A Difficult Year for 'The Prep': Scandal, Departures Rattle St. Joseph's Prep

By Martha Woodall
Philadelphia Inquirer [Pennsylvania]
August 2, 2006

Aug. 2—"What's going on at the Prep?"

That's the question parents, teachers, students and alumni of St. Joseph's Preparatory School have been asking this summer about the private school in North Philadelphia.

The Prep had a tumultuous 2005-06 academic year that included a cheating scandal and the midyear resignations of several teachers. Then, in mid-June, the Rev. Bruce M. Bidinger, the president who had been laying the groundwork for a $30 million capital campaign, abruptly resigned as of July 7.

His sudden departure after four years put the prestigious Jesuit boys' school in the unusual position of replacing its two top administrators at once. The Rev. Thomas Clifford, 54, the principal, had earlier announced he was leaving for health reasons.

"That is a lot of change to have in one year," said Tom Elliott, the departing president of the Fathers' Club.

To reassure the school community, the Rev. William J. Byron, 79, a nationally respected Jesuit educator and author, agreed to serve as president for two years to allow for a search for a permanent president. Michael Gomez, 32, a native of Bayonne, N.J., was recruited from a Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb., to be principal.

Founded in 1851, St. Joseph's Prep enrolls nearly 1,000 students and counts some of the region's most influential business and political leaders among its graduates.

When Bidinger arrived in 2002, he became the school's 39th president. He had taught science there in the early 1980s.

Though he is credited with reaching out to alumni across the country, Bidinger, 54, faced controversy on campus. Some current and former staffers say Bidinger's brusque, sometimes dictatorial management style alienated many. Several respected teachers and administrators left during his tenure.

"It was either his way or the highway," said William Scott, a former Advanced Placement government teacher who reached a confidential settlement with the school after Bidinger accused him of mishandling student funds and fired him in 2003. Scott denies the allegations.

Bidinger, who has taken an administrative post at St. Joseph's University, declined requests to comment.

The Prep's troubles started in November, when Bidinger announced that Charles Ginn, a history teacher and ordained deacon, had been asked to resign because he kissed and hugged three students in 1996.

T. Roderick Henkels, chairman of the board of trustees, praised Bidinger's response. "I think Bruce handled that great — as well as you can," said Henkels, a 1982 graduate. "He kind of inherited that situation."

When the allegations were made in 1996, Ginn, a 20-year veteran, denied any inappropriate "intent." But the Prep reprimanded him, ordered counseling, and limited his contact with students outside class.

The case resurfaced in November in the aftermath of the scathing grand jury report the Philadelphia district attorney released on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Ginn was not named in the September report, but its publication prompted a parishioner at St. Katharine of Siena Church in Wayne — where Ginn was a deacon — to report the Prep allegations to the archdiocese.

Church officials contacted the school, prompting Bidinger to reexamine Ginn's file and ask him to resign.

"That was a very stressful time for the school, because our number-one concern is the safety of the students," Henkels said.

To reassure parents and students, the board hired Praesidium Inc., a Texas company specializing in "abuse risk management," to review the school's personnel files and hiring practices.

Teachers were encouraged to look at their files. After the review, four teachers left in midyear.

One was a 30-year veteran who reached a confidential settlement with a secretary who had sued him and the school for alleged sexual harassment in 1989.

That teacher retired so suddenly that his department head read his statement to startled students.

The others gave personal or medical reasons for leaving.

Henkels said none of the departures was prompted by Praesidium's review.

"Part of the problem you have with personnel matters is that rumors run rampant," Henkels said. "You have to honor the confidentiality of the individual and their wishes. So when a person says, 'I'd like to retire,' you let them retire."

He said that in its confidential report Praesidium praised the Prep's employment practices but said it needed to make some changes, such as updating background checks.

In January, the school — whose education mission includes nurturing students' spiritual and moral development — was shaken by a cheating scandal involving a religion mid-term test.

One senior reportedly withdrew. School spokesman William Avington said that the Prep does not disclose disciplinary actions and that the school had adopted a new policy clearly stating that students accused of cheating would be expelled after a second offense.

Sheila Connor of Bryn Mawr, incoming president of the Mothers' Club, said the cheating and other issues "were dealt with appropriately and expeditiously."

John Stanton, a June graduate, said the troubles had not marred his senior year. "Some kids talked about it, but it wasn't a huge deal," said Stanton, 17, who will attend the University of Scranton. "But with all the changes, everyone came together more."

Although wrongful-termination suits had been unusual at the Prep, two were filed during Bidinger's four-year tenure. Henkels said Bidinger handled both cases correctly.

In February, Cheryl L. Thomas-Leinheiser, a counselor whose job was eliminated, filed a federal age- and sex-discrimination suit.

Thomas-Leinheiser, 40, also alleges that Bidinger had not followed procedures in not renewing her contract.

She and her attorney declined to comment. Both sides are in settlement talks, records show.

Scott, a teacher there for 20 years, filed suit in Common Pleas Court after Bidinger fired him in May 2003, alleging that he had mishandled funds from student council dances. Scott denied any wrongdoing. He reached a confidential settlement with the school a year later.

Bidinger resigned on June 12, barely a week after handing out diplomas. In a letter to Henkels, the board president, Bidinger said he made the decision after "months of prayerful discernment" and discussions with Henkels and the provincial superior of the Jesuits.

"As you know, we have weathered many storms over the past year and I am proud of the work that we have done together," Bidinger wrote. "We have moved the Prep forward on many levels and know that we have made tremendous progress. I am sorry I cannot stay to see all of our dreams fulfilled."

Henkels credited Bidinger with developing a long-range plan. He said Bidinger was not pressured to resign but had decided it was time to leave.

"I think his view of it was, 'Given everything that I've done and the groundwork that I have laid, now is as good as any time for me to transition,' " Henkels said.

"Father Bidinger could have continued longer," agreed Clifford, the former principal. "There was not any pressing need to go, other than his own decision."

Byron, the new president, said of Bidinger's tenure: "If you look back, it was far short of a perfect fit... . The thought was it was not working out as well as it could have."

Bidinger, who had previously held a post at St. Joseph's University, another Jesuit institution, has returned there as special assistant to the dean of the Haub School of Business.

The Prep community now appears to be pulling together to support its new leaders.

Byron, a 1945 graduate of the Prep, is a former president of Catholic University in Washington and the University of Scranton.

Patty Stanton of Huntingdon Valley, whose son John graduated in June, said Byron would be a "unifying force."

"He'll have the respect of the faculty as well as the students," said Stanton, who was a student at the University of Scranton when Byron was president.

"I feel the buzz around the building is really positive," said William Conners, a history teacher and faculty moderator.

Henkels said the Prep is a resilient school.

"Every institution goes through change," he said. "Is it a lot of change? Maybe. On the other hand, to me the school carries forward regardless of the change, as long as we make sure we have good leadership coming in to continue."

St. Joseph's Prep

Address: 1733 Girard Ave., Philadelphia.

Nickname: The Prep.

Description: Private, all-male Roman Catholic college-preparatory high school.

Affiliation: Jesuit.

Founded: 1851; traces its roots to 1733.

Enrollment: 983 ninth to 12th graders; 78 percent from Southeastern Pennsylvania; 22 percent from New Jersey.

Number of teachers: 75.

Tuition for 2006-07: $13,600.

Attending college: 100 percent.


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