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Priest to apologize for 'racist' remark at Newmarket Catholic school

During a visit with students at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Elementary School Father Roy Roberts made a comment that was perceived as bigoted.
2020 08 04 York Catholic Education Centre
York Catholic District School Board Education Centre file photo

When Mike Chase's son told him that Father Roy Roberts, the priest at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Newmarket, made a bigoted remark to a classroom full of students, Chase was outraged. 

Worse, said Chase, was how the remark was brushed off, he was instructed not to bring up the subject during a school meeting and that Roberts would continue to be involved with his son's school.

"I immediately believed my son. I was extremely upset that this happened, upset that if he hadn't spoken up, I would have had no idea, and upset that the school was trying to downplay this. In this day and age, we should have zero tolerance for racism, especially in a publicly funded school and from an authority figure."

According to Chase's son, during Roberts' visit to the Grade 5 class at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Elementary School Nov. 15, one of the students asked Roberts what he thought Jesus may have looked like. (Chase said he thinks the class may have been discussing the matter prior to the visit and a student wanted to know the priest's opinion.)

Chase, who describes himself as "very anti-racist," said he raised his son not to use disparaging language about anyone.

His son has been taught to understand that Jesus was not white, as he's so commonly depicted, but would probably resemble a Middle Eastern man, he said.

Roberts told the student, according to Chase's son, that when researching images of Jesus "he was surprised to see that he was looking at a terrorist," Chase said.

According to Chase's son, after Roberts left the teacher told the students the priest didn't mean to imply that Middle Eastern men are terrorists, Chase said.

"It's racist to make that comparison."

The following night Chase met with two of his son's teachers virtually during a parent-teacher conference — one of whom was the English teacher in class that day.

He asked about the incident not to "challenge why she downplayed it" but to verify the facts and find out what steps, if any, had been taken.

The English teacher did say the incident was reported to the administration but also repeated the explanation given to the class, that Roberts' comment was misinterpreted.

Chase said he isn't buying it. He doesn't believe someone makes remarks like that accidentally.

"I believe this was an unintended public display of Father Roy's inner thoughts, so it concerns me that he may still be permitted to associate with the children," he said.

Chase sent emails to the principal and vice-principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Elementary School, YCDSB Superintendent, YCDSB trustee for East Gwillimbury, Georgina, Newmarket, YCDSB Director of Education, the school's Catholic School Council and the Archdiocese of Toronto to inform them about what happened.

Several members of the school board replied to Chase's email and said they were looking into it.

Chase is not a member of the school's council but planned to attend its Nov. 29 virtual meeting with the sole purpose, he said, of bringing up the incident even though he was warned not to.

Karla Bebie, the school's principal, sent Chase an email prior to the meeting that stated: "I understand you're involved in this complaint, Catholic School Council is not the place to do anything about it," said Chase.

During the meeting Chase was shocked to learn not only was Roberts scheduled to conduct a virtual mass for the school Dec. 2, but a portion of funding from a grant the school hoped to receive would be used to combat and educate its students against racism.

When Bebie asked if anyone had questions she acknowledged Chase indicating a request to speak and said "Mr. Chase I want to make sure before you talk that you read my email from earlier," according to Chase, before reiterating that it wasn't appropriate to "discuss what I think you're going to discuss" at the meeting.

Chase was "fired up," he said, and can't recall if he used the word terrorist but, undeterred by Bebie's comment, he voiced his opinion to the council.

"It's my opinion, particularly as we're discussing racism, that the parents of this school should know that this incidence happened. That a priest who used racist language in the class is being invited back before this issue has even been resolved," he said.

"The principal was making a concerted effort to shut down that line of conversation," said Chase, by "talking over me" and repeating that the school council meeting wasn't the place to discuss the incident.

On Dec. 1 the school board came to a decision about the matter. Bebie and the superintendent of education informed Chase that Roberts would not be conducting mass for the school Dec. 2 or any other mass scheduled for the month. Roberts will release a written apology to students, staff and families and an in-person apology will be issued to the class that heard the comment.

"The York Catholic District School Board was surprised and disappointed to learn that Father Roy Roberts made offensive comments during a recent classroom visit at St. Elizabeth Seton CES. The Board takes this very seriously and we notified the Archdiocese of Toronto of our concerns. We have conducted a thorough investigation and are actively taking steps to address the matter ... As a Catholic school board, we are committed to the reverent expression of our faith, our Gospel values and to creating equitable, inclusive and supportive learning environments. We believe that every child has the right to be taught in an environment that is safe, caring, and respectful of diversity and the rights of all persons. We will not tolerate any actions or words that are contrary to these beliefs and will always act promptly to address them," YCDSB said in an emailed statement.

"Father Roy sincerely regrets his choice of words," the Archdiocese of Toronto said in an emailed statement. " Father Roy has committed to returning to the class at the school’s earliest convenience in order to apologize to the students."

Chase said he's not sure what to make of the resolution. While the board addressed the incident it made no mention of future preventive measures and long-term plans for Roberts' involvement with the school were vague at best.

"It's hard to assess the outcome when it's not clear, and won't be made clear, exactly what is happening. I had hoped for more details, for more assurance of exactly what was being done to prevent this from happening again."