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Academy of the Holy Names is too ‘woke,’ not Catholic enough, lawsuit says

A family who gifted the Tampa school $1.35 million wants their donation rescinded, tuition returned.
The exterior of Academy of the Holy Names is seen Wednesday in Tampa.
The exterior of Academy of the Holy Names is seen Wednesday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 6
Updated Jul. 9

At a fundraising gala in 2017, Anthony and Barbara Scarpo announced they had pledged $1.35 million to “our cherished” Academy of the Holy Names, a Catholic school in Tampa attended by their two daughters.

The couple asked for their donation to be used toward the school’s master plan and for scholarships for disadvantaged students. They were named chairs of the academy’s fundraising campaign and the school renamed its auditorium the “Scarpo Family Theatre.”

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Four years later, the family and the school are at odds, with the Scarpos alleging fraud and a lack of fidelity to Catholic teaching. With one daughter graduated and the other transferred to a different high school, the couple last week filed a 13-count, 45-page lawsuit asking that their pledge be rescinded.

The school, they charge, has “lost its way” by distancing itself from mainstream Catholicism and embracing a divisive “woke culture” where priority is given to “gender identity, human sexuality and pregnancy termination among other hot button issues.” The lawsuit makes clear the couple’s displeasure with the way the school has dealt with issues of race, saying students are made to feel guilty for being white and having enough money to attend the academy.

In addition to asking for a return of the pledged donation, the lawsuit seeks a tuition refund. It also asks that the academy be stopped from advertising itself as a Catholic institution and for the Florida Catholic Conference to stop accrediting the school.

The lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, identifies the Scarpos as owners of a diamond and jewelry import company and the First Trust Funding Group.

The school has denied the claims. In a letter to Adam Levine, the Scarpos’ lawyer, Tampa lawyer Gregory Hearing called the lawsuit a publicity stunt. If the Scarpos choose to move forward, he said, the academy would consider filing a counterclaim asking them to pay the remainder of their pledge, which he said Florida law may require them to do.

“We can discern no motivation behind the lawsuit other than attention-seeking by your clients, and a desire by you to build a brand,” Hearing wrote.

“For a court to delve into whether the substance of matters taught by a Catholic school are consistent with a Catholic education would entangle the court in excessively religious matters, and thereby violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution,” the letter said. “That we should need to educate you on this is absurd.”

In this 2017 photo, former Academy of the Holy Names president Art Raimo, left, poses with Barbara and Anthony Scarpo during the Tampa school's annual gala fund raiser. Now the Scarpos are suing the academy, Raimo and others, citing an alleged failure to adhere to Catholic teaching. [Photo courtesy of Academy of the Holy Names]
In this 2017 photo, former Academy of the Holy Names president Art Raimo, left, poses with Barbara and Anthony Scarpo during the Tampa school's annual gala fund raiser. Now the Scarpos are suing the academy, Raimo and others, citing an alleged failure to adhere to Catholic teaching. [Photo courtesy of Academy of the Holy Names]

The lawsuit pointed to what Anthony Scarpo alleged were many angry parents who agreed that the school no longer embraces mainstream Catholicism.

“The continued indoctrination of your twisted version of social and racial justice, equity, inclusion, sexuality and today’s politically correct narrative has permeated like a stench through the halls of the Academy and been allowed to seep into the minds of our children, causing stress, anger, guilt and confusion,” Scarpo wrote in a letter to the school upon his older daughter’s graduation.

His letter went on: “You were always eager to solicit our hard-earned money and take what you could but held firm as you dragged dozens if not hundreds of conservative families and teachers through your reimagined, highly progressive world, even as parents and students asked you … pleaded with you to stop, slow down.”

The lawsuit points to another letter, this one sent from Art Raimo, then-president of the academy, and Ernie Garateix, chairman of the school’s board, about the creation of a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion committee. Ken Whitney became president of the school on July 1.

The letter stated that “rejecting the racism and hatred reflected in the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor … it is imperative we have conversations that are uncomfortable, learn from them, reconcile and grow.”

It also said that “the social teaching of the Church and our participation within this teaching should be at the heart of what guides our work as a community. The well-being of all — staff and pupils — requires the removal of any barriers of prejudice, discrimination and oppression if we are all to strive and realize our full potential as unique and fulfilled human beings.”

According to the lawsuit, the letter by Raimo and Garateix did not “recognize the harm to their White, non-Diverse students by making them believe that they and their families are personally responsible for the historic harm(s) some members of our society have visited on other members of our society.”

It also alleges that parents were upset over a blackboard in a common area of the school that explains how to be an ally to the LGBTQ community. The Scarpos say the message “utterly fails to put any part of this explanation into perspective within mainstream Catholicism.”

Tuition and fees at the school range from $14,650 for pre-kindergarten students to $22,450 for high school students. The academy, which was founded in 1881, operates a coed elementary school and college preparatory high school for young women.

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The Scarpos paid $240,000 toward their pledge as of 2018 and raised more than $9 million for the school, the lawsuit says. It asks that the money they gifted be returned and the tuition they have already paid to be donated to Catholic charities of their choice.

Levine, their lawyer, said the couple is not concerned about the money, but rather wants the school to return to its roots.

“It’s about being a voice for people who are not being heard,” he said. “It’s about the failure to deliver on a promise.... This is not asking the courts to get involved in a religious issue, but this is a simple breach of contract. If you’re paying for a Catholic education, that’s what you should be getting.”

Emily Wise, a school spokeswoman, said in an email that because the case is pending, the academy cannot comment on details, other than to say the claims are “false and unsubstantiated.”

The school’s curriculum, she said, “is, and always has been, based on Catholic values and rigorous academic standards,” which she said include education, social justice, contemplation and the arts, with special concern for women, children, poor and marginalized people.

“We will continue to pray for all parties involved, and, if necessary, we are prepared to defend ourselves in court,” the email said.