A Jackson County jury found in favor of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City and St. Joseph in a case brought by a Catholic school teacher who was fired after she got pregnant out of wedlock.
Michelle Bolen’s 15-year career at St. Therese North Elementary ended abruptly two months after she told her pastor and boss, Father Joseph Cisetti, that she and her fiancé planned to keep the baby.
The case hinged on whether the Catholic Diocese violated the Missouri Abortion Act, a 33-year-old law, by firing Bolen. The law prohibits the firing of a woman for refusing to terminate a pregnancy.
The jury found in favor of the diocese, rejecting Bolen’s claims of discrimination, wrongful discharge and retaliation.
“The evidence in this case never supported any of these claims,” said diocese spokesperson Jack Smith in a statement Thursday.
Bolen’s attorney, E.E. Keenan, had likened Bolen’s experience to Hester Prynne’s in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter,” in which Prynne is branded with a red “A” for adulteress after having a child out of wedlock.
Joe Hatley, an attorney for the diocese, said the case was not about abortion, telling the jury that even in Bolen's own testimony she did not mention the word. Instead, Hatley said, the case was about one employee’s revenge.
Bolen, he said, was fired for insubordination, tardiness and inappropriate dress, adding that her performance had been declining for years.
During two days of questioning, former St. Therese principal Carol Lenz walked through years of positive performance evaluations for Bolen. Over the course of nearly 15 years, Bolen was placed on a “performance improvement plan” just once — the month she told Cisetti about her pregnancy, according to evidence in the case.
But Hatley said Bolen violated Catholic canon law and therefore her contract with St. Therese by becoming pregnant while unmarried.
“Father Cisetti didn’t want to put any mom in a position to choose between a job and a baby. He had to make a difficult decision,” Hatley said.
Hatley had argued that in order to refuse to do something, one must be asked to do something.
“Every mom chose to be a mom, but that doesn’t mean they refused to have an abortion,” Hatley told the jury.
But Keenan told the jury it was their duty to decide what the language of the law means, saying “we don’t get to decide that for you.”
When she met with Cisetti in March 2015, Bolen testified, she hoped he’d be understanding.
“I thought he would assure me, and say, ‘You’re OK. We’ve got you. You’re part of this community,’” she said.
Instead, according to Bolen’s attorneys, Cisetti implied that if Bolen had an abortion, they wouldn’t have to discuss her pregnancy and its “ramifications.”
In his opening statement, Hatley defended that as praise “for not taking the easy way out.”
But Bolen in her lawsuit called it the “ultimate irony.”
“The Diocese, especially under the leadership of then-Bishop Robert Finn, was more concerned with ‘keeping up appearances’ than actually following Catholic moral teachings,” her petition states.
Holding up Bolen’s termination letter before the jury on Wednesday, Keenan said, “If this sheet of paper represents the reasons Michelle Bolen was fired —” he paused and tore off a corner of the paper — “if her not having an abortion is even a sliver, even one of 100 reasons they didn’t renew her contract, that matters. That is enough.”
But Keenan said the diocese “quickly” came up with reasons to fire Bolen because it was inconvenient. In closing Wednesday, he asked the jury to bring the diocese into the modern era.
“Bishop James B. Johnson, to this day, calls this a stupid case,” Keenan said. “They still don’t get it.”
This story was updated to include the jury's verdict in the case.