The following is an edited version of a conversation between the Megaphone and President Dr. Robert Bridges on Aug. 20 in his office in Kelly Hall. Words that appear in double quote marks reflect Bridges’ verbatim statements.
Q: How tough was this summer for you?
A: I will put it this way, I have been a Catholic school administrator for 19 years and I have met a lot of people with similar jobs throughout the country. I heard from a lot of these colleagues this summer and all of them basically called the firing “a worst case scenario for a Catholic school administrator.”
There are several tough things administrators have to deal with: disciplinary issues, parents who are passionate about certain things, and other hard decisions, “but this is easily the worst and most difficult situation I’ve been in.”
Q: How has this decision impacted you personally?
A: I have four kids and it’s my most important responsibility as a husband and a father to show my kids the faith and get them to heaven. I believe that is also my role here at school. This message that came out of this whole experience was clear for many people, but also not easy to understand for other people.
For many young people today it may have seemed like a judgmental decision and something contrary to what Jesus would have taught. As a dad, it made the job of helping my kids embrace the faith more challenging, and it was the same thing at school. I feel like a surrogate parent for many of the kids especially since I have some of my own kids here with their friends. I try to bring them all along in the faith, so the decision has made it challenging, but it also has become an opportunity to teach about the faith and learn that some things are hard to understand in our faith, especially in 2019.
Q: How did this decision affect your faith?
A: At Cathedral I believe I am a representative of the faith, but it’s hard because what is so beautiful about the teachings is also maddening at the same time. Many of the teachings are very old and have not changed, which is both a beautiful and frustrating thing.
I wonder about the things people want the Church to change, such as women becoming priests and priests getting married. Other issues come up that people want to talk about, like the abuse scandal and now gay marriage, and people begin to wonder if the Church will change.
Maybe the abuse scandal doesn’t happen if priests can get married or if women can become priests, but I don’t know the answers to those questions. I have started to see churches governed by polls, kind of like what happens in politics, and they switch what they do based on the responses.
It seems like the churches are blowing in the wind when they do that, having no stake in the ground. “I think that’s in a way spineless and the Catholic Church is not spineless, but when you’re not spineless you can also be seen as really uncaring so that’s a conundrum.”
That is where we find ourselves now since the Church doesn’t govern by polls and it can appear they don’t care such as with the gay marriage situation.
Q: Why did you make the decision to fire Mr. Joshua Payne-Elliot?
A: “Ultimately because we are a Catholic school.” I could not be in my position and let us not be Catholic. Catholicism is in the air we breathe and it is in our hearts. If we did not fire him, we would not have been able to be considered Catholic anymore.
There were several other factors that played into the firing, but losing our Catholic identity was the main reason we had to do so.
Q: How do you think this decision has impacted our school?
A: There have been obvious and noticeable effects that have risen from the decision, such as losing a few of our really great teachers and being called a lot of bad names. We have been accused of being bigots and have been called homophobic. I understand why people are calling us these names, but it’s hurtful because we do try and preach the opposite of that here. I think there have been numerous instances where this dilemma has brought people here together, and I’m not saying we all joined into a huge love circle because of the event, but there have been cases where we have come together. The seniors chose “Family” as the Holy Cross core value theme this year, and we didn’t change that because of what happened. “This is definitely a bad time for our school.” It has wounded us and torn us apart a little bit but it has given us an opportunity to come back together and reunite.
Q: Has it been tough to have Family as the Holy Cross theme this year after what happened?
A: When we had several of the students attend the meeting Cathedral held right after Mr. Payne-Elliott was fired, I mentioned the theme of family at the event and there were definitely some visible eye rolls. Our staff also did the same thing when we had a meeting. There were audible chuckles when it was mentioned at the alumni meeting as well. I understand why this is happening, but families go through rough periods. There is only one perfect family, the Holy family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who all families should emulate. I think this an opportunity, though to examine how we can get better through this experience.
Q: How long did it take the decision to fire Mr. Payne-Elliott?
A: We really did try for two years to have it our way because we wanted to be the ones who got decided who gets to work for us. It was ultimately about short window of 11 days after the letter came that we had to make the decision to fire him, but we knew it was coming. The decision was made by the 25 members of board of directors.
Q: Did you ever speak with the Archbishop directly?
A: We met around three or four times over the two-year span. His first week on the job he actually found out about Mr. Payne-Elliott’s marriage. He basically said to us that according to the teachings of the Catholic Church you are not allowed to be involved in a gay marriage.
Q: What message do you think this decision sent to our students?
A: I think it meant a lot of different things to different people. Six weeks ago the message was that the Catholic Church is against gay marriage and that is that. I think the message is now that wherever you go there are going to be rules that you may like and may not like.
Being Catholic is not always easy and sometimes it is hard to accept certain aspects of the faith, but students should know that this is part of God’s design.
Q: How did you feel about the prayer circle that was put on Downtown?
A: I thought that idea was really neat. It shows how sometimes we leave it to the kids when we need to be hopeful and positive. I liked the idea that the kids were trying to do something that really wasn’t driven by hate.
Q: What do we do and how do we go on from here?
A: We have our daily schedules to keep us busy, and we need to go each day this school year and be the best that we can at the great things we do. We need to leave the bad things out like bullying and hate. We need to stand up against hate, especially now since people are watching us to see if we are a school filled with hate. We need to show them that we are guided by God’s commandment to love.
Q: Who is Cathedral and what is our identity?
A: I asked our staff why this had to happen to us, and I said I think it is because Cathedral could handle it. We are not a school just for Catholics and we are leaders in the amount of diversity we have. We embrace others, and we are guided by the truth of Jesus, the easy truths and the difficult ones, the Jesus who loves and accepts, as well as the Jesus who teaches about the narrow gate.