A sign outside St. Joseph's Basilica in Almada says "Masses everyone welcome."
A sign welcoming all to attend masses at St. Joseph Basilica, the church joined to St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda, Calif. July 6, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

In late April, leaders from the Oakland Diocese and St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda met for the first time with parents of current students to discuss possible changes to how East Bay Catholic schools handle issues of gender and sexual orientation. Like the faculty and students who attend St. Joseph’s, the parents hold a variety of beliefs. But many of them value St. Joseph’s reputation as a school where LGBTQ+ people are openly welcomed.

About this series

This is part three of an investigative reporting series on potential policies at local Catholic schools regarding gender identity and expression. 

When church leaders described new, more conservative rules they’ve been considering for how transgender and nonbinary people fit into their schools, many of the parents became upset, according to more than a dozen interviews and an audio recording of the meeting reviewed by The Oaklandside.

“There wasn’t anyone in the room who voiced support for how the Dioceses representatives were talking about applying the guidance. It was all about stigmatizing and denying the experience of the kids instead of supporting, protecting, and celebrating them,” parent Eric Letourneau told The Oaklandside. 

Another parent, who asked not to be named because they’re concerned about their child being bullied, said the perspectives church leaders offered about gender and sexual identity were “shockingly primitive.”

Multiple other parents we interviewed asked not to be named because they similarly fear their child could be exposed to bullying or other retaliation.

During the meeting, a mother told the school’s leaders she sent her two children to St. Joseph’s because she was impressed with how the faculty, students, and the church welcomed all kinds of people. But the presentation by church leaders raised concerns that trans kids would not be accepted anymore. She called it “disrespectful” for the school to not recognize kids for who they are.

According to parents, the back-and-forth with church leaders made it clear that while the new “guidance” on gender and sexual orientation wasn’t yet final, the Diocese was leaning in a more repressive direction. Mario Rizzo, St. Joseph’s head priest, avoided answering a question about whether or not trans and nonbinary kids could be expelled, parents said. Instead, Andrew Currier, the Oakland Catholic Diocese’s superintendent, asked parents upset about the potential changes to reconsider whether Catholic education is “the right form of education for your family.”

When asked whether students could use gender-neutral pronouns, or if faculty who are transgender or nonbinary could keep their jobs, Currier told the parents the church is still considering the answers to those questions.

“More clarity is coming on what’s deemed moral or immoral,” Currier said at the meeting, per the recording. 

These tense conversations reveal a long-standing rift within the East Bay’s Catholic community: While many parishioners and parents who send their kids to Catholic schools consider themselves progressive on social issues, the region’s church leaders are much more conservative. 

As anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns have escalated in other parts of the country, the Oakland Catholic Diocese has quietly endorsed a similar push within its institutions. Students, parents, and faculty told us they fear these changes, if finalized, will set their schools back, undoing what had been a relatively tolerant Catholic school environment.

Catholic leaders in the Bay Area are often more conservative than their flocks

The Cathedral of Christ the Light illuminated at night. A tall white cross rises into the black night sky.
The Cathedral of Christ the Light, next to the headquarters of the Diocese of Oakland in downtown Oakland, Calif. on June 22, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Salvatore Cordileone is the Archbishop of San Francisco and leader of the church in the “metropolitan see,” an area that includes major Northern California cities like Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Stockton, and the state of Hawaii. He has long sparred with more progressive Catholics over issues of sexuality, marriage, and gender. 

In 2015, Cordileone wrote a memo to faculty at Bay Area Catholic schools that called homosexuality and same-sex marriage “gravely evil.” He condemned the Obama administration’s executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And last year, he barred former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from taking communion because she supports abortion rights.

​Michael C. Barber, the bishop who has led the Oakland Diocese since 2014, has shown similar conservative leanings. Ten years ago, Barber sought to force faculty at local Catholic schools to sign a contract that included a morality clause that extended into teachers’ personal lives. The contract said that teachers were “expected to model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and morals.” Teachers feared this would mean they could be fired for having children outside of marriage or for supporting LGBTQ+ people.

Barber also angered congregation members in Berkeley when he fired two college priests in 2014. Barber abruptly ousted Father Bernard Campbell, then the pastor at Newman Hall, the progressive church at UC Berkeley, and Father Bill Edens, an openly gay minister there, according to the East Bay Express. Campbell said at the time that Barber gave no reason for his decision. 

Matt Werner, a church member at Newman Hall and former student at Bishop O’Dowd who is familiar with the inner working of the church, told The Oaklandside he thinks Cordileone has leaned on Barber to develop conservative gender guidance because the former has an “anti-gay agenda.”

“Their concept of natural law, with no space for something beyond the binary, is transphobia,” Werner said. “Asking them to run a complex organization with gray areas and nuance is asking for disaster. Forget trans—they’re still not comfortable with gay issues.”

Werner wasn’t surprised there have been only a few conversations with faculty and parents at Catholic schools around the coming guidance. He said Cordileone and Barber are used to making decrees unilaterally, even if the pope has instructed clergy to listen more to members of the public. 

Rizzo is only three years into his tenure as St. Joseph’s head priest. But school staff say they have noticed a change. During the past year, a faculty member told The Oaklandside, Rizzo asked staff to remove an LGBTQ+ flag hung in a campus room, which he could see from his office across the quad. Faculty members protested and refused to bring it down. 

Parents of LGBTQ+ students at St. Joe’s told The Oaklandside that they see the potential guidance as hypocritical and a distraction from a real crisis of morality that’s damaged the church and its members: sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by priests over many decades.

In 2020, for example, St. Joseph’s priest George Alengadan was investigated for sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior with adult staff members. Barber moved him to Pleasant Hill’s Christ the King Church for a stint as a non–public-facing clergy member. Parishioners in Pleasant Hill felt “betrayed” to find Alengadan was acting as a regular priest, even hearing confessions from children.  

At the April meeting between parents and church leaders, a grandmother of a St. Joseph’s student, Mary Simon, told the priests that they did not have the moral high ground to make decisions about people’s gender and sexuality because of the Catholic church’s failure for decades to stop the abuse of thousands of children by priests all over the world.

“This is a room of parents whose life is about raising healthy children and protecting them, and I think the church should take a few decades before they think they can speak to these kinds of issues about protecting children,” Simon said at the meeting.

The Oakland Diocese recently sought bankruptcy protection due to hundreds of lawsuits filed by survivors of sexual abuse against priests and other church leaders in the East Bay. 

Cordileone and Barber did not respond to an interview request for this story. Rizzo did not respond after initial outreach through St. Joseph’s communications department. 

In an interview, Currier said the Diocese of Oakland had no final guidance yet it could share and that it was still in the process of having conversations with stakeholders. He recommended we review some of the church papers about gender and sexuality that he and others were reviewing to develop new rules.

Church leaders defend traditional views about gender and sexual orientation

St. Joseph
The quad at St. Joseph’s Notre Dame High School in Alameda, Calif. on July 6, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oaklandside learned about the April meeting at St. Joseph’s and asked school officials if we could attend to report on the discussion. Neither the principal nor the school’s communications director replied to our request. 

But parents who attended the meeting described it to us in detail, and they also provided us access to a recording of the meeting, which we reviewed for this report. In addition to Currier and St. Joseph’s head priest Rizzo, the meeting was attended by the school’s then-principal, Julie Guevara, and Dominican Friar Justin Gable.

Rizzo started the meeting with a prayer and explained the church’s central message of love. “Everybody who comes in here is loved. And then we, as educators in the Catholic Church, will share our vision. That may be difficult, but it is a vision of love for each and every one of us.” 

Currier then summarized the Diocese’s timeline for issuing new guidance. He said that in 2021, around the time in-person classes were resuming, parents and students started asking him questions about what their school’s rules were around gender and sexual orientation. In response, Barber, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Catholic Education, advised Currier to engage our schools and our communities about what’s going on.

Currier said East Bay Catholic school leaders were noticing “a high instance of gender transitioning accommodation requests from seventh-grade girls.” At one point, he referred to a  report that found roughly 10% of students surveyed in a single Northeast school district identified as transgender or nonbinary. (While estimates for the number of trans youth living in the U.S. vary, broader studies put the figure at 5% or less.)  

According to Currier, the Oakland Diocese had been in a “listening phase” for more than six months, getting input from transgender people, psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians. He told the parents that the meeting they were having was the beginning of a dialogue and that later on, in May or June, church leaders would officially offer their new guidance.

“That was not a dialogue,” one parent said in an interview conducted outside the school just after the meeting happened. “And no one from the church was listening. What they said was evil and deeply offensive.” 

Currier said at that parents’ meeting that it took this long to talk to parents because they were in a listening phase with staff at the 40-plus schools the Oakland Diocese helps oversee. The superintendent also said some East Bay schools do not want to have fact-finding meetings with parents about gender issues.

In response to some questions, Currier told the parents that the church is trying to help students who might be questioning their gender or sexuality by getting counselors to see what was “going on deep within” them. 

“Some people call it ‘watchful waiting.’ Let’s watch with [students] and explore their whole life in that context of a trusted counselor and friend so that it’s not just [diving] into something that could potentially be harmful and hurtful,” Currier said.

Then he referenced a book called “Male, Female, Other? A Guide to Understanding Gender” by a Catholic author named Jason Evert, who describes himself as a “chastity speaker.” The book expresses skepticism about trans identity and suggests gender-affirming care, which has been endorsed as medically necessary by major medical organizations, is dangerous. 

Asked by parents whether this meant that St Joseph’s would encourage conversion therapy, leaders from the diocese said they would not. Conversion therapy, a form of treatment that tries to get LGBTQ+ people to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, is widely discredited, and has been banned for minors in California.

Rizzo, according to parents who attended the meeting, had intimated in previous communications with the school community that LGBTQ+ flags might be banned from campuses, but he backed down from this position when questioned about it that night. 

Gable, who was ordained in 2014 and works out of the Dominican Friars’ Western headquarters in Oakland’s Rockridge district, also spoke at the meeting. He told the parents that the facts of gender and sexuality are “often controverted,” and that “the experts contradict one another.” But he acknowledged that the church’s guidance on issues of gender and sex is different from “standard wisdom and best practice” in other communities.

Parents are concerned the Catholic church will lose more than it gains by imposing repressive rules

A gleaming cathedral made up entirely of steel and glass rises above a cement wall with a neat metal lettered sign that reads "The Cathedral of Christ the Light," and "Diocese of Oakland."
The Oakland Diocese is headquartered in downtown Oakland next to the Cathedral of Christ the Light. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the second half of the meeting, parents urged Currier and the other school leaders not to pursue any new guidance on gender and sexuality. 

“Jesus was not a bigot. Jesus was compassionate and welcomed people of all types,” one woman said to wide applause during the meeting. “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” she added. “This feels like we are dancing on the edge of persecution.” 

One parent told us they removed their student two weeks ago from the school for multiple reasons, but said the meeting with Diocese officials “was so egregious and offensive and at odds with our family values.” 

Another parent, who asked to remain anonymous due to worries about online hate, told us their nonbinary child who attends St. Joseph’s still identifies as a Catholic. This parent said they felt Catholic LGBTQ+ children at St. Joe’s were being “targeted in reaction to national political hysteria over transgender kids.” 

“We are a Catholic family, and my teenager has a strong foundation in Catholic teachings and continues to celebrate weekly mass with us,” the parent said. “In fact, it is mainly my child’s faith and education in Alameda’s stellar Catholic schools that makes me confident they have all the tools they need to successfully navigate this time of self-exploration, with introspection and critical-thinking skills, in a community of grace and mutual respect. I wish the Diocese had the same faith in their product that I do.”

Parents who are keeping their kids at St. Joseph’s are holding out hope that the school will create a way for LGBTQ+ students to feel supported by the staff—even if the Oakland Diocese chooses to issue rules that restrict how trans and nonbinary people can participate in school life. 

One parent told us the school’s diversity and inclusion counselor, Natalya Wade, reached out to a group of parents to let them know she would be creating a “Parent Equity and Justice Coalition” for the fall semester which “should help parents have structure for our participation in these decisions.” This same parent told The Oaklandside that Wade presented the idea to St. Joseph’s Student Life Leadership team, a group of teachers and staff from all school departments, including  athletics, counseling, and student life, who advise the principal on what kinds of activities are appropriate for the student body. The student life team gave them their full support.

This past Monday, the new principal at St. Joseph’s, Father Steve Kim, who started the job this month, sent an email to parents seeking to “reassure” them that St. Joseph’s “will continue to be a safe place for all of our students to feel comfortable being who they are.” Kim said he was moved to comment on the issue due to “recent articles that have appeared about the Diocese of Oakland’s considerations of gender-related guidance.”

He also apologized for what he described as the “signs of distress, discomfort, and unhappiness” surrounding the meetings on new guidance. 

“Our school will continue to adhere to best practices of non-discrimination while also upholding and offering a genuinely Catholic education as demonstrated by our commitment to and celebration of people and community members from all walks of life,” Kim wrote. 

One former staffer of St. Joseph’s who left the school because of the expected gender guidance told The Oaklandside that they think Kim is trying to establish himself “as a mediator and listener.” They did not want to use their name because they feared it could affect their career.

“They need to spell out what they’ll do to ensure the community feels included and welcomed other than maintaining the gay-straight alliance club,” the former staffer said. 

A parent that read Kim’s statement thought it was reassuring but is still waiting on the diocese to issue the new rules. 

“We shall see if the guidelines reflect what [church officials] have heard,” the parent said.

Karen Bane, a parent of a St. Joseph’s student, said the Church should consider what it could lose if narrow-minded rules push parents to stop exposing their kids to faith-based education. She said that currently, all types of people of different faiths, genders, and races can learn about social justice from Catholic teachings. 

“You’re leveraging all these other faiths to be siblings with you in bringing the social justice of Jesus as gospels into the world. But this is what’s in jeopardy—this wonderful, beautiful thing that’s life-giving,” she said. 

She described how her son feared for his LGBTQ+ friends and teachers. “My son [was] telling me about the information session with the students, and he started weeping. His eyes were red, his face was tense, his body was quivering.”

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.