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NEWARK — The Archdiocese of Newark is backtracking on punitive actions officials took in response to controversies involving girls playing on boys athletic teams.

The decisions may lead to further rule changes for Catholic school athletic programs.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, on Wednesday reversed the expulsion of two sisters whose parents had sued St. Theresa's School in Kenilworth over denying one of the girls a spot on the boys basketball team.

The cardinal also ordered that the 5th grade basketball team at St. John the Apostle School in Clark be allowed to continue playing as a co-ed team for the rest of the year.

Catholic Youth Organization league officials had recently informed the team that its two girl players should not have been allowed to play and that the girls would not be permitted to continue the season.

In response, the team chose to forfeit the rest of the season. The team's prior record also was forfeited as a result of the girls being on the team illegally.

While the archdiocese did not change the rules prohibiting co-ed teams, Tobin noted that the students should not be "penalized for mistakes that adults responsible for following the league rules may have made."

Both incidents generated lots of headlines and is one of the first controversies Tobin has been called on to address in less than two months into his tenure as the leader of the state's Roman Catholics.

Tobin called on the Catholic Youth Organization to "convene a working group to study the current league rules regarding participation and team makeup in all age groups."

He also asked the archdiocesan legal staff to stop enforcing the rule that allows schools to expel students whose parents file lawsuits.

The archdiocese on Wednesday defended the gender-segregation rules, but called the development at St. John's in Clark "unfortunate."

"The CYO basketball program is organized not only for the enjoyment of the students involved, but also to teach them the importance of fair play, good and healthy competition and how faith can be expressed through sports and in community," officials said in a prepared statement.

"For more than two decades, the rules and practices in the Archdiocese of Newark CYO call for boys-only and girls-only teams in older grades. The rule recognizes that some sports, like basketball, feature greater physical contact and aggression as student players age and mature. The logic is similar to the rules requiring the separation of players by age groupings. Both rules seek to reduce the possibility of injury to a younger, smaller child by older and more physically developed athletes."

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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