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On a lovely evening last May, Dennis Powell and the other teachers and administrators at Denver's Machebeuf Catholic High School attended an assembly celebrating the achievements of another academic year. Machebeuf's principal, Dr. Elizabeth Mantelli, addressed the students and staffers gathered before her, and when speaking about the impressive number of scholarships earned by graduating seniors, she asked the teachers to take a bow. The applause they received was generous and heartfelt, remembers Powell. He'd been teaching theology at the Park Hill neighborhood school for thirteen years, but he says he never tired of watching his young charges take the next step toward a productive and spiritually rewarding adult life.

The 65-year-old Powell, head of Machebeuf's theology department since 1981, was still aglow the next day when he was called into Mantelli's office. He says he had no sense of foreboding, given the close working relationship he and the principal had maintained during her four years there. "She told me I was a personal inspiration to her," Powell says, "which I took as a great compliment." He had found her to be warm, intelligent and supportive.

Mantelli was not doling out kudos on this day, however. Instead, she gave Powell a succinct letter: "I regret to inform you that I cannot offer you a teaching contract for the 1993-1994 school year. Thank you for your devoted service to Machebeuf Catholic High School. Good luck in your future endeavors."

When a dumbstruck Powell asked Mantelli why he was not being asked to return, he says that she told him, "R.I.F."--reduction in force. Although Mantelli did not elaborate, Powell knew that enrollment for the next school year was down; the total number of students at the beginning of the 1993-1994 term was about 300, comparable to the total from half a decade earlier but down from the previous year's 325. He began to have his doubts that this was the basis for his dismissal, though, when he learned that the same ax had fallen on some other veteran colleagues: counselor Joanna Williams; Jerome King, who specialized in theology and history; and Francois de Vangel, a Spanish instructor. Powell says that these teachers were the oldest on the Machebeuf staff--Williams and de Vangel were 55, while King was 57--and both King and de Vangel had suffered heart problems that required hospitalization during the previous year. The common speculation, disputed by the Church, is that the older teachers are endangered because they are more prone to suffer expensive health problems and they make more money (although after thirteen years, Powell's annual salary was only $23,000).

According to Powell, only Williams was told by Mantelli that the quality of her work had anything to do with the decision not to renew her contract. The reason given to the others was R.I.F.

An amateur boxer while growing up in New York City, Powell refused to accept this explanation without a fight. He did his best not to let his impending departure affect his students, and even attended an awkward going-away party thrown for the nonreturning staffers (including a pair who had chosen to retire) by other teachers. But he and de Vangel also filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) against the Archdiocese of Denver, which oversees operations at Machebeuf and forty other schools in Colorado.

Both de Vangel and Powell have now dropped their EEOC cases. (King, a Christian Brother who had taught in Archdiocese of Denver schools for 29 years, 18 of those at Machebeuf, decided against protesting the decision not to rehire him, and declined comment for this article. Williams moved to California and couldn't be reached for comment.) While de Vangel continues to believe that he was fired because of his age, he says his anger dissipated after he found employment outside the archdiocese. But Powell, who so far has failed to secure a teaching position, withdrew his EEOC action only after he hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit charging Archbishop of Denver J. Francis Stafford and the archdiocese with age discrimination--a violation the archdiocese, through its legal representatives, denies committing. Powell says he knows he's fighting an uphill battle, but adds that he can't keep silent. "They expected me to vent anger and go away," he says, "but I don't want the same thing that happened to me to happen to my fellow teachers in the Catholic school system."

Principal Mantelli now refers all questions about Dennis Powell to the Archdiocese of Denver. Archdiocese officials, citing the lawsuit, won't talk about the Powell case. And fear prevents many teachers, parents and students from discussing the dismissals of the four teachers; most of those who will talk have asked for anonymity. Students still at Machebeuf say they fear being labeled as troublemakers. Parents claim they don't want to make their children pay for their outspokenness. Teachers reveal their suspicion that taking a stand against the archdiocese could put their jobs in jeopardy. After all, each teacher in the Catholic system, no matter what his or her level of experience, is hired one year at a time, and each contract allows the archdiocese to sever it at any time. Church officials and lawyers refuse to use words like "termination," saying only that contracts aren't renewed.  

Several teachers made the point that there is no real job security at a Catholic school; as one puts it, "If you sneeze wrong, the archdiocese can get rid of you."

Teachers in the archdiocese who disagree with decisions not to renew their contracts officially have recourse, but some argue the labyrinthine procedure (eighteen pages are required to explain the series of meetings and discussions) is weighted so heavily in favor of the archdiocese that it's practically useless. Those who undergo this procedure must agree not to file any litigation--or to drop such litigation if already filed--and allow themselves to be judged by an archdiocesan priest and members of panels appointed by the archbishop. "We feel that it's very equitable," says Fran Maier, the archdiocese's secretary of communications and official spokesman. "We think it demonstrates that the archdiocese is very attuned and sensitive to our employees."

But teachers asked about this process say they don't see it as a viable option for resolving disputes. Maier won't reveal how often the procedure has been used, but at least one source believes that no dismissed teacher has utilized it since Stafford became archbishop in 1987.

In this respect, the Archdiocese of Denver is not alone. Only a handful of dioceses across the country offer employees the strong protections that those working for secular institutions take for granted--and dioceses that do not are increasingly coming under fire. A January 1994 article in the National Catholic Reporter, "Church Accused of Workplace Injustices," cites a number of cases, including one involving two young teachers in Philadelphia who were discharged after criticizing some of their school's policies. Father Richard McBrian, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, and the author of a column that appears in several Catholic newspapers, sees the treatment of workers by the nation's dioceses as an impending scandal that rivals in scope revelations of sexual impropriety by priests. "The church's employees work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation," he says. "They dare not speak their mind or express to any outside body their grievances, because they may lose their jobs. It's a hell of a situation for the Catholic Church to be in."

And frustrating for parishioners. Many of those people who will talk about Dennis Powell sketch similar portraits of him. He was seen by many as a deeply compassionate person and a spiritual role model for students and teachers. He dedicated his life to his faith, they say, thereby embodying the teachings of the Church. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have teaching my child," says one parent. "That's why what happened is so wrong."

Powell's background is in the priesthood. Ordained in 1954, he served as pastor of a large parish in Tanzania from 1959-1965. Later he spent time as the director at Maryknoll Apostolic College in Pennsylvania, and survived a bout with colon cancer--an experience that continues to serve him in his volunteer work with local cancer patients. Fully recovered, Powell was assigned to the Denver area in 1971, and would likely still be serving as a Maryknoll priest had he not fallen in love with his secretary, Louisa. "Everyone always raises their eyebrows at that," he says, laughing. Powell subsequently decided to leave the order, but he did not depart under a cloud: When he and Louisa married in May 1975, the service was officiated by one of his former colleagues. He later began writing a monthly Catholic pastoral newsletter, a practice he continues to this day; he has just over 100 subscribers to his self-produced publication.

When Powell was hired at Machebeuf in the fall of 1980, he says, he felt he had found his niche. He immediately established a rapport with his students that a number of fellow teachers say they envied, and upon being put in charge of the theology department the next year, he took great pride in shaping the curriculum. Because he is a conservative thinker, he believes that he is in many ways the ideological twin of Archbishop Stafford, a traditionalist frequently under attack by those seeking more flexibility in church teachings and practices.

The evaluations of Powell's teaching were uniformly outstanding until 1991, when records show that Principal Mantelli identified two "areas for growth" in his performance: discipline and teaching process. Even some of Powell's strongest supporters concede that, on occasion, his control over unruly pupils was not the tightest; a Machebeuf graduate who calls Powell one of the two best instructors he had during his more than a decade of schooling says, "There were times when his classes were maybe a little too laid-back." Powell notes that he did not argue about Mantelli's conclusion, and when she told him that she would renew his contract for the 1992-1993 school year only if he completed a pair of courses in cooperative learning at Regis University, he readily agreed to take them. He earned A's in those classes, and a later evaluation noted that Powell's work was much improved, in part because he was incorporating that material into his teaching.  

But there were more evaluations to come. De Vangel, a native of France who taught at Machebeuf for three years, points out that he, Powell and King were all evaluated by Mantelli during the week prior to their dismissals. He adds that, to his knowledge, no teachers were critiqued at this time. "Dr. Mantelli evaluated me once during my first year, and the report was very good," de Vangel says. "She didn't do it again until that last week. She dropped in twice, to two different classes, without telling me she would be there. There was no feedback, no conversation, nothing." He feels that Mantelli may have used these evaluations to build a paper trail to be used against the teachers in case any of them fought the archdiocese's actions.

De Vangel filed a complaint with the EEOC only weeks before a heart problem landed him in the hospital for the third time that year. The health insurance he had received through Machebeuf had already expired--policies provided to archdiocese teachers end thirty days after an employee's last working day--but he was covered under his wife's insurance. When his health improved, de Vangel got regular work as a substitute teacher in District 12, north of Denver. Because of this, he says, he was less than receptive when an EEOC representative informed him that the Archdiocese of Denver had agreed to rehire him as a part-time teacher at Machebeuf in exchange for his dropping his complaint (neither the archdiocese nor the EEOC will comment on this claim). "What I saw in the way the archdiocese treats its teachers was so revolting," de Vangel says, "that I was satisfied just not to be there."

Poor health also afflicted Powell shortly after he was dismissed. A bowel obstruction required hospitalization, but fortunately this difficulty occurred a few days before his archdiocese health insurance ended. "Otherwise, I don't know what I would have done," he says. The archdiocese is exempt from paying unemployment, so Powell is extremely short of cash. He receives Social Security payments and a small archdiocese pension, but because his wife does not work, he must supplement his income by working part-time as a clerk at a store in Cherry Creek Mall.

Because Powell's lawsuit is still pending, Maier says, "we really are not in a position to comment on his case." And the archdiocese's attorney in the case, Laura A. Wing, did not return phone calls. But in a September 1993 letter to Powell's attorney, Wing contended that the Machebeuf staff was advised that because of lower enrollment figures, fewer contracts would be offered for the following year. Powell and de Vangel say the staff was not told any such thing.

Wing also denied that age was a factor in the actions, and adds that Powell was not offered a contract "because it was determined that there would not be a need for the same number of theology classes during that school year, and because Mr. Powell's qualifications and abilities were deemed the least satisfactory of the theology teachers at Machebeuf." Indeed, new teachers were not hired to replace Powell and the three others who were asked not to return; according to several current Machebeuf instructors, some classes were consolidated, and at least one part-time teacher younger than those whose contracts were not renewed was made a full-time employee.

Just how strapped for cash the archdiocese schools actually are is a matter of debate among parents, students, staffers and administrators. According to figures provided by Maier, donations to the Catholic Appeal, the major fundraising event for the archdiocese, totaled about $4.4 million last year, exceeding the year's goal by $768,000. Maier says that the largess of Denver-area Catholics may have been partially inspired by Pope John Paul II's World Youth Day celebration in Denver last August. But Maier notes that the 1992 Appeal was nearly as successful.

Yet even as preparations for the papal visit were reaching a fever pitch, the archdiocese was closing a Catholic school: St. Joseph's Elementary School, located at 6th Avenue and Galapago in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods. The archdiocese, which claimed it made this decision after losing $10 million over ten years on the school, made an effort to see that the teachers displaced by the closure found positions elsewhere in the archdiocesan school system (as of last week, only one St. Joseph's instructor remains unhired). But other Catholic schools--particularly the six institutions collected under the term SUN (Schools in Urban Neighborhoods)--also are struggling. A knowledgeable source who has requested anonymity says that St. Rose of Lima Elementary School, at 1345 West Dakota, is operating under a tremendous burden of debt, and at least one other school is scraping by with funds raised by staging regular bingo games.  

At the same time, a new Catholic school will be established for the 1994-1995 year at Saint Thomas More Church, in an affluent southeastern neighborhood, and plans are pending to build a new Catholic high school at an as-yet-undetermined suburban location in the near future. "In principle, the archdiocese is very committed to giving quality education to the disadvantaged and keeping existing schools strong, but that needs to be balanced with good management," says Maier. "These kinds of decisions may look like insensitivity to certain communities, but they're actually sensitivity to the larger community. "No bishop in his right mind--and most of them are very much in their right minds--wants to do something that might look as if it's hurting the disadvantaged, but sometimes these decisions need to be made."

Dennis Powell's case is currently the only legal action pending against the archdiocese from displaced or disgruntled employees, and it may well hinge on a settlement hearing ordered for February 22 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard M. Borchers. If no agreement is reached, the case could likely spend another year winding its way through the courts.

In the meantime, Powell has been the beneficiary of a letter-writing campaign directed at Archbishop Stafford and those administrators who oversee the archdiocesan school system. But thus far, the forty or so letters sent by Powell supporters have had little apparent impact. For example, a letter penned by a teacher at an elementary school in the archdiocese earned a terse response from Reverend J. Anthony McDaid, Denver's secretary for Catholic education. McDaid wrote that the teacher's letter was "at best, inappropriate, at worst, insubordinate." After noting that he would overlook the teacher's letter because of "the emotion involved," he concluded, "I would counsel you to more prudent action in the future."

This teacher is not the only one working for the archdiocese who is concerned about repercussions from the Powell case. In spite of the archdiocese's sponsorship of a January 28 Catholic schools appreciation banquet, at which Stafford lauded experienced instructors for their devotion, a number of older teachers say that they are afraid they will be the next to go if budget shortfalls occur. And at least one veteran instructor has asked her principal to write a letter of recommendation for her now in order to counterbalance any documents the archdiocese might use against her in any future action.

According to Powell, stories like these are keeping him punching. "Not many teachers have taken the archdiocese to task," he says. "And it's really out of character for me to fight the archbishop. But I guess that's what I'm doing.


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