The College of St. Mary, in Omaha, Nebraska has decided to withdraw its invitation to Roberta Wilhelm, the scheduled speaker for Sunday's commencement out of concern that threatened protests might disrupt the ceremony.
The college had invited Ms. Wilhelm, who is the executive director of Girls Inc. in Omaha, to give the address. The controversy was caused by Girls Inc.'s national advocacy positions, which include statements on contraception, abortion and sexual orientation that are contrary to Catholic beliefs.
Last weekend, the college began receiving e-mails, faxes and telephone calls, some of which threatened to picket, demonstrate or shout down Wilhelm, said Sister Maryanne Stevens, the college's president.
The callers were distressed that someone who led a group that favors abortion was the commencement speaker at a Roman Catholic college. The Sisters of Mercy - an order of Catholic nuns - are affiliated with College of St. Mary.
"I decided it had the potential to mar our graduation ceremonies that are truly celebratory events for our students and families," Stevens said.
The e-mails, faxes and calls came after Fr. Damien Cook, pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha, sent an e-mail Friday to a number of people in the area asking them "to do what you can in a respectful manner" to encourage the college to cancel Wilhelm's speech.
"Whatever the speaker's personal feelings, she works for and represents a corporation that works in direct opposition to our faith and the true health and good of girls and women," he wrote.
Fr. Cook said he was concerned that the college's speaker choice would tarnish its image as a Catholic institution.
The College of St. Mary was one of 12 Catholic colleges in the country this year with commencement speakers or honorees who have "taken public positions contrary to Catholic values or teaching," according to the Cardinal Newman Society. The society identifies its mission as renewing and strengthening the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities.
Among other colleges on the list are Marquette University in Milwaukee and the Graduate School at the University of Notre Dame, which was cited for awarding an honorary degree to its commencement speaker, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan.
Coleman, according to the society's Web site, launched the university's center for embryonic stem cell research and called on Michigan's legislature to reconsider a ban on cloning.
In his e-mail, Fr. Cook also cited a June 2004 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying that the Catholic community and Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
Fr. Cook said he was pleased that Stevens listened and that the college changed speakers.
"I think it's a moot point now since they so graciously did that," he said.
Cook, who is director of the Bishops' Plan for Pro-Life Activities for the Archdiocese of Omaha, said he sent the e-mail on his own.
Stevens said she visited with Wilhelm personally on Monday.
The college, she said, recognizes that there is language on Girls Inc.'s national Web site that supports the legal right to an abortion. But the local chapter promotes abstinence, she said, and supports a consistent ethic of life by the way it works with young girls.
Stevens said the college chose Wilhelm because of the longstanding relationship between the college and Girls Inc. and because of the work Wilhelm has done for children and for girls.
Wilhelm said she understood the college's desire to keep the day's focus on graduates and their accomplishments.
"I understand and fully support what Dr. Stevens feels like she has to do," she said. "It's a difficult position to be in. And I respect that as the head of an agency that sometimes faces difficult decisions."