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SF priest apologizes for giving inappropriate pamphlets to schoolchildren

A priest at a Catholic elementary school in San Francisco expressed regret Wednesday for an incident more than two months ago in which he gave students pamphlets containing “inappropriate” language.

The Rev. Joseph Illo of Star of the Sea Church supplied the pamphlets Dec. 6 before confession. They are used by other churches to prepare people for confession and contain a series of questions not uncommon in the Catholic faith. Illo said he distributed the pamphlets without incident at his last parish in Modesto.

However, some parents at Star of the Sea Elementary School viewed some language in the questions as inappropriate for grade-school children.

The pamphlets, titled “The Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine,” asked questions such as whether a penitent has performed “impure acts by myself (masturbation) or with another (adultery, fornication or sodomy),” along with whether they had advised anyone to have an abortion or had one themselves. Another question addressed participation or approval of “‘mercy killing’ or euthanasia.”

Students at Star of the Sea Elementary who received the pamphlets ranged from second- to seventh-graders. Parents apparently did not become aware of the pamphlets until this month.

“I think the difference here is we actually gave them to the children, [which was an] oversight,” Illo said. “We should have given them to the parents.”

San Francisco resident Christy Brooks, who has two sons at Star of the Sea Elementary, said teachers swooped in and took away as many pamphlets as they could. But some students, including Brooks’ 11-year-old, had already read it.

“It’s inappropriate material for children, especially children who haven’t even gone through a sex education curriculum or family life curriculum,” Brooks said. “My sixth-grader really didn’t need a lesson on sodomy.”

The issue with the pamphlets marks the latest clash between parents and church officials, including the Rev. Patrick Driscoll, following a decision to only train boys to be altar servers at Mass. In a blog post Jan. 28, Illo reasoned that boys usually end up losing interest in an altar-server program that is co-ed.

Illo said his vision aligns with that of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who has also come under fire in recent weeks after proposing morality clauses for teachers at the four archdiocesan high schools in the Bay Area.

Stella Bialous, whose child attends Star of the Sea Elementary, said the pamphlet issue was an honest mistake, but that the lack of awareness of what is age appropriate is troubling. She emphasized that while there is always an adjustment period with new priests, this was not an isolated incident.

“By itself I don’t think it would have been as big of a deal, but then there are other things that are making parents upset,” Bialous said.

“This is not the first changing pastor we have had. Every time a new pastor comes they have new ideas and different things they want to do.”

Illo acknowledged that some parents are not pleased with the direction he and Driscoll have outlined for the school since joining the parish in August. He said they are establishing a council of parents from the parish and school to discuss how to move forward.

“My vision is that of the archbishop in his statement that the mission of a Catholic school is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as held and taught by His Catholic church,” Illo said. “I think [some] parents are just concerned about what that looks like.”

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