the bishop.”

Pfleger countered that he was within his rights to directly approach his brother priests. At a Sunday Mass, Pfleger told the congregation he had received more than 200 hate-filled e-mails and letters. “It’s just amazing the hate out there,” he said, “and then they say it’s not race.”

The argument cooled a bit when Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hillard intervened, saying, “I guarantee you the kids will be safe and it will be a secure environment” if the league accepts St. Sabina.

Meanwhile, the pastors of the parishes in the conference met privately and announced they would “try to persuade” the 11 athletic directors opposed to St. Sabina to change their minds. “The pastors should provide moral leadership not to force or coerce but tell people to move in the right direction morally,” said Fr. Larry Dowling, pastoral adviser to the conference.

Back at St. Sabina Academy, which has an enrollment of almost 600, Chris Mallette, said the children are still reeling and confused. “They didn’t know people felt that way about them,” he said. “I explained we’re not going to respond to this by being racist ourselves. And we’re not saying any parish or any person is racist. We’re saying the decision [to exclude] was racially motivated and it was wrong.”

Then Mallette, an attorney who resigned a position with the city’s corporation counsel’s office to run the athletic program at St. Sabina, urged the children to hold their heads high. “You have an obligation to be the light of the world,” he said, “and so does any organization that calls itself Catholic.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001