Canon Lawyer Joins Bishop Donahue High School Fight in McMechen

Options explored to keep school operating

Canon lawyer Philip Gray, foreground, speaks to parents of Bishop Donahue High School students and school alumni Monday. Looking on is Norm Stenger.

McMECHEN — Bishop Donahue High School supporters are turning to a regional advocate for Catholic parishioners’ rights in their efforts to stop the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston from closing the school.

Canon lawyer Philip Gray, president of the St. Joseph Foundation, spoke Monday before a crowd of Bishop Donahue High School alumni and parents, offering his aid in combating the diocese’s decision last month to close the school at the end of the academic year. A canon lawyer is a specialist in canon law, or the code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Gray reviewed the steps available to school supporters, which involve voicing complaints to the diocese, awaiting a response and, if necessary, appealing the decision to the Holy See. However, doing so  could involve a lengthy wait before the Congregation of the Clergy.

“It totally depends on the situation and the evidence, as to how quickly it can be resolved. I’ve seen cases resolved in six weeks, and in as long as six years,” Gray said. “I don’t usually see property disputes like this taking five or six years, but I do see them take months.”

Gray highlighted the differences between public perception of what the diocese controls and what it controls in reality, arguing that parishioners — and not just the names listed on the school’s legal documents — hold numerous rights.

“When you’re donating money to a religious entity, both canon law and civil law protect the rights you maintain,” Gray said. “I don’t know what those rights are or aren’t yet, but that is an issue that you need to consider. When the bishop is making a decision, he can’t just make it in a vacuum, or with the people in his office.

“He has to consider the school. He has to talk to the parents, to the children, to the donors, to who owns the property. Canon law requires the bishop actually consult with anyone who can be harmed by his actions,” Gray continued. “Just like in any process, you don’t want to just follow the process and wait to see what happens. I highly encourage you, in large groups, to stay involved and engage. Something near and dear to your hearts, that touches your children and future, is at stake. So if you sit on the sidelines, it might not turn out so well.”

Last month, the Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, announced the decision to close Bishop Donahue and offer its students stipends if they wish to enroll in Wheeling Central Catholic High School. He called the decision “a fiscally and financially responsible one,” citing declining enrollment as a chief issue, with 101 total students at Bishop Donahue and only 15 students in the current freshman class.

Norm Stenger, leading the crowd in prayer to open the discussion, described the closure as “a terrible and unjust decision.”

Gray recalled his involvement with an Erie parish last year, which was able to achieve meaningful dialogue with their bishop when faced with a similar situation.

“The bishop was absolutely fantastic. He not only met with our committee, he engaged the headmaster of the school. He engaged the spiritual chaplain of the school. And he said, ‘Look, here’s the bottom line — here’s what you need to stay open,’ and they did it. They reopened in the fall.”

Gray said the school faced even more difficult enrollment problems than Bishop Donahue does today, and also struggled with serious financial issues.

Gray will be working as private counsel to the Save Bishop Donahue Foundation, a 10-member volunteer body consisting of parents and alumni of the school.

Many of those involved Monday night also participated in a prayer vigil outside Branfield’s home in Wheeling in January, where students recited the rosary by candlelight in protest of the closure.

Volunteer Amy Kaschke said the diocese has not responded to the foundation’s objections regarding Bishop Donahue’s closure.

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