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Nerinx Hall Catholic High School

An exterior view of Nerinx Hall Catholic High School in Webster Groves, photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

The leader of an independent Roman Catholic high school fueled widespread confusion Tuesday after he said the Archdiocese of St. Louis had directed his school to bar students from establishing a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender recognition club, unless the club included conversion therapy.

The archdiocese flatly denies that it requires conversion therapy of any such organization. Nerinx Hall Catholic High School President John Gabriel, who wrote that claim in a letter to an alumna, later said he had used the term in error.

Students at the all-girls school in Webster Groves recently asked school leadership to start a gay-straight alliance club. They did not receive permission to do so.

When alumna Jill Allen heard about this, she questioned Gabriel. In response, he wrote back that the archdiocese — which does not directly operate or provide funds to Nerinx Hall — has requested that no Catholic school allow such a club unless it followed “a carefully charted course of action that includes conversion therapy.”

Conversion therapy is the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity through psychological or other kinds of interventions. It is extremely controversial and has been denounced by human rights groups and medical associations for its idea that homosexuality is a disorder and an expression of moral weakness.

When asked for comment Tuesday, Gabriel sent a reporter a list of Nerinx Hall’s initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, which include training for teachers on ministry to LGBT individuals and diversity forums for students.

Later, he said in an email that he had “made a mistake” when he said the archdiocese required conversion therapy of such clubs.

“We will speak with the Archdiocese about moving forward in our attempts to serve our students,” he said in the email.

In February of last year, the archdiocese published a document called “Hope and Holiness” outlining guidance for ministry to LGBT people.

In one section, the document says that Catholic schools should not establish a LGBT support club without consulting the archdiocese. Archdiocese spokesman Gabe Jones said that meant that a club must conform to the Catholic church’s teachings on homosexuality, which include that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman and that acting upon homosexual inclinations is sinful.

Even though schools such as Nerinx Hall are not operated by the archdiocese, all Catholic institutions must conform to the archdiocese’s rules when anything related to Catholic teaching is involved, Jones said.

“Being the archdiocese, the archbishop has pastoral responsibility for every Catholic in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. And so that applies to everyone who goes to a Catholic church, any parishioner, and these students who attend Catholic schools,” Jones said. “When it comes to Catholic teaching, the archdiocese is the arbiter of what is Catholic and what is not.”

“Hope and Holiness” does not mention whether such LGBT clubs should be formed or not. It says that although these groups can provide emotional support to individuals, there is also a “danger” in such groups’ encouraging the labeling of sexuality and gender identity. It also says that “adolescents are apt to suffer in a particular way from labeling themselves as gay.”

The Catholic Church has said it is inclusive of LGBT people but has been criticized by those people for staunchly opposing same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church has no official position on conversion therapy.

Gabriel said in his letter to Allen that Nerinx Hall still acknowledged Pope Francis’ call for inclusion of LGBT people but that the school could better minister to LGBT students in ways other than a club. He wrote: “Nerinx Hall believes that we can best minister to our LGBT students through our Loretto charism and the Loretto school values of faith, community, justice, and respect.” The school was founded by the Sisters of Loretto in 1924.

Gabriel’s letter has generated a firestorm online among Nerinx Hall alumnae. A Facebook group of more than 600 people has already formed in the past day about the issue. Alumnae say this isn’t the first time students have tried and failed to form a LGBT club at Nerinx Hall.

For 2001 alumna Beth Schumacher, the letter portrayed a different school than the one she attended 16 years ago. She remembered Nerinx Hall as a progressive and “extremely open-minded” school.

“There are a lot of alumnae out there who are really, really disappointed both with the decision and with the direction it might be going in right now,” Schumacher said. “There are young people at risk. If someone is asking for a club of that nature, then there are definitely individuals who can use that level of support.”

Allen, a 2001 graduate, wrote in a statement being circulated among alumnae that she was “deeply saddened” by Gabriel’s letter.

“I feel that this response doesn’t reflect my experience of Nerinx,” she wrote. “I don’t believe denying this student-led initiative is empowering for students or represents Loretto values of promoting justice and equal rights.”

Nerinx Hall currently enrolls 595 students from 72 ZIP codes. The school prides itself on its high college matriculation rates and students’ high college standardized test scores. Tuition is $13,600 a year.

The school says it has three main goals: that every student “know herself and her world,” receive a “loving community of faith” and “deliberate Christian action.”