National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 19, 2003

Robert C. Herring
School families rally behind fired principal

Pastor's summary firing of principal shocks, angers parents; arbitration panel reviews case


Editor's Note

Robert C. Herring was reinstated as principal of Nativity Grade School Monday, Dec. 15. He returned to the post on Dec. 17.

His reinstatement followed a five-hour meeting between Herring and Father R. Marc Sherlock, the pastor of Nativity of our Lord Parish.

The story on this page appears in the Dec. 19 print issue of NCR, which went to the printers Dec. 11, just as news from Nativity school began to break.

Read NCR's breaking news coverage of the Nativity school story by following this link: Nativity school gets to keep Bob. Additional coverage will appear in the Dec. 26 print issue of NCR.

Read the NCR editorial about Nativity School at: Showing the way to adult Catholicism.

Robert C. Herring’s 19-year career as principal of Nativity Grade School in Cincinnati ended abruptly with a letter of termination from Nativity’s pastor, Fr. R. Marc Sherlock at 3 p.m. Nov. 24.

Within four hours of Herring’s being escorted off school property, more than 200 Nativity school parents had rallied, demanding that the firing be rescinded. Sherlock refused and Nativity parents spent the Thanksgiving holiday organizing a campaign to get the nationally recognized, award-winning principal reinstated.

Patti Newberry, who has three children in the grade school, described the campaign as “an organic uprising.” Protest signs and picket lines appeared outside the church and school. Parents, students and grade school alumni demonstrated outside the archdiocesan offices. Parents persuaded businesses in the Pleasant Ridge area of Cincinnati to display signs of support for Herring. They held three parish meetings within five days, each meeting drawing between 200 and 300 people.

People were outspoken and confrontational at the outset to capture attention, Newberry told NCR. They formed an ad hoc Leadership Crisis Committee to organize their efforts. They wanted Herring back as principal, and they demanded that Sherlock follow procedures stipulated by the Nativity of Our Lord Parish Personnel Guidelines. This meant that Sherlock had to show just cause for termination and give Herring the right to an appeal and then access to arbitration.

Sherlock, 53, refused to reinstate the principal and insisted he was not bound by the policy guidelines. He also refused to discuss the situation. In a letter sent home with schoolchildren Nov. 24, he gave no reason for the firing. He wrote: “I hope you can understand that it is unethical as well as unprofessional for any of the Nativity staff or myself to speak to you about the details of this situation.”

On Dec. 1, Nativity school reopened after the holiday weekend. The archdiocesan school office had named an assistant superintendent to serve as interim principal. In a public statement, the teachers pledged to keep teaching, but they also made clear they firmly supported Herring and wanted him back.

Thanksgiving week, parent representatives met twice with archdiocesan officials, who reviewed the parish personnel guidelines. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk sent a letter to Nativity that was read at Masses Nov. 29 and 30. He said that the parish had “an appropriate form of due process. Therefore the local due process is in force and must be followed by all parties.”

Vince Frasher, personnel director for the archdiocese, told the archdiocesan newspaper The Catholic Telegraph that the “archdiocese will not interfere in any way, shape or form with this process. We will let it happen at the local level.”

Herring and Sherlock agreed to put the case before a three-member arbitration panel as called for in the parish personnel guidelines. By Dec. 9, the panel had been named and its members were working on establishing a hearing date. The panel must render a decision within one week of the hearing.

Nativity parents told NCR they expect the decision to be made before Christmas.

Unilateral and irrational

Tim Garry, Herring’s lawyer, a Nativity parishioner for 42 years and a Nativity grade school alumnus, told NCR that Sherlock has said that “no criminal acts were alleged or being investigated against Bob Herring.” He also said that contrary to the parish personnel guidelines Herring received no notices or warnings from Sherlock, who has been pastor about three years.

Neither Sherlock nor Herring are speaking to the press, but according to Herring’s lawyer and Nativity parents who have spoken to Sherlock, the only reason the pastor gave for the firing was “philosophical differences.”

Meg Muething, a member of the Leadership Crisis Committee, told NCR that Sherlock made a “unilateral and apparently irrational decision.” She said, “The action was taken without notice or consultation of any parish entity, including the school committee, the pastoral council or the parent teacher association.” In fact, the pastoral council president, Joe Muenchen, and the PTA president, Mike Garry, are serving on the Leadership Crisis Committee.

Newberry said, “This came out of the blue.” She believes Herring is blameless. “Dozens of parishioners have put their integrity on the line for this,” she said. They would not have done this if there had been a hint of impropriety, she said. “That is really where the rage is coming from,” she said.

Sherlock scheduled a “parish listening session” for the night of Dec. 10, but in notes sent home with schoolchildren announcing the meeting he said he would not answer questions, he would only listen to parishioners’ concerns.

Nativity of Our Lady Parish has about 775 families. The K-8th grade school has 388 students. The surrounding neighborhood, Pleasant Ridge, is a diverse urban neighborhood with a mixed socioeconomic demographic. Newberry called it “a healthfully diverse neighborhood with some amount of urban problems … strongly middle class and Catholic.”

Prayer services, rosaries

By the end of the first week of December, things had settled down. Meetings continued, but rallies gave way to prayer services and rosaries as parishioners wait for the outcome of the arbitration panel. Appropriate to the Advent season, “we are a waiting people,” Newberry said. “We’re staying energized and we’re preparing for the next step.”

Muething is thinking about issues beyond Herring’s job. In a meeting with parish representatives, she said, “the archbishop explained that he had no authority in this matter. The pastor is in charge of hiring and firing.”

She said, “When asked if there was a procedure in place for parishioners to voice concern about the capability of a pastor to effectively lead a parish, the archbishop answered, ‘That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know.’ ”

Muething continued, “So the meeting held to ask church leadership to guide supporters through a crisis -- to provide us with the procedures it wanted us to take -- ended with … an admission of there being no process available for parishioners to address legitimate pastoral concerns.”

Herring’s record

Nativity parents gush with praise for Herring, 54. In his nearly 20 years at the school, he has launched 17 international exchange opportunities, including programs in Germany, Mexico, France, Ecuador, India, Australia and New Zealand. In August, he was one of four educators nationwide to receive a Global Educator Award from the National Peace Corps Association.

He initiated residencies for composers, creative writers and an engineer and has arranged visits of professional touring groups to work with students in the performing arts.

He has also served on archdiocesan school accreditation teams and was selected as a speaker to prospective Catholic school administrators four years in a row.

From the outset, Nativity parents have maintained a Web site tracking the progress of their campaign. It includes:

  • Daily reports of happenings complete with photos of events.
  • Schedule of upcoming events.
  • Public statements by all parties.
  • The parish personnel policy.
  • Contact list of the Leadership Crisis Committee.
  • Archive of media coverage of the situation.
  • Copy of the school song and prayer.
  • Documents, position statements and position flyers produced in downloadable files.
  • Affidavit form for use by parishioners and other parties who wish to formalize their statements about the termination of Herring with instructions on how to get the forms notarized.

Dennis Coday is an NCR reporter and writer. His e-mail address is

Questions remain in Texas labor dispute

In a case earlier this year in which a church labor dispute went to mediation, Catholics at Holy Spirit Parish in McAllen, Texas, still wait for normalcy after the upheaval caused by the firing of four unionized parish workers in June. While mediation allowed the workers to return to their jobs in August, the parish still lacks a permanent pastor, and the question of the legitimacy of the union contract remains unresolved.

On June 18, new pastor Fr. Ruben Delgado arrived on his first day at Holy Spirit and fired pastoral associate Anne Cass, sacristan Rosario Vaello, coordinator of family ministry/director of religious education Martha Sanchez, and secretary Edna Cantú (NCR, Aug. 1). All four women are members of the United Farm Workers union under a contract signed by the previous pastor. Delgado resigned within a week, never having said Mass at the parish.

Parishioners rose up to protest the firings, holding separate Communion services for several weeks until the diocese agreed to mediation.

The union and the diocese reached an agreement Aug. 18, fully reinstating the women in their jobs (NCR, Aug. 29). The terms also included the development of a diocesan-wide grievance procedure for terminated workers, to be negotiated by the diocese and the union.

Brownsville Bishop Raymundo Peña met with Holy Spirit parishioners for the first time Oct. 1. He reiterated that the firings had been Delgado’s decision alone.

The central concern of parishioners at the meeting was the need for a pastor. Jesuit Fr. Brian Van Hove has been temporary parish administrator for Holy Spirit since July. Peña said the process for appointment of a new pastor is “in motion,” but declined to give a firm date for an announcement.

At the meeting, parish council vice chair Chuck Stewart noted that contributions have been down since the dispute began. “There’s concern for the financial welfare of the parish,” he said.

Meanwhile, the diocese announced that an employee grievance procedure was one of 45 proposals approved by delegates to the Synod of the Diocese, which began in 2000 and concluded this October.

-- Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2003

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