By JOHN T. WARD
Long-simmering tensions at Rumson’s Holy Cross parish boiled over into public Thursday as dozens of parents and children rallied to denounce the dismissal of a beloved teacher and to label their pastor an unchecked “tyrant.”
“He’s cold, he’s heartless,” Locust resident Pat Gross, a 30-year parishoner, said of Father Michael Manning, who has led the church for six years. “He thinks he’s a dictator. He doesn’t like to be challenged or confronted.”
Led by former ‘Saturday Night Live’ comedienne Siobhan Hogan (nee Fallon), about 60 parents, students and other parish members arrived in a horn-honking caravan of SUVs at the Ward Avenue church and elementary school shortly after 9 a.m. on what was to have been the final day of the school year.
Classes were abruptly canceled, and the year declared over, by Manning Wednesday night after his decision not to renew the contract of fourth-grade teacher Bernadette Davis prompted angry parents to demand an explanation, they said at a gathering in a Sea Bright parking lot before the rally.
Wiping tears from her eyes outside the classroom she had come to close down for the summer, Davis declined to comment, except to say that “this whole issue is in God’s hands.”
Several parents, though, said Davis, a career teacher with 44 years experience, the last nine at Holy Cross, was accused of having “humiliated” a misbehaving child in her class, and for refusing to apologize to the child after his parents complained.
None of their children were able corroborate an incident of humiliation, protesters said, and such an act would be wildly out of character for Davis.
“She’s the kind of teacher you pray your child gets as a teacher,” said Debbie Bagnell, of Rumson.
“My daughter is in Mrs. Davis’ class, and she has been brought up to a level of academic excellence I can’t even describe,” said mother Deb Black.
Karen Thomsen, a lawyer and mother of a fourth-grader, denounced Manning’s control of the parish as a “dictatorship. There’s no input from parents. It’s very unhealthy.”
She said Davis’ dismissal had been done “with no due process, and from a religious standpoint, it’s not Christian.”
Sean Stone, who has two children in the school, including a fourth-grader, called the abrupt ending of the school year an act of “cowardice” by Manning, who was aware that parents might go public with their frustrations.
He said Manning’s motive in removing Davis was to cut a higher-paid teacher from the payroll and replace her with another earning less.
Complaints about Manning to the Diocese of Trenton over the years have fallen on deaf ears, parishoners said. A redbankgreen request for comment from the diocese is pending.
Walking away from a reporter he had ordered off church grounds following a morning mass, Manning declined comment before briefly turning to taunt protesters, mimicking their sign-waving.
Manning succeeded as pastor Father Joseph Hughes, who went to prison for six months in 2006 for stealing more than $2 million in parish funds and using it to buy pricey cars and other luxuries for himself and a favored parish employee.