DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) — The Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia doesn't need another public relations headache after years of priest-abuse and school-closure headlines, but it's got one in the form of a pony-tailed 11-year-old athlete.
Sixth-grader Caroline Pla is fighting the archdiocese for the right to keep playing church-sponsored youth football.
The soft-spoken twin has been battling boys on the gridiron since she was 5. She's played the last two seasons in a Catholic Youth Organization league, where the 5-foot-3, 110-pound offensive tackle and defensive end made the all-star team.
But the archdiocese may put the kibosh on her Catholic youth league career. While at least a few U.S. dioceses let girls play football, and about 1,600 girls play on U.S. high school teams, the Philadelphia league is open only to boys.
"First they said it was a boys sport. Then they said it was a safety issue. Then they said it was inappropriate touching. I think they are just constantly looking for excuses to not change it," Caroline said Thursday at her home in Buckingham Township, Bucks County.
She first played in a public Pop Warner league, then moved along with her teammates to the Catholic Youth Organization league in fifth grade. After one season without a hitch, she learned last fall that an overlooked boys-only rule would be enforced. The archdiocese, though, agreed to let her finish the season.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is now reviewing the ban, with a decision expected next month after a panel of coaches, parents and doctors weigh in.
"Traditionally football is a boys-only sport due to its full contact nature," the church said in a statement. "Most parents and players have preferred this; some now disagree."
Caroline sent Chaput an email in January, explaining that her Catholic youth league team had been the best chapter in her burgeoning, three-season sports career.
By then, she and her parents, George and Marycecelia Pla, had taken to the airwaves to lobby for a rule change. An online petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures, and Caroline recently appeared on Ellen DeGeneris' show as well as newscasts.
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