A decision by a Catholic church in San Francisco to “phase out” girl altar servers has sparked outrage among its parishioners.

Father Joseph Illo, the pastor at Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco, explained the decision, saying that girls may be a “distraction” to male altar servers and that “boys usually end up losing interest, because girls generally do a better job.”

In his blog, he said the single sex programs were more “effective” to “develop the leadership potential” of boys. Also, the position does not make “sense” for girls because it is training for the priesthood, a role girls will never qualify for because of their gender.

In an official statement on the policy, he says: “I want to emphasize that we are not discontinuing altar girls because females are somehow incapable or unworthy. Girls are generally more capable and certainly just as worthy as boys (because God makes us worthy). The news media has portrayed our decision as discrimination. It is not. It is simply giving boys a role they can call their own, and more importantly recognizing the priesthood as a specifically fatherly charism rather than a motherly charism.”

Female altar servers were authorized about 20 years ago by the church’s canon law but the decision is ultimately left to the local bishop.

Some parishioners of the San Francisco church have left to join other parishes, Huffington Post reports.

“Those who can or cannot serve based on gender, that is discriminatory,” said Dunstan Alabanza.

Grace Cooley, who acted as an altar server at Star of the Sea in the early 2000s, told Huffington Post: “My initial reaction was one of disbelief. I'm having a hard time understanding why the presence of girls on the altar is all of a sudden unacceptable.”

“It was fascinating to see the inner workings of a mass, and I hate the thought of other girls missing out on that experience … I definitely think this is a huge step backward.”

“The age when a student becomes eligible for altar serving is also around the same age that girls start to lose their confidence,” she said. “I hate to see my alma mater contribute to those feelings of unworthiness by banning their service.”

Said Jennifer O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Women priests: “Not allowing women to be priests leads to decisions like not allowing girls to be altar servers.”

"I think the church has a loud voice within society as whole. I mean, it has a seat at the UN. When the church denies women as being complete and having full access, it’s easier for society to oppress women in general,” she said.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Candida Moss, University of Notre Dame professor of New Testament and early Christianity, and Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University, discussed the pope’s views on women and the church.

“Even when ostensibly elevating women, Francis reveals a highly patriarchal view of where their value lies,” they wrote. “Repeatedly, Francis has come back to extolling the role of women specifically as mothers, noting that ‘the presence of women in a domestic setting’ is crucial to ‘the very transmission of the faith.’”

O’Malley says she doesn’t expect to see female ordination in her lifetime.

“The people are having the conversation,” she said, “but the hierarchy is not having the conversation, and until they’re willing to dialogue with us, I think it’s a way’s off.”