SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Kathleen Schlenz of Peace Dale knew something was wrong when her daughter, Anna, arrived home from school Friday.
The Rev. Francis “Rocky” Hoffman, a priest of Opus Dei, an orthodox division of the Roman Catholic Church, and executive director and radio host of Relevant Radio, a Catholic radio network that broadcasts on 33 stations in 13 states and online, had spoken to a school-wide assembly at The Prout School, where Anna is a junior. The speech was being taped to be broadcast on Relevant Radio at a later date.
“She was most upset about the divisive and offensive language regarding divorce, homosexuality and even adoption,” Kathleen Schlenz said. “None of the parents or faculty knew it was being taped to be aired. They were essentially held hostage and told to clap after this man’s responses to questions, even when they didn’t agree with them.”
Father Hoffman was on retreat and unavailable for comment before the Independent went to press Wednesday.
On April 10, parents received a letter of apology from Principal David Carradini since Friday. In the new letter, Carradini announced he would not resign.
“People in our community are calling for my resignation, seeing in this event the culmination of frustration with my leadership,” Carradini wrote in the April 10 letter. ”I have taken this call very seriously, deliberating with myself for days and seeking counsel from others. I sincerely believe that my resignation as Principal is not in the best interests of The Prout School. I have this discussed this option with diocesan officials and they, too, believe that I should continue in my position as the leader of our School.”
“Many have questioned why I did not stop Fr. Hoffman when I sensed things were going badly,” Carradini wrote. “I have offered three explanations to various audiences; the truth is I do not know why I did not stop him:. Though I sensed, and shared, the distress of your daughters and sons, and of the faculty, I did not see its depth, as I was in the front of the auditorium. I desperately hoped that things might right-end themselves, and in that hope I did not stop him. Parents who are crisis management professionals have instructed me after the fact in what I ought to have done. I am grateful for their guidance.”
Students discussed staging protests and pickets in response to the speech. On Monday, fliers that read “Homosexuals are bullied because of apathy. Divorced people are bullied because of apathy. Adoptive children are bullied because of apathy. Are you apathetic?” appeared around the school.
Several Prout students and alumni tweeted about the matter.
“Prout is now an unvibrant uncatholic community,” one said.
“All the good things built up by The Prout School today just came crashing down around us with that assembly,” read another.
Posts to Hoffman’s Facebook page appeared briefly, but were removed.
In an email to Carradini, Kathleen Schlenz characterized Hoffman’s comments as “cruel, condemnatory, and wholly un-Christian.” Beginning Friday, a number of parents, including Schlenz, went to Carradini with questions: Why was Hoffman asked to speak? Who approved it? Was he paid? Would the speech be aired?
Carradini referred a request for comment to the Diocese of Providence.
Friday evening, parents received an email from the school.
“My intention in inviting him here was to have a priest articulate Church teaching in a manner that was pastorally appropriate, doctrinally sound, and deeply respectful of the trust the students showed in bringing these questions forward for answer. My prior knowledge of Fr. Hoffman and his program gave every reason to expect this outcome,” Carradini wrote. “My expectations, and those of the faculty and staff, were not met, and for that I am deeply sorry. Several of the answers provided were not entirely representative of the full breadth of Church teaching on a number of complex and sensitive issues. Several members of the student body, faculty, and staff – including me – were personally offended by his manner of presentation.”
In the email, Carradini said he would “address these matters with the entire school and to apologize for the offenses caused.”
That occurred Monday, in another school-wide assembly, during which school chaplain Rev. Joseph Upton, offered an address with a more welcoming message.
“You can imagine how very upset I was on Friday morning as I watched and heard Fr. Rocky’s presentation unfold,” Upton said, according to an email regarding Hoffman’s address sent to parents. “We know that many young people in particular struggle with participation in the life of the Church. And now a presentation seemed to provide more of a reason to give up on the Church? I was angry and I was sad.”
Approximately 50 parents appeared at the assembly uninvited and met with Carradini after it finished. Schlenz was among them.
When she reached Carradini by phone Saturday, she asked what he was doing to ensure the speech would not be broadcast and was told he had spoken to a board member of Relevant Radio.
During Monday’s meeting, she asked him which board member.
“I am not prepared to answer,” Carradini reportedly said. “Why do you want to know?”
When she pressed him, Schlenz said he told the parents the board member was his brother-in-law, Joseph Cavangh Jr. of Warwick, also an Opus Dei member.
“I wanted to see how transparent he would be,” Schlenz said.
Schlenz and other parents contend Carradini knew Hoffman’s views were outside the mainstream of Catholic teaching and reflect a movement to make The Prout School, which has had a reputation for being accepting, into one that is less than tolerant. The Prout School has been a school of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence since 1981, and enrolls approximately 605 students in grades 9 through 12.
“I really thought [Carradini] thought if he got to one or two of the students, he would be happy,” she said.
A letter obtained by the Independent written by Mark O’Connor, the parent of a Prout student, called Carradini’s leadership into question following the incident. O’Connor wrote that he found it “staggering” that Carradini did not stop the controversial presentation as it was occurring. O’Connor’s letter was addressed to Diocese of Providence Catholic School Superintendent Dan Ferris and was circulated among Prout parents. O’Connor did not respond to a request for an interview from the Independent.
“Since the fall I have heard rumblings from parents and students about Mr. Carradini and his leadership of the school,” O’Connor wrote in the letter. “I have not paid much attention to it simply because I could see that our child was doing well in her classes, made some good friends and was overall happy. However, this past Friday changed my mind entirely and I have decided to become much more of a voice about Mr. Carradini and his leadership of The Prout School.”
In his letter, O’Connor said he questions whether to keep his daughter enrolled and would not send his other two children to the school if Carradini remained its principal.
Schlenz said other parents expressed similar sentiments during the after-assembly meeting, and at that time, Carradini said he would consider resigning.
“I am all for instilling the values and teachings of the church to our children, but this Fr. Rocky took it too far and Mr. Carradini allowed it to happen,” O’Connor wrote. “There was an auditorium full of adolescents who may be gay, may think they’re gay or may be a child of divorce. That is not how we should be addressing these issues with our children. This has left many of them baffled, shamed and perplexed.”
Ferris issued the following statement regarding the incident: “The Diocese of Providence had every reason to believe that a school-wide assembly at The Prout School on Friday featuring nationally known speaker Father Francis ‘Rocky’ Hoffman of Relevant Radio would be nothing less than informative and appropriate. However, it turned out to be quite the opposite. Father Rocky’s responses to a number of particularly sensitive topics were disappointing and pastorally insensitive to church teachings.”
Schlenz said that while she was “furious” over this incident, she was proud of the students. “The seniors in particular were acting out their Christian values against this administration.”
Managing editor Liz Boardman contributed to this story.