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What does it mean to be a 'pro-life' police officer?

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 05:02

Washington D.C., Apr 7, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “Ultimately, this report is about the sanctity of all human life.”

This remarkable line opens up an international police group's flagship document on how to improve incidents of officer-involved shootings and the kinds of non-armed crisis situations that take place regularly across the United States.

“The essence of policing is the preservation of life,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., told CNA.

“That's why we exist; life is very precious, and we have to remind ourselves of that.”

This ethic of protecting human life extends even to the use of force in responding to incidents, Wexler argued: “Everything should be what we have to do to preserve human life – especially in the area of use of force.”

This principle, that human life is sacred has found itself at the core of PERF's work as an independent research and policy organization that looks at best practices in policing, as well as assistance, education and advice for law enforcement agencies.

With the idea that “the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does” at the center of the organization's 30 Guiding Principles on the Use of Force and training guide, the group is already revolutionizing the way police departments approach policies on force and the response to crisis situations.

Keeping everyone safe

The pro-life approach to police work is part of a years-long project undertaken by PERF, which has more than 2500 members from around the globe.

Wexler explained that the organization was inspired to readjust their recommended policies and training after high-profile cases of police violence in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere sparked a national conversation on the appropriate force.

“We needed to take a hard look at what we were doing,” he said.

It's hard to capture the scope of the issue of police-involved shootings in the United States, because there is no data or source of official reports that's collected on a national level.

FBI Director James B. Comey explained in a 2015 speech at Georgetown University that the federal agency can't even investigate the issue because “reporting by police departments is voluntary and not all departments participate. That means we cannot fully track the number of incidents in which force is used by police, or against police, including non-fatal encounters, which are not reported at all.”

This means that any information available is at best unreliable, and hampers both investigating and addressing the issue, the director said.

In its report, PERF pointed to attempts by journalists at the Guardian and the Washington Post to help fill this void of data by documenting the number of people killed in officer-involved shootings in the United States. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., also collects data on allegations of police misconduct, including shootings, at the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project.

PERF furthermore noted that according to the data collected by the Washington Post, nearly one-third of fatal police-involved shootings in 2015 could have a significant potential for de-escalation, either because the subject killed was mentally ill, unarmed, or armed with a weapon that was not a firearm.

Wexler was assisting colleagues in Scottish police departments when these issues rose to public prominence in 2014. It occurred to Wexler that these colleagues – most of whom are not armed in departments in the United Kingdom – still must respond to and stay safe when dealing with incidents involving weapons like bats or knives, without the option of deadly force.

“For me it was an epiphany,” Wexler said. He asked himself, “If they can do it, why can't we?”

PERF had researchers spend time studying police tactics in Scotland as well as in special emergency units in New York City and other departments around the United States. While the organization’s later research made a point not to blame most of the officers at the center of these events, PERF reassessed the training and policies surrounding the use of force in challenging situations.

“It really got us to think about how to re-engineer use of force policy and training,” Wexler said.

The result of their research was a document outlining guiding principles on the use of force and a training guide to teach officers how to better diffuse situations where de-escalation is possible. The guiding principles document notes that in most non-firearm cases “the threat is not immediate and the officers will have options for considering a more methodical, organized approach,” and many lives have the potential to be saved.

All of this is about trying to de-escalate a situation, giving officers the tools they need to do that.

It is this potential for saving lives – and not only the lives of civilians who interact with the police – which is the focus of the revised guidelines and tactics. PERF's research states that changing approaches to incidents can increase officer safety, too.

“Rather than unnecessarily pushing officers into harm's way in some circumstances, there may be opportunities to slow those situations down, bring more resources to the scene, and utilize sound decision-making that is designed to keep officers safe, while also protecting the public,” the report states.

In its findings, the document emphasizes the sanctity of human life as well as administering life-saving aid, transparency in reporting officer-involved shooting, use of less lethal options, and promoting effective means of managing mental illness in crisis situations.

The documents also criticize “line in the sand” policies and other training and field tactics which they found escalated, rather than calmed, crisis situations not involving firearms.

Wexler also said the principles of proportionality and effective communication are key to protecting the lives of all involved.

“All of this is about trying to de-escalate a situation, giving officers the tools they need to do that,” emphasizing the importance of teamwork, tactical skills and crisis intervention. “What's really important is the safety of the officer and the safety of the person you're dealing with.”

From the church to the streets

These policies aimed at respecting the dignity of life are not just formulated in an abstract environment, but with feedback from around the world.

“We have consulted with literally hundreds of police officers and police departments. We met and studied best practices around the country,” Wexler said.  

The research organization consulted with hundreds of police chiefs for over two years, and looked at countless case studies and reports to put together their findings and then their training program.

“We would not be recommending something if we didn't think it would work, and we've seen enough cases in the United States and in other countries where some may already be doing it or are in the process of implementing it.”

One of the other sources Wexler and PERF president, Scott Thompson, consulted in putting together the report was the archbishop of the largest city in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

“The person who we thought would really be interested in this concept was Cardinal Dolan in New York,” Wexler recalled. “We went to see Cardinal Dolan because we thought our principles, and in particular that principle, would be very significant to him.”

Cardinal Dolan was elected as the chairman-elect of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life activities beginning his term as chair in 2015.

“We had a really good meeting and he really understood and embraced” the core principle of protecting life, Wexler said. “It was something he could be very supportive of.”

There has been pushback from a lot of the major organizations.

PERF mentioned that Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has also lent his support in helping the group's training programs for the Chicago Police Department.

While the police policy guidelines have been met with support among the hundreds of departments who worked with PERF, the organization’s focus on prioritizing the sanctity of the lives of all persons involved in police incidents has not been without controversy.

“There has been pushback from a lot of the major organizations,” Wexler acknowledged.

When PERF first released its guidelines in March 2016, it was met with harsh criticism from both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.

“We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement officers to walk away from potentially dangerous situations and individuals in the hope that those situations resolve themselves without further harm being done,” the organizations said in a joint response to PERF’s initial report.

A year later, however, national police organizations have started to adopt consensus principles that echo many of the ideas emphasized by PERF.

In a document laying out “National Consensus Policy” on the use of force, released in January 2017, 11 national police organizations – including the FOP and IACP – emphasized the importance of de-escalation policies, “reasonably prudent” responses, and less-lethal force. The policy also asks that departments around the country openly state that the “policy of this law enforcement agency is to value and preserve human life.”

While Wexler said he could not comment on these adaptations, he did say the shift in focus to emphasize the dignity and value of all lives – even in the most challenging situations – is a “difficult” shift in perspective: “The changes we're recommending are probably some of the biggest changes in police tactics that we’ve seen in 25 years.”

And the size of the policing community in the United States – more than 18,000 departments – only adds to the challenge.

Still, while the values and emphasis in police policy might still face some debate, PERF's training and concrete policies have met with wide acceptance.

“We've had no pushback from our training,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of departments who have come to their training workshops in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.

With this support in the year since putting out the guidelines and what they've seen in the research process, Wexler is confident that they can create a culture that defends the sanctity of human life in all aspects of its police work.

“I'm optimistic that in five years, this will no longer be controversial,” Wexler said. “This will be the way people handle these situations.”

On immigration, 'sanctuary' is not the ultimate solution, bishop says

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 02:48

Denver, Colo., Apr 7, 2017 / 12:48 am (CNA).- Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez of Denver didn’t tell a group of Hispanic parishioners at St. Mary Parish in Greeley, Colo., that the Catholic Church would deny sanctuary to an individual who needed help, but he didn’t want that question to be the sole focus of the community, either.

“What we are trying to do [as a Church] is work from now so that we never come to the point of being in the situation where a family is living in a church basement,” he said. “We want to prevent that situation before it occurs.”

The bishop said this Tuesday, Mar. 28, at the first of three meetings organized by Centro San Juan Diego, together with the Consuls General of Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, to inform the community of the current immigration policies, offer advice on what steps to take if they should find themselves in a crisis, and to confirm their solidarity with the immigrant community.

When asked about sanctuary, or sensitive locations, as immigration laws define it, the bishop said that it’s a Christian duty to help someone in need, and that “we aren’t going to close the door on anyone,” adding that “the Church is your home.”

“But we have to ask ourselves if this is the best solution for a family,” he stated, “because in reality, they will be living for months completely confined in a room.”

The bishop said that the informational sessions and legal advice were preventative steps, so that “hopefully we don’t arrive to this situation [of needing to provide refuge].”

Checks and balances

Cheryl Martinez-Gloria, director of the immigration program for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver, clarified that little has changed with President Donald Trump’s executive order in January that sought to expand enforcement priorities and expedited removal.

“We are still operating under the same enforcement as we were under the Obama administration,” she said, attributing the fear and confusion of many immigrants to the “bad information out there.”

According to Martinez-Gloria, because of a lack of funding, which can only be approved by a vote of Congress, ICE is limiting priorities of enforcement to what they were under President Barack Obama’s administration, which include convicted felons, gang members, drug traffickers and those with final orders of deportation.

With regard to expedited removal, Martinez-Gloria said this procedure has existed in US law since 1996, but has been limited to those who are either at the border or within 100 miles of the border. The Trump order sought to expand expedited removal to apply it to anyone in the United States who has been here less than two years.

“That would imply a change in federal regulations, which could take months, a year or years,” she said.

“There are three elements to our government,” she explained, “the power of the president, the power of the legislature and the power of the courts. And all three have to be in agreement. This is the balance of our system.”

“Have faith in the balance of powers,” she said.

The lawyer also advised those attending to never “assume that just because he or she has been contacted by immigration that they are necessarily going to be deported.”

“You continue to have rights,” she said, “despite the circumstances.”

Be prepared

All three representatives of the consulates presented, including Juan Fernando Valey, Consul General of Guatemala; Jeremías Guzmán Barrera, Deputy Consul General of Mexico; and Eduardo Barandiarán, Consul General of Peru.

Valey began his presentation with a general warning against believing lawyers who will “fix your immigration” status for $5,000. He suggested getting legal advice and referrals from the consulates, or from Catholic Charities.

According to a presentation of the consulate of Mexico, immigrants are advised to be prepared with an emergency plan in the case they are detained. Most importantly, have a plan for who will take care of their children, and who will have legal guardianship of them.

The deputy consul gave some advice on how to act when one encounters civil authorities. For example, when an official comes to your house, don’t attempt to run away, stay calm and know that they can’t enter your home without a warrant.

If you are detained, he continued, don’t answer any questions without consulting a lawyer, ask to call your consulate, don’t sign anything, don’t lie and never give authorities false documentation.

Other general words of advice included not breaking any lawful regulation, particularly driving without a license and drinking and driving, and to avoid fights and anything that could put you into contact with authorities in a negative manner.


Originally published in the Denver Catholic.


US leaders tell persecuted believers: 'You are not alone'

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 18:25

Washington D.C., Apr 6, 2017 / 04:25 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious freedom advocates at the United States capitol on Thursday sent a message of solidarity to all those imprisoned or tortured for their religious beliefs.

“You are not alone. We are here with you, and we together will fight for your freedom,” Kristina Arriaga, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated April 6 to two prisoners she sponsored as part of a forthcoming project on “prisoners of conscience.”

Under the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law in December by President Barack Obama, the commission was directed to make a list of persons throughout the world who have been tortured, killed, imprisoned, have disappeared, or were placed under house arrest because of their religious beliefs or advocacy.

The commission monitors religious freedom around the world and makes policy recommendations to the State Department.

On Thursday members announced that a “prisoners of conscience” list is being created, and that they will seek public input from non-government organizations on information about persons who could be included on the list. There will be forms provided for organizations to complete, Fr. Thomas Reese, chair of the commission, announced.

The list will be used for advocacy for the release of prisoners by foreign governments or non-state actors, Fr. Reese explained. “Public inattention can often lead to more persecution,” he said. Pictures of the prisoners and personal information can also help “put a face” to persecution around the world, he added.

“USCIRF strongly believes that it is essential to highlight the very personal dimensions and cruel costs of violations of freedom of religion or belief. These are human beings. We want to put a human face on these violations of religious freedom.”

Included on the list are members of the “Baha’i Seven,” leaders of the Baha’i religious minority in Iran who have been imprisoned since 2008, and Maryam Naghash Zargaran, a Christian convert from Islam who worked at an orphanage in Iran and was convicted of “propagating against the Islamic regime and collusion intended to harm national security,” according to USCIRF.

Commissioners brought attention to various prisoners they themselves have sponsored. Fr. Reese sponsored Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, who has been detained since 2007.

He chose to sponsor the patriarch for ecumenical reasons, he explained, but also to draw attention to a little-known country with a poor human rights record.

“We’re hoping that this gives it a face, this gives it more attention, so that it’s simply not ignored by the media or by government officials or by anybody who can put the spotlight on the problems in Eritrea,” he explained. “For Christians, these are our brothers and sisters in Africa who are suffering because of their faith.”

Patriarch Antonios was elected patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church in 2003, but was forcibly removed by the government in 2007 after “he called for the release of Christian prisoners and refused to excommunicate 3,000 of his parishioners who opposed the government,” Fr. Reese explained.

The patriarch is “reportedly being denied medical care despite his suffering from severe diabetes,” he added.

“Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa,” he explained to CNA. The government imprisons thousands for their religious beliefs or advocacy and “uses torture and forced labor” to exert control.

“Arresting the Patriarch, that’s like arresting the Pope! And deposing him – Napoleon did that,” Fr. Reese said. “This is the level of abuse of freedom of religion in this country. And it’s not only him [the patriarch], it’s the other clergy that are being harassed and persecuted.”

Kristina Arriaga sponsored two members of the “Bahá’í Seven,” a group who were “tending to the spiritual and the social needs of the Bahá’í” before they were arrested by the Iranian government in 2008, labeled as heretics, convicted for “espionage and spreading propaganda against the regime”, and sentenced to at least 20 years in prison.

There have been over 200 Bahá’í leaders killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution, she said.

Arriaga sponsored two women of the seven – Mahwash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi. They shared a cell in a Tehran prison. One, Fariba, wrote a “whole book of poetry” smuggled out through “scraps of paper,” Arriaga said.

“Their name may sound foreign to all of us, but they want the same things we do, to live according to their deeply held convictions, to be with their families through the good times and the bad times, to be there for births and celebrations and weddings and deaths and funerals, but they can’t,” she said.

“Fariba and Mahvash, Your voice was indeed taken away. Until you are freed, we – all of us here – will lend you ours,” she added.

Philly archbishop praised for revamping city's Catholic schools

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 05:02

Philadelphia, Pa., Apr 6, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Catholic schools in Philadelphia have seen a revitalization in finances and quality of education thanks to the initiative of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, says a group that collaborated with him on the effort.  

“While fund-raising certainly helped, the faith and wisdom of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was equally important,” the Faith in the Future foundation said.

“He recognized the passion of lay leaders – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – for these schools and he empowered them to take action.”
The archdiocese began a partnership in 2012 with the Faith in the Future to increase fundraising and new leadership in overseeing Catholic school management.

“We need to have ongoing interest on the part of the donor community – not only Catholics but people who share our commitment to education – the ongoing support of the archdiocese of course, and our people and our pastors are all included,” Archbishop Charles Chaput said at the time, according to the Catholic Philly.

The foundation is now in charge of 17 high schools and four special education schools. The program started off in 2012 with nearly 13 million dollars in donations and has increased to 19.4 million in 2016. In a recent column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the group's leaders lauded Archbishop Chaput for his part in the growing success of the city's Catholic schools.

Faith in the Future works to fund the school's operational deficits then reinvests the surpluses into new programs. The organization also oversees improvements to operations and market strategies to further promote enrollment.

In the beginning of 2012, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was planning on closing 44 elementary schools, four high schools, and displacing nearly 24,000 students. Among other challenges, the archdiocese felt heavy financial strains from organizational issues and abuse scandals.

“The resources simply don't exist. Many of our parishes are financially strained. The archdiocese itself faces serious financial and organizational challenges that have been developing for many years and cannot be ignored,” Archbishop Chaput had told the Catholic Standard & Times.

As part of the revamping initiative, many schools have undergone significant transformation. West Catholic was reborn as West Catholic Preparatory High School, and has since doubled its enrollment – adding engineering and technology programs as well as a partnership with Drexel University. The U.S. Department of Education also accepted Our Mother of Consolation into the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, which is an award recognizing academic excellence. Both schools were originally among those slated to close.

The foundation's CEO, Samuel Carter, said that only three schools are now running on deficits. Carter noted they have accumulated a surplus over the past three years, and funds are being channeled back into new technologies and programs.

In a February 2016, Faith in the Future announced that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will extend their contract until 2022. At the announcement, Carter pointed to an information system that tracked the market analysis of potential students in order to better market the school’s qualities. He also discussed the increased strategies for access to assisted funding from areas like BLOCS or the Maguire Foundation, according the Catholic Philly.  

Besides increased funds by donors and better school organization, expansions to the EITC and OSTC of Pennsylvania’s tax systems have made tuition assistance more readily available for families. Both of the programs apply tax breaks or credits to businesses who provide a charitable donation. Businesses are able to receive 75-90 percent state tax credit for any amount up to $750,000.

Last year, Philadelphia's Catholic school system saw 93 percent of their graduates attend college, and more than half were awarded with at least one scholarship. As reported by Catholic Philly, Archbishop Chaput expressed his gratitude for the foundation, the lay community’s involvement, and the Catholic identity guiding the schools.

“The foundation’s zeal for excellence in management, guided by a strong Catholic identity, has served our high schools and schools of special education exceptionally well. I'm confident the foundation will continue to strengthen our educational system for the benefit of the region’s children,” the archbishop said.

A new civil rights ruling may create religious liberty problems

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 02:08

Chicago, Ill., Apr 6, 2017 / 12:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Both employers and employees who don’t believe marriage is an institution between a man and a woman could be affected by a federal appeals court ruling that sexual orientation is protected by federal civil rights legislation barring discrimination on the basis of sex.

“There is a concern that if an employer simply expresses its belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, an employee might complain that the employer created a ‘hostile work environment’ that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation,” Jim Campbell, senior counsel for the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA April 5. “This risk poses concerns for religious employers.”

Expressing religious views against or in favor of some forms of behavior could come to be treated as illegal discrimination in the workplace.

“Someone might argue that a religious employee who simply expresses her view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman creates a ‘hostile work environment’ based on sexual orientation,” Campbell said.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on Tuesday ruled that sexual orientation is protected against discrimination by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The 8-3 ruling is unprecedented in a federal appeals court and conflicts with other courts, possibly setting up a Supreme Court hearing.

The appeals court ruled on the case of Kimberly Hively, a teacher at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana. She charged that the school denied her a full-time job after she was seen kissing her then-girlfriend in the school’s parking lot.

The school denied discriminating against the teacher, saying that its policies specifically bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That factual question is distinct from the question over the interpretation of the law, the Associated Press says.

The 1964 law bars discrimination in employment on the basis of sex. Other courts have said Congress meant the word to refer to whether a worker was male or female and held it was erroneous to claim the legal meaning of the word “sex” included sexual orientation.

Chief Judge Diane Wood, writing the majority decision, said the case was “no different from the claims brought by women who were rejected for jobs in traditionally male workplaces, such as fire departments, construction, and policing.”

“The employers in those cases were policing the boundaries of what jobs or behaviors they found acceptable for a woman (or in some cases, for a man),” she said.

Judge Diane Sykes, writing in the dissent, said the ruling imparted “a new or unconventional meaning” to the text of the law, arguing the court is not authorized to update the text to respond to “changed social, economic, or political conditions.”

Campbell sided with the dissent, saying that the court “rewrote the statute to mean something that neither the original understanding nor the text of the statute supports.”

He said the judicial branch “rewrote a federal statute to accomplish something that Congress never intended.”

The law cited in the decision, the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII, does have an exception for some religious organizations, limiting the impact of the court’s decision.

Campbell said employers who perform secular work will rarely have a religious belief that “precludes them from employing someone who is in a same-sex relationship or is experiencing same-sex attraction.”

“But in limited circumstances, that might happen, and the religious freedom of those employers will be adversely affected,” he added.

He suggested that religious employers not protected by religious exemptions should make a distinction between discriminating against gays and lesbians “because of their status as such.” They could still implement codes of conduct against certain behaviors, which should not be unlawful.

Even these distinctions might not be sustainable under law.

“Unfortunately, however, the U.S. Supreme Court so far has been unwilling to distinguish between status and conduct in the context of sexual orientation.”

Other regulatory forces already appear to share the assumption of the Seventh Circuit.

Under the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held “sex stereotypes” like “the belief that men should only date women or that women should only marry men” constitute illegal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Maryland bishops join fight against human trafficking

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 20:02

Baltimore, Md., Apr 5, 2017 / 06:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Maryland's bishops united in voicing their concerns over the evils of human trafficking, announcing their sponsorship of a statewide initiative aimed at raising awareness of the issue.  

“The evil of human trafficking is an international, national and local scourge, and a grave violation of the dignity and freedom of all its victims,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington said in an April 3 statement.

“As people of faith, this grave injustice cries out for a response.”

According to the U.S. State Department, upwards of 800,000 victims of trafficking are brought through the U.S. borders every year. Up to 17,500 individuals are also trafficked into the country annually. Globally, the number spikes into an estimated 20 million victims, according to the International Labor Organization.  

The bishops lamented that the state of Maryland also sees a number of trafficked victims, due to Interstate 95, which acts as a hub to other cities, especially with the Baltimore Washington International airport nearby.

The bishops' statement, titled Proclaiming Liberty to Captives, highlighted the duty of Christians to “break the yoke of modern-day slavery,” by raising awareness and supporting organizations that aid victims.

Many efforts are already in place, which rescue trafficked victims and prosecute the perpetrators, such as Maryland's Human Trafficking Task Force, who rescued almost 400 victims from trafficking in 2014.

The bishops voiced their support of these initiatives, and also announced their own sponsorship of regional trainings that will raise awareness of human trafficking around the state.

“The Catholic bishops in Maryland pledge to devote the resources of the Church to support, unify and expand these efforts wherever possible,” the bishops stated.

“To assist in those efforts, the Catholic Church will sponsor regional trainings throughout the state beginning in the spring of 2017, at which we will bring together national, state and local experts who will provide participants with effective tools for combating human trafficking in our local communities.”

As many victims are not aware of their own captivity, the bishops underscored the importance of these new training programs that would help individuals recognize and identify the signs of a trafficked victim.

“Perhaps the most distressing aspect of human trafficking is the cloak of silence gripping its victims,” the bishops said, noting that many victims are vulnerable, poor, or runaways.

“Often, victims are not even aware they are being exploited,” they said, and asked that Catholics in Maryland attend the new training sessions “to recognize, set free, embrace and empower our brothers and sisters who are victims of human trafficking.”

The Maryland bishops are not alone in their concern over the staggering number of human trafficking victims. Pope Francis has also spoken out against the evils of trafficking, calling the injustice a “shameful wound.”

The Holy Father also used his 2015 World Day of Peace address to speak out against trafficking, asking individuals to not “become accomplices to this evil,” but to “have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ.”

“Our commitment to addressing this issue reflects the commitment of the world-wide Church and especially Pope Francis, who from the start of his papacy has spoken passionately about this 'plague on the body of contemporary humanity,'” the bishops said.

The Maryland bishops urged local communities to learn more about human trafficking awareness through the new training programs, and also asked individuals to pray for the end of trafficking.

“We urge Catholics in Maryland to take advantage of these trainings in order to shine a light on this issue.”

Chemical attack in Syria 'shocks the soul,' says top US bishop

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 18:52

Washington D.C., Apr 5, 2017 / 04:52 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious and political leaders have renewed calls for peace as they decried dozens of reported civilian deaths by poison gas this week in the Syrian conflict.  

“The chemical attack in Syria on April 4 shocks the soul. The many innocent lives targeted by these terrible tools of war cry out for humanity’s protection,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Wednesday.

At least 70 people, including children, were reportedly killed in Idlib, Syria on Tuesday by deadly gas after the neighborhood of Khan Sheikhoun was bombed, reportedly by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There have been around 200 reported chemical attacks in Syria, the medical care group UOSSM noted. The conflict there has lasted six years. Last year, the UN reported that Syrian government forces and ISIS had used chemical weapons on multiple occasions in 2014 and 2015. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime and violates international law.

“If confirmed, this would constitute the single largest chemical weapons attack in [Syria] since the attack on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013,” Kim Won-Soo, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said of Tuesday’s incident.

UOSSM, which had doctors working in the targeted area, reported that victims of Tuesday’s bombing were showing symptoms of asphyxiation, foaming of the mouth, and “severe Dyspnoea.”

“Medical facilities are overwhelmed with patients and unequipped to handle chemical attacks of this magnitude,” they stated, adding that “many area hospitals have been put out of service, further complicating the situation.”

Dr. Monzer Yazji, president of UOSSM USA, reporting seeing a “major shortage in doctors, staff, and facilities inside Syria” in a trip there last week. “The attack today has left us all paralyzed. We are unable to properly treat the injured,” Dr. Yazji said.

Reporting on the attack, one activist witness said white smoke covered the vicinity after a bomb dropped, according to Reuters.

However, the Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons on the area, and its Russian allies have claimed that a bomb hit a rebel-held factory manufacturing chemical weapons, which then dispelled the gas.

The UN on Tuesday reported that details of the attack were “still coming in” and that “the attack had reportedly been carried out through an air strike on a residential area” but “the means of delivery could not be confirmed.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday condemned the “chemical weapons attack” which he said was “the third allegation of the use of such weapons in the past month alone.” President Donald Trump said the attack “crossed a lot of lines” in a Wednesday joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden, with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

“While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism,” he said of the Syrian president. “Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions,” he added, saying that “as the self-proclaimed guarantors to the ceasefire negotiated in Astana, Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”

The advocacy group In Defense of Christians also condemned the attack.

“IDC condemns in the strongest terms the brutal violence and tactics of torture being used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the support of Russian and Iranian forces against civilians in Syria,” IDC executive director Philippe Nassif stated.

Religious and political leaders have called for prayer, for the perpetrators to be held accountable, and for a peaceful end to the conflict which has lasted for over six years.

“In this season of Lent when Christians draw near to the suffering of Christ, let us match the horrific indifference shown for innocent life with a fervent prayer for love to break through the evil,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “Let us also match our prayer with a faithful witness to suffering so that no life at risk is forgotten.”

Pope Francis condemned the attack and offered his prayers “for the victims and their families.”

“I appeal to the conscience of those who have political responsibility, locally and internationally, so that this tragedy may come to an end and relief be brought to that beloved population who for too long have been devastated by war,” he said.

The use of poison gas on civilians is a war crime, but under international criminal law the perpetrator is not known right now with complete certainty, Professor Robert Destro, an international law expert at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, explained to CNA.

“We need to know who did it,” he insisted. “There are certain things that you are just not allowed to do.”

There are several actions countries could take to find the perpetrators and hold them accountable, he said, one approach being to use international criminal law, filing an indictment against the guilty party in an international criminal tribunal.

However, for this to take place, world leaders like the U.S., China, and Russia would have to come together, as “the U.S. cannot hold them responsible by itself.”

The international community must start meeting to determine not the best interests of particular countries, he said, but rather “what is in the best interest of people who live in the neighborhood” in Syria.