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Director's dismissal tests faith in center
By Andrew Skerritt
Published November 12, 2006
When you're involved in Catholic-Jewish interfaith relations, you must have the skills of a tightrope walker.
Jim Barrens thought he did. That was until he showed up for work as director of the Center for Catholic Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University this fall and was greeted with a pink slip.
He was fired. No warning, no explanation.
People get fired all the time. But what makes this unusual is that an organization that ostensibly promotes mutual respect, understanding and appreciation among people would treat its highest-profile employee this shabbily.
Maybe they were hoping no one would notice, that no one would care enough to speak up.
To set the record straight, Barrens didn't call me to complain. I returned from vacation to read an e-mail from Tom Buckridge, identifying himself as the interim director of the center. I hadn't heard that Barrens was leaving. It made me suspicious. So I called the center, then I called Barrens.
Barrens called back first. He didn't try to dodge the question.
When he returned to work after a leave of absence, he was handed a letter: He was no longer associated with Saint Leo University. Hand over your office keys. He had to leave right away. He could come back later to collect his personal things. This is the way corporations dispose of unwanted employees, like so much excess baggage.
Since then, no one has given Barrens an explanation about why he was fired or who was responsible. You can't blame him. Barrens, 52, has been active in interfaith relations in the Tampa Bay region for decades. His in an interfaith life. He's Catholic; his wife and kids are Jewish. So his work as director wasn't just for a paycheck. But his three-year tenure at the Catholic Jewish Center had left its share of bumps and bruises. He clashed repeatedly with top members of the center's board.
"They were very uncomfortable with my outspokenness," said the St. Petersburg resident, who is now doing consulting.
Some board members were unhappy when he spoke out about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ.
Last spring, he was chided for speaking out publicly in support of Bishop Robert Lynch, who criticized the persecution of immigrants.
"You can't be a coward," he said. "You can't be timid in the face of adversity."
Still, in the absence of a scandal, it doesn't explain why he was fired and who fired him.
So I asked interim director Buckridge, a retired bank executive who had served several terms on the Saint Leo University board.
He wasn't saying why Barrens was fired. He was more interested in moving the organization forward. He and the board were focused on trying to expand the center's activities to start offering academic courses. Overall, though, Buckridge said he wanted the center to do a better job of communicating its message. That's laudable. A good place to start would be taking care of the unfinished business with Barrens.
They owe that much to him and to those who believe in the center's core mission.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is email@example.com.