Enrollments Drop at Catholic Schools

By Sam Dillon
Downloaded January 22, 2003

Merica's largest Roman Catholic school systems experienced significant enrollment declines this academic year as the clerical sex abuse scandal raged in the dioceses that oversee them.

But Catholic education officials attributed the declines to tighter family budgeting in the recession, competition from charter schools and the migration of families out of inner cities, rather than to parental concern that pupils in parochial schools might be at risk of abuse.

In interviews, officials in the nation's 11 largest Catholic school systems cited declines in kindergarten-through-eighth-grade parochial school enrollments for the 2002-03 year ranging from 7 percent in Detroit to about 1.5 percent in New York, where Catholic elementary schools had grown steadily for more than a decade, compared with the previous academic year.

Catholic high schools experienced smaller declines in enrollment, and in some archdioceses they had modest increases.

Both the Archdiocese of Boston, where the upheaval over the sex abuse scandal was most severe, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, where about 15 priests were suspended in 2002 amid accusations of abuse, experienced declines in K-8 enrollment of 6 percent, according to officials in those cities. But Catholic educators and other experts said the abuse scandal was not the reason for the decline.

"Parents just say they can't afford the tuition anymore," said Nicholas Wolsonovich, the superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which educates 117,000 children, more than any other American archdiocese. "I don't see any evidence of a connection between the priest sexual abuse situation and our enrollment."

The Rev. Joseph M. O'Keefe, associate dean of the school of education at Boston College, said, "Catholic superintendents are very concerned about these declines in enrollment." But he said there was no evidence that the drops were related to the abuse scandal, though he noted that in a recent poll one in every five Catholic parishioners reported that because of the scandals they would stop donating money to dioceses, many of which subsidize urban parochial schools.

"The scandal will make itself felt around the money issue, because if laypeople stop donating to the dioceses, that will hurt the inner-city parish schools," Father O'Keefe said.

Sister Kathleen Carr, the superintendent of Catholic schools in Boston, said that as the abuse scandal reverberated there last spring, she asked parochial school principals to ask parents who were declining to re-enroll their children about their reasons. Many said that because of rising housing costs in Boston, they were moving to the suburbs, Sister Carr said, and others said they were enrolling their children in charter schools, which do not charge tuition. Only a few parents, who had never enrolled children in parochial schools, expressed concern about sexual abuse, Sister Carr said.

Nora S. Murphy, a spokeswoman for the school system administered by the Archdiocese of New York, reported a 1.5 to 2 percent decline in K-8 enrollment, calling it "the first sizable drop in a good 12 years."

"Most of our parents are the working poor, and they've


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