CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hundreds of parents packed the gym of Charlotte Catholic High School late April 2 to criticize a recent student assembly on human sexuality and the school leaders who arranged it.

The presentation March 21 by Dominican Sr. Jane Dominic Laurel of Nashville, Tenn., titled “Masculinity and Femininity: Difference and Gift,” drew the ire of many students and parents and sparked an online petition with more than 3,000 names.

About 900 people attended the April 2 meeting, arranged by school and diocesan leaders to hear from concerned parents and explain the intended purpose of the assembly. There were comments from parents who supported the school and the presentation, but most of the comments were critical.

School officials said Sr. Jane spent about half of her hourlong talk in March on homosexuality, including attributing a correlation between the decline of fatherhood in America and the rise in homosexuality.

It was that portion of her talk that sparked the petition and a counter-petition, followed by emails, comments in social media and blogs. One email asked readers to contact school and diocesan leadership to express their support for Sr. Jane. School officials said a majority of the emails they have received oppose the views expressed by Sr. Jane.

At the April 2 meeting, parents said they felt betrayed by school administrators for not being told about the all-school assembly beforehand. Other parents objected to some of the material Sr. Jane presented about the alleged causes of same-sex attraction and the way she presented it.

The first parent to speak said her student came home after the March 21 assembly feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

“Where was the trust? Where was the communication?” she said, directing her comments to Fr. Matthew Kauth, the school’s chaplain who arranged for the assembly. “It is trust. It is respect. It is confidence. I have lost confidence. I do not trust your judgment and I do not respect (Fr. Kauth).”

Her comments drew loud applause from many others.

Sr. Jane has a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, and her presentation was based on a series of instructional videos she created for Aquinas College in Nashville where she is an associate professor.

According to the website, where Sr. Jane’s videos are posted, her presentations focus on the differences between the genders, the role of the family in nurturing each child’s unique gifts, the importance of real friendships and emotional intimacy, and the impacts of contemporary culture and the media on our concepts of sexuality.

When reached by telephone the week after her presentation, Sr. Jane told the Catholic News Herald, Charlotte’s diocesan newspaper, said she has given similar talks more than 80 times in 25 states. In an April 4 statement, Aquinas College announced that Sr. Jane has cancelled future speaking engagements “and, at her request, is preparing to begin a sabbatical from teaching” at the college.

At the April 2 meeting, parents heard apologies and statements from Fr. Kauth, as well as from Fr. Roger Arnsparger, diocesan vicar of education, and Charlotte Catholic’s dean of students and two assistant principals.

School leaders asked parents to engage in a respectful dialogue, and a statement was read aloud from Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis, who was unable to attend because he was presiding at a church dedication. Bishop Jugis prayed there would “be a friendly and respectful conversation among Catholic brothers and sisters, united in the one faith and in the love of Almighty God.”

But many parents’ emotions boiled over, with arguments even carrying over into the school’s parking lot when the meeting ended after two hours. Two observers called the meeting’s climate “disrespectful” and “hate-filled.”

“There was a lot of passion from two different viewpoints,” David Hains, diocesan director of communication and moderator for the parents meeting, said afterward.

In his statement, Fr. Arnsparger explained that Sr. Jane “has been invited to give this presentation very many times throughout the country in many dioceses and with great interest and success.”

“Many said that the first part of her presentation at Charlotte Catholic High School was excellent and fully in line with the Catholic faith. There was unfortunately a misunderstanding about the content of the last part of the presentation,” he continued.

“In that part, I understand that Sister used data from the Linacre Quarterly, a reputable journal, and from other sources. That data can be debated and, in fact, is debated back and forth by scholars who are researching the areas of human sexuality. Because of the ongoing debate, it would have been better if these studies and data were omitted from the presentation to the students.”

In his remarks, Fr. Kauth likened the Catholic faith to a light that dispels the darkness, and the truth which sets people free from sin.

“When I came here, I experienced to an increasing degree the suffering that comes to our children and the blackness they feel inside. They are taught by nearly every form of media that Christ’s teachings in his church are restrictive bars, medieval torture chambers to keep them from happiness. When they have ‘broken free’ I get to see their agony,” he said.

His intention, Fr. Kauth explained, was to bring back a popular speaker to give a different voice on the topic of sexuality to students. Sr. Jane’s talk last fall at Charlotte Catholic was so well received, he said, that he invited her back to deliver a presentation to the entire school.

He defended Sr. Jane’s presentation on same-sex attraction as it related to church teaching, but he distanced himself from the social science data she quoted as being appropriate for the forum of the student assembly.

“I was stunned as anyone,” he said, when asked why he didn’t stop her talk. “I didn’t know she had inserted this other piece. That piece (on homosexuality) is something that I wouldn’t have presented” in that forum. He said later that he takes responsibility for not making that clear.

Fr. Kauth repeatedly told the crowd of parents that Sr. Jane should not be blamed, and that any fault should be pointed toward him.

Parents were given three minutes each to express their concerns and ask questions, but as moderator Hains frequently had to remind speakers to control their emotions.

One parent told Fr. Kauth, “You have divided parents, you have divided students, and we’ve lost respect for you.”

A parent who said she was representing homosexual and bisexual students at Charlotte Catholic said Sr. Jane “pounded home the message” that if these students are questioning their sexual identity, they had better stay in the closet.

Some parents tried coming to Fr. Kauth’s defense but were shouted down by other people.

Afterward, Hains said the meeting was designed to assure parents of “a commitment on the part of the school to better communicate when dealing with issues of sexuality.”

Exum writes for the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.