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Richmond diocese to stop naming buildings after bishops

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 16:44

Richmond, Va., Jun 28, 2019 / 02:44 pm (CNA).- In the wake of recent sexual abuse scandals throughout the U.S., the Diocese of Richmond has announced that it will no longer name buildings and institutions after clergymen and religious founders.

The new policy went into effect on Thursday, as six names were added to the diocese’s list of clergy with credible sexual abuse accusations against them. The diocese said the additional names reflect new information recently brought forward.

“Overcoming the tragedy of abuse is not just about holding accountable those who have committed abuses, it is also about seriously examining the role and complex legacies of individuals who should have done more to address the crisis in real time,” said Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond.

“The continued honorific recognition of those individuals provides a barrier to healing for our survivors, and we want survivors to know that we welcome and support them in our diocese,” he said in a June 27 statement form the Diocese of Richmond.

Schools, institutions, and parish buildings will from now on only be named after saints, titles of Jesus and Mary, mysteries of the faith, and the locations where the ministries were founded.

Buildings and institutions may no longer be named after bishops, pastors, or the founders of organizations. Rooms and parts of buildings that are already named are exempt from the policy. The archdiocese clarified that the new rules do not prohibit the placement of plaques which recognize historical figures or donors.

The only building that will require a name changes is Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach, which will return to its former name: Catholic High School.

“While the name of the school is changing, our mission remains the same, based firmly on Catholic teaching,” said Kelly Lazarra, superintendent of the Diocesan Office of Catholic Schools. “Catholic High School is dedicated to nurturing intellect, shaping character and forming Christian values.”

This move follows a nearly 10-year campaign by resident Thomas Lee, who says he was abused by a priest in the diocese and that Bishop Walter Sullivan covered up the abuse and allowed the priest to continue in ministry.

“This will go a long way in the healing process,” said Lee, according to WTKR.

Bishop Knestout issued a renewed apology to all those affected by clerical sexual abuse.

“It is my hope and prayer that the policy change is another way to continue to assist survivors of abuse in their healing, especially those who have, in any way, experienced the failure of Church leadership to adequately address their needs and concerns,” he said.

Second US Democratic debate discussed abortion, 'religious hypocrisy'

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 13:40

Miami, Fla., Jun 28, 2019 / 11:40 am (CNA).- Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, the second in a series of debates that will continue until the 2020 primaries, featured discussion of religious hypocrisy and abortion among other matters.

Candidates were asked questions by NBC debate moderators June 27 on topics ranging from health care, immigration, and foreign policy, to race relations, climate change, and taxes.

However, candidates on Thursday barely discussed taxpayer funding of abortion, as opposed to Wednesday night’s debate when candidate Julian Castro said he supported taxpayer funding of abortion as a matter of “reproductive justice.” As president, he continued, he would ensure that all women and “trans-females” – men identifying as women – would have access to abortion and abortion coverage.

Castro later said he misspoke and meant to say that “trans-males,” or females identifying as a male who still possess a uterus, would be able to receive abortion coverage under his presidency.

Candidates discussed abortion in a brief segment where Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) said that a “woman’s right to control her own body is a constitutional right,” and promised to not appoint any judge to the Supreme Court who was not “100 percent” committed to upholding Roe v. Wade.

“‘Medicare for All’ guarantees every women in this country the right to have an abortion if she wants it,” Sanders said of his health care policy.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) followed up by touting her own pro-abortion credentials. “I had to fight like heck” to protect contraceptive coverage and abortion services while the Affordable Care Act was being considered in Congress, she said, adding that as president, “I will guarantee women’s reproductive rights no matter what.”

Gillibrand criticized “compromise” on the issue which has brought about policies like the Hyde Amendment, an over-40-year-old bipartisan policy that bars federal Medicaid funding of most elective abortions.

After the Democratic National Committee platform in 2016 called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, that policy has come under fire by Democratic presidential candidates including by frontrunner Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) who recently reversed his long-standing support for the policy.

The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List criticized the lack of questions about candidates’ public opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion, despite polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortions.

“The strong majority of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, yet no Democratic contender including Joe Biden had to answer a single hard question about their extreme stance last night,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser.

“Democratic contenders have embraced an agenda of taxpayer-funded abortion on demand and even infanticide that is deeply unpopular with Independents and more than a third of Democrats – the voters they desperately need to win,” Dannenfelser said.

Elsewhere in the debate, during the discussion of immigration, the topic surfaced of the criminalization of immigrants crossing into the U.S. border illegally.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said she would issue an executive order to “reinstate” DACA protections for eligible persons and defer deportation for their parents and for veterans. She added that she would stop the practices of detaining immigrant children in cages and end private detention facilities.

Biden said he would unite immigrant families and send “billions of dollars worth of help to the region immediately,” regarding the surge of women and child migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.

When pressed on the deportation of “over 3 million Americans” by the Obama administration, Biden said those with “major” criminal records, but not ordinary undocumented immigrants, should be deported. He added that “we should not be locking people up”, rather harboring asylum seekers until their hearing, and should address the root causes of migration.

Sanders said that the next president should “rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done” and that the “root causes” of migration should be examined.

Almost all candidates supported decriminalizing border crossings without documentation, making it a civil offense.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said this criminalization, as opposed to civil penalties, leads to practices such as the separation of families at the border. He used that issue to condemn what he called the religious hypocrisy of the Republican Party.

“The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” he said, noting that Democrats have staked out a different position because they “are committed to the separation of Church and state” and support everyone whether religious believers or not.

“We should call out hypocrisy when we see it, and for a party that associates itself with Christianity,” he said, “to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, to suggest that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

On the topic of race relations, Harris attacked Sen. Joe Biden’s (D-Del.) previous opposition to federally-mandated busing in school districts in the 1970s, as part of desegregation.

Harris interjected and said that the issue of race is not discussed enough “truthfully or honestly.”

“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said turning to Biden, but added that it was “hurtful” to hear him talk about working with segregationists and noted his opposition to federal busing for desegregation.

Biden retorted that her comments were a “mischaracterization” of his position, saying, “I did not praise racists” and “I did not oppose busing in America.” He said that he supported “breaking down these lines” on race and that he “ran [for Senate] because of civil rights,” and that civil rights – including the rights of the “LGBT community” – need to be protected today.

Harris, however, said that federal intervention on busing was required because states were obstructing civil rights. “That’s where the federal government must step in,” she said, advocating for the need to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and pass the Equality Act.

Religion in China: 'It’s never been worse than it is right now,' Congress hears

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 09:15

Washington D.C., Jun 28, 2019 / 07:15 am (CNA).- At a congressional hearing on the worldwide persecution of Christians, religious freedom advocates warned Thursday of the plight of Christians in Asia and particularly in China, where the government is acting forcibly bring religion under Communist Party control.

“I have been in Congress since 1981, I have worked on human rights in China since 1981,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, told the commission’s hearing on June 27. 

Referring to China’s campaign to “sinicize” religion, Smith said it was proceeding with brutal efficiency. “Under ‘sinicization,’ all religions and believers must comport with and aggressively promote communist ideology -- or else,” Smith said.

“It’s never been worse than it is right now.”

“Religious believers of every persuasion are harassed, arrested, jailed, or tortured. Only the compliant are left relatively unscathed. Bibles are burned, churches are destroyed, crosses set ablaze atop church steeples,” Smith said.

In addition to the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in what are effectively “concentration camps” that “are up and running to commit genocide,” Smith said that the government has instituted requirements for facial-recognition cameras, restricted religious expression online, and people under age 18 have been prohibited from attending religious services. Officials have also engaged in campaigns to rewrite the Bible.

Thursday’s hearing focused on “Violations of the International Right to Freedom of Religion” of Christians. Sam Brownback, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, also testified, along with the Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and others.

Christians are the most widely persecuted religious group in the world, facing violence and harassment in 144 countries, Brownback told the Commission, citing a recent Pew study.

“Religious persecution is a defining challenge of the 21st century, and the United States will proudly lead the charge to protect religious freedom wherever it is under attack,” Ambassador Brownback stated on Thursday.

In his testimony before the Commission, Brownback pointed to the Middle East where “Christian communities are dwindling due to harsh persecution, unjust imprisonments and religiously motivated violence,” including in Iran where Christians are are in jail facing charges brought by the Iran Revolutionary Court of “enmity against God,” “corruption on Earth,” and “disturbing national security.”

Dr. David Curry, President of the group Open Doors USA, which monitors Christian persecution and advocates for religious freedom, stated that according to the group’s most recent “World Watch List,” 4,146 Christians were killed for their faith in 2018, along with 2,625 detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned. Over 1,266 churches were attacked in 2018. 

Curry also noted a “dramatic rise” in violence against Christians, which he attributed to several causes, including radical Islamic jihadist ideology, a surge in religious nationalism in countries like India, and the rise of communist or post-communist political systems.

The Easter bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed over 250 people were also a topic of discussion at the hearing.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) relayed concerns from Christians in Sri Lanka of the government shutting down churches for “security” purposes in the wake of the bombings. Some members of the military guarding the churches also tortured Catholics in the country’s recent civil war, she said, adding that “many” Christians there “are understandably nervous about the Sri Lankan government’s intentions.”

Brownback answered that the State Department has been pushing for the government to uphold the rights of religious minorities while maintaining security.

There are “deep wounds within the society that need to be addressed,” Brownback said. “There needs to be some major reconciliation.” He praised Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith for an “outstanding job” in calling for no retribution for the Easter attacks.

In addition, Brownback noted that a result of last year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by the State Department, was the creation of a fund for victims of religious violence, and that fund had been made availibe to victims of the Sri Lanka bombings.

Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted that in Pakistan, “state security forces in last year have disappeared dozens of young Christian” in the city of Karachi. Although many have been released, Christians are fearful of an escalation, she said.

In Burma, although the plight of the Rohingya Muslims has garnered international attention, “less known is the plight of the Christians,” she said.

Due to conflict between the country’s military and ethnic armed organizations, thousands of Christians have been displaced, and the government has used the conflict as a pretext to crack down on Christian leaders, “accusing them of working with ethnic armed organizations.”

“The Burmese government has created a culture of fear and violence for Christians that fundamentally undermines their ability to practice their faith,” she said, calling for U.S. sanctions on Burmese Senior General Min Aung Hlaing “for his direct role in perpetrating atrocities against Rohingya and ethnic minorities in Burma including Christians and Rohingya Muslims.”

People not politics: Pro-life groups unite to send aid to the border

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 05:02

Brownsville, Texas, Jun 28, 2019 / 03:02 am (CNA).- Reports of children with matted hair, inadequate sleep and no access to showers or clean clothes. A published photo of a father and his toddler daughter who drowned trying to reach the United States. Media reports in the last week painted a bleak picture of the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border, worsened by overcrowding and underfunding.

The crisis spurred New Wave Feminists, a secular pro-life group, to take action in collaboration with And Then There Were None (ATTWN), a support group for former abortion clinic workers.

In just three days, New Wave Feminists has collected more than $16,900 in monetary donations, while ATTWN has collected more than $12,800 worth of donated goods through a wish list registry on Amazon - so many toiletries, diapers, and other basic items that the group is renting a U-Haul truck to deliver their donations.

“The thing we keep hearing is, ‘Oh, pro-lifers don’t care about life outside the womb. Where are they at the border?’” Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, told CNA.

The sentiment is inaccurate, she said, citing a border donation drive by New Wave Feminists last year, to which pro-life people from various groups throughout the country donated.

This year, they are listing those groups as sponsors. More than 40 different pro-life groups have supported the border drive already this week. So many groups joined so quickly that Herndon-De La Rosa had to redesign a flyer that listed the sponsors. Some of those sponsors include Loyola Catholic, Libertarian Light, FemCatholic, Latinos for Life, and Mercy Missions, among many others.

“It’s been amazing to see how many other groups are getting involved and how those donations have multiplied because it isn’t just one pro-life group, it’s truly the pro-life movement that is getting behind this effort,” she said.

The success of the campaign and the broad list of sponsors from throughout the pro-life movement makes the pro-life message all the more authentic, Herndon-De La Rosa said, because it shows that the pro-life issue does not belong to one political party or religion, and that it cares about all human life.

“It’s not a political issue, it’s a people issue. And so if we care about the human dignity of the child in the womb, then we also care about the human dignity of the migrant. We care about the human dignity of all people, and that’s because we subscribe to the consistent life ethic,” she said.

One of the focuses of the New Wave Feminist group are the systemic issues that make people believe abortion is their only option, Herndon-De La Rosa noted, “and obviously poverty and instability are some of those, and access to healthcare and basic living necessities.”

Abby Johnson, founder and CEO of ATTWN, said in a Facebook post about the campaign, "Let’s be a movement that reaches out to those who need our physical and emotional assistance...whether those people are walking into an abortion clinic, at the border, or are homeless.”

On Thursday, a group of attorneys who interviewed migrant children about the detention center conditions asked a federal judge to issue an emergency order that the centers be inspected immediately and that the conditions be improved, the Washington Post reported. Late Thursday, the House passed a Senate-approved emergency relief bill that would give $4.6 billion in aid for the humanitarian crisis on the border. The bill now goes to President Donald Trump.

One of the biggest needs on the border is legal aid to help children reunite with their families, Herndon-De La Rosa said. That is why part of the donations from the drive will go to Immigrant Families Together, a legal group dedicated to reuniting families.

One of the challenges for pro-life people who want to help with the border crisis, Herndon-De La Rosa added, is that some of the larger corporations doing good work at the border also have ties to abortion funding. The groups that New Wave Feminists chose for their donations, including the legal group as well as two humanitarian respite centers, were vetted accordingly. One of the chosen respite centers - which is where families are reunited after detainment - is run by Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

“We should be able to stand with the vulnerable wherever they are,” Herndon-De La Rosa said, “and that extends beyond the womb.”

New Wave Feminists is collecting donations, 100% of which will be used for border aid, through July 13 on their website. A few items also remain to be purchased on the Amazon border aid registry.

Fulton Sheen's remains arrive in Peoria; sainthood cause resumes

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 18:20

Peoria, Ill., Jun 27, 2019 / 04:20 pm (CNA).- Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s remains have been transferred from the Archdiocese of New York to Peoria, Illinois, after three years of litigation, clearing the way for the former archbishop’s sainthood cause to go forward.

Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria announced today that Sheen’s remains had been transferred from St. Patrick Cathedral, New York, to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria.

“Church law requires that the transfer of the remains of one considered for beatification done without any solemnity,” a June 27 release from the diocese explained.

“As a result, the transfer could not be publicized in advance. Also, no liturgical ceremony or public gathering could be held during the transfer. Therefore, the transfer of the remains was done without prior public notice.”

According to the diocese, Joan Sheen Cunningham—Venerable Sheen’s niece and closest living relative— and Patricia Gibson, chancellor and attorney for the Diocese of Peoria, along with funeral home and cemetery personnel, gathered early in the morning June 27 at St. Patrick Cathedral in New York, where Sheen’s remains were taken out of the cathedral to LaGuardia airport and flown to Chicago O’Hare.

The diocese also announced that Sheen’s Cause for Beatification, the next step on the road to sainthood, had resumed.

“Bishop Jenky has notified the Vatican indicating that civil litigation has ended and that Sheen’s remains have been transferred. The Vatican has confirmed that the Cause for Beatification has now resumed,” the release continues.

The next step will be for the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome to present the alleged miracle attributed to Sheen’s intercession— the miraculous healing of an infant declared to be stillborn— to Pope Francis for his decree authenticating it.

Sheen’s remains will be encased into a marble monument inside the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, located at the side altar dedicated to the Blessed Mother Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help— on whose feast day, June 27, the archbishop’s disinterment took place.

Venerable Sheen was born in 1895 in Illinois and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Peoria at the age of 24. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of New York in 1951, and he remained there until his appointment as Bishop of Rochester in 1966.

Sheen served as host of the “Catholic Hour” radio show and the television show “Life is Worth Living”.

In addition to his pioneering radio and television shows, Archbishop Sheen authored many books, with proceeds supporting foreign missions. He headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith at one point in his life, and continued to be a leading figure in U.S. Catholicism until his death in 1979.

The Peoria diocese opened the cause for Sheen’s canonization in 2002, after the Archdiocese of New York said it would not explore the case. Jenky had suspended the beatification cause in September 2014 on the grounds that the Holy See expected Sheen’s remains to be in the Peoria diocese. A lengthy legal battle followed.

Sheen’s will had declared his wish to be buried in the Archdiocese of New York’s Calvary Cemetery. Soon after Sheen died, Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York asked Joan Sheen Cunningham if his remains could be placed in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and she consented.

However, Cunningham has since said that Sheen would have wanted to have been interred in Peoria if he knew that he would be considered for sainthood. In 2016, she filed a legal complaint seeking to have her uncle’s remains moved to the Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria.

An initial court ruling had sided with Cunningham, but a state appeals court overturned that ruling, saying it had failed to give sufficient attention to a sworn statement from a colleague of Archbishop Sheen, Monsignor Hilary C. Franco, a witness for the New York archdiocese.

Msgr. Franco had said that Sheen told him he wanted to be buried in New York and that Cardinal Cooke had offered him a space in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The appeals court ordered “a full exploration” of the archbishop’s desires.

The Superior Court of New York ruled in June 2018 that Sheen’s remains be transferred to Peoria. The New York Court of Appeals unanimously agreed during March 2019.

The appeals court dismissed New York’s appeal of the decision in May 2019, and again earlier this month. The New York Archdiocese ultimately agreed to cooperate with the transfer after all its civil law options were exhausted.

“Although the date of Beatification is not known at this time, Bishop Jenky hopes and prays that these decrees from Rome will be issued in the coming weeks,” the release continued.

“Bishop Jenky continues to be hopeful that Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen will be Beatified during this 100th anniversary year of his ordination to the priesthood in Peoria.”

“Everyone is encouraged to continue offering prayers for the Beatification of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Bishop Jenky invites everyone to visit the new tomb [in Peoria],” the release concluded.

Democratic candidates tout abortion credentials in first debate

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 17:00

Washington D.C., Jun 27, 2019 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Taxpayer funding for abortions is a matter of “justice” for men and women Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro said during the first Democratic primary debate Wednesday. 

Castro’s comments were echoed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who said that she does not support any restrictions on abortion, and wants to see the Roe v. Wade decision codified into federal law. 

After acknowledging that every Democratic candidate on the debate stage June 26 was in favor of abortion rights, debate moderator Lester Holt asked Castro if, were he elected, abortion would be covered under a government-funded healthcare plan. 

“Yes, it would,” said the former Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary. 

Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow for The Catholic Association, an organization that promotes religious liberty, life, and the Church in the public square, was critical of Castro’s enthusiasm for taxpayer-funded abortion, and said it was a sign the party has been overrun by “abortion extremism.”

“By equating ‘reproductive justice’ with taxpayer funding of abortion, he reveals the party’s fundamental schism with Americans writ large on the issue,” said McGuire. 

“Americans overwhelmingly oppose the use of tax dollars to pay for abortions, and yet Democrats are actively and aggressively working to undo legal barriers like the Hyde Amendment.”

McGuire believes that this election will result in “a competition between the candidates as to who can be most extreme on abortion” and that “Castro was just the first one out of the gate.”

Castro has made his Catholic identity a hallmark of his campaign, initially announcing his presidential ambitions in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, her feast day. 

“I don't believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice,” Castro said Wednesday night. He further elaborated that “just because a woman -- or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female, is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose. And so I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.” 

The comment caused some confusion among LGBT activists. A “trans female” is a man who identifies and presents himself as a woman, but cannot get pregnant as they do not possess a uterus. Castro later clarified on Twitter that he intended to refer to “trans males,” or women who identify and present themselves as men, who can and do bear children. 

"Last night I misspoke - it’s trans men, trans masculine, and non-binary folks who need full access to abortion and repro healthcare," he said.

Castro, who pointed out the Catholic church where he was baptized during the announcment of his presidential campaign, pledged that if he were elected, he would appoint federal judges who will “understand the precedent of Roe v. Wade and will respect it.”  

After this question, Holt then asked Warren if she would put any limits on abortion. Warren said she would not. 

“I would make certain that every woman has access to the full range of reproductive health care services, and that includes birth control, it includes abortion, it includes everything for a woman,” she said. 

Warren accused states of working to “undermine Roe” by passing restrictions on abortion, and that “it’s not enough to expect the courts to protect us.” 

“We now have an America where most people support Roe v. Wade,” said Warren. “We need to make that a federal law.” 

Massachusetts, which Warren represents in the Senate, passed the “Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women Act” or “NASTY Women” Act in 2018. The NASTY Women Act codified Roe v. Wade into law and overturned a dormant Massachusetts law that criminalized abortion. 

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said after the deabte that “the abortion lobby has too much power within the Democratic Party and is successfully alienating Democratic voters with the pressure for all candidates to take an abortion extremisim approach.” 

Day told CNA that she hopes the issue of pro-life support is raised on Thursday, the second night of Democratic primary debates. That debate will feature Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who has said that she does not believe there is a place for pro-life Democrats in the party. 

“Tonight, we would like to see one of the moderators ask, by show of hands, if anyone wants pro-life Democrats to vote for them,” said Day.

Day believes that the focus on abortion will end up harming the Democratic Party in their effort to win the presidency in 2020.

“An abortion extremist cannot defeat President Trump, because the independents and Democrats who oppose abortion will simply stay home or vote third party,” she said. 

New Ulm diocese reaches $34m settlement with victims of clergy sex abuse

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 16:01

New Ulm, Minn., Jun 27, 2019 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of New Ulm announced Wednesday it has reached a $34 million settlement with victims of clerical sexual abuse.

“The settlement represents our commitment to finding a fair resolution for victims and survivors of sexual abuse while continuing our ministry for those we serve throughout south and west central Minnesota,” Bishop John LeVoir stated June 26.

According to the AP, there are 93 victims party to the settlement.

Jeff Anderson, the attroney representing many of the survivors, said that $8 million of the settlement comes from the diocese and its parishes, while the remaining $26 million is from insurance coverage.

The New Ulm diocese had filed for bankruptcy in March 2017 in the face of 101 lawsuits regarding sex abuse claims dating back to the 1950s.

Most of the lawsuits concern incidents that allegedly took place from the 1950s through the 1970s. The suits were filed under a 2013 Minnesota law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse of children.

Approval of the settlement will resolve the diocese's bankruptcy.

The diocese will file the reorganization plan to the bankruptcy court, which will be reviewed by a judge. The settlement plan must then be voted on for approval by the claimants, and a trust from which payments will be made will be established. The diocese said this should be completed by the end of the year.

Bishop LeVoir said the diocese “remains committed to preventing sexual abuse, holding accountable those clergy who are credibly accused of abuse and helping victims and survivors find healing.”

“For more than 15 years, all priests and deacons, diocesan staff, parish and Catholic school employees, as well as volunteers having regular or unsupervised interaction with minors have been required to meet safe environment requirements,” which include adherence to a code of conduct, undergoing a background check, and participation in sexual abuse awareness and prevention training, he said.

The bishop added that “the diocese has committed to disclosing the names of all clergy with credible claims of abuse made against them” and that it “follows strict standards for determining suitability of clergy serving in the diocese, starting during the seminary formation process and including verifying the credentials of priests visiting from other dioceses or from religious orders.”

He said the diocese “promptly contacts law enforcement to report any allegations it receives regarding sexual misconduct by clergy or others involved in ministry within the geographic area the diocese serves.”

Bishop LeVoir also invited victims to contact the diocese for counseling or other assistance in healing, and invited them to meet with him as part of their healing process if they wish.

“I again extend my deepest apologies on behalf of the Diocese of New Ulm to victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse,” he concluded. “Victims and survivors have courageously worked to raise awareness about the tragedy of childhood sexual abuse and how we must address it. I hope and pray that today’s settlement helps victims and survivors on their healing journey.”

Several more Minnesota dioceses filed bankruptcy over sex abuse claims, including Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Duluth, and Winona-Rochester. The Diocese of Saint Cloud has said it will do so.

Iraqi Christians face uncertain future, U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom says

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 14:00

Washington D.C., Jun 27, 2019 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The security of Christians in Northern Iraq remains “tenuous” and will require close attention in the future, the State Department’s religious freedom ambassador told members of Congress on Thursday.

While the situation is “far better in Northern Iraq right now” for Yazidis and Christians, who in 2016 were recognized by the State Department as genocide victims of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, there is still a lack of “true security in the area,” Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said.

Ambassador Brownback testified on June 27 at the hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), on “Violations of the International Right to Freedom of Religion” of Christians.

The hearing was held two months after bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday killed more than 250 people, targeting churches and hotels.

A recent Pew Center study showed that Christians are persecuted in more countries around the world than any other religious group, in 144 countries.

“We stand for human dignity and respect for life of whomever is oppressed, and this Commission has and will continue to highlight the suffering of religious minorities around the globe, be they Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Ba’hai in Iran, Buddhists in occupied Tibet, Yazidis in Iraq or the Muslim Rohingya people in Burma,” Rep. Smith stated.

“Christians, however, remain the most persecuted religious group the world over, and thus deserve the special attention that today’s hearing will give them,” Smith said.

Smith noted that “sometimes there is an oversensitivity” in Western countries, and a hesitation to draw attention to the persecution of Christians elsewhere because of their own Christian majorities or large Christian populations. This is a “major, major mistake,” he said on Thursday.

Security for Christians in Iraq is “still tenuous” right now, Brownback said on Thursday, and if another group like ISIS emerges to attack Christians and other religious minorities there they “need outside support to be there,” he said.

Uncertainty among displaced Christians, and a lack of reliable support is leading to a “timidity” of genocide survivors to return home, he said, and the “longer that goes on,” the greater the threat of Christians leaving the region for good.

Brownback also noted the efforts of countries like Poland and Hungary to work directly with local groups to assist Christians in the region.

Recovery of Christians in Sri Lanka from the deadly Easter bombings was another matter discussed at the hearing.

Asked by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) about concerns by Catholics in Sri Lanka that the government is shutting down churches in the name of “security” after the bombings, Brownback said that the State Department has been pushing for Sri Lanka to protect the rights of religious minorities while recognizing security concerns.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has done an “outstanding job” calling for peace and against retribution by Christians following the attacks, he said.

Brownback also previewed the State Department’s upcoming Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, which he said he wished “to launch a grassroots movement globally” to promote religious freedom. He noted that a similar effort has been advanced to fight human trafficking for the last 20 years, and said it provided a template for success which could be followed.

Suicide rate in prisons raises alarm, calls for change

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 13:04

Washington D.C., Jun 27, 2019 / 11:04 am (CNA).- With suicide rates remaining high in the United States’ prison system, civil advocates are raising concerns regarding the treatment of inmates.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in prison. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice, 372 suicides occurred in 3,000 federal prisons in 2014. This number is 2.5 times higher than suicide rates in state prisons and 3.5 times higher than in general society.

The Associated Press conducted a recent investigation into suicide rates in prisons, finding that more than 300 suicides occurred in local prisons throughout nine states from 2015 to 2017.

Many lawsuits regarding prison mistreatment have to do with self-immolation and attempted suicide, according to the AP. Out of 400 lawsuits in the last five years, 40% involved an attempt of suicide.

As jails seek to curb prison drug abuse, inmates often lack access to medication for their pre-existing mental health conditions, the AP reported. About one-third of prison suicides occur after the prisoner requested prescription medication and was denied, it found.

According to the AP, prison experts believe these deaths are largely avoidable by either providing inmates with better suicide prevention or ensuring offenders are placed in psychiatric hospitals rather than prisons.

“The vast majority are foreseeable and preventable,” said Lori Rifkin, a prisoners’ rights attorney in California. “But they continue to happen because, overall, I think there is a cultural dismissiveness toward both the signs that help us predict suicide - and toward the steps necessary to prevent them.”

“We have decided that as a society let’s just warehouse the mentally ill in a jail ... which is neither equipped for, trained to handle or able to be most efficient and effective at solving the problem,” said Jonathan Thompson, head of the National Sheriffs’ Association.

“The failure here isn’t just what a deputy or an officer in a jail does or doesn’t do. The failure is that these people are being put in a criminal environment for mental illness.”

Some states have initiated suicide prevention and mental health awareness programs, including the Sandra Bland Act passed in Texas in 2017. The law requires law enforcement to undergo mental health training.

Numerous county jails have also stepped up suicide prevention methods. In Lake Country, California, the jail installed a better surveillance system to monitor at-risk prisoners. It also added a registered nurse and four additional hours of suicide prevention training. In Harris County, Texas, a suicide hotline has been made available to the inmates.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has expressed significant concern for the proper treatment of prisoners. On Holy Thursday this year, the Pope celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper with the prisoners in Velletri, about 30 miles from Rome.

In February, he challenged prison personnel to promote hope among inmates. He said prisons need to be humanized, preventing offenses against the human person, and inmates need to be treated with love.

“I have much closeness with prisoners and the people that work in prisons,” he said. “[I give] my affection and my prayer, so that you can contribute with your work to making the prison, a place of pain and suffering, also a workshop of humanity and hope,” he said.

“This attitude of closeness, which finds its root in the love of Christ, can foster in many prisoners the trust, the awareness, and the certainty of being loved.”

North Dakota abortion clinic files suit against state requirements 

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 02:11

Bismarck, N.D., Jun 27, 2019 / 12:11 am (CNA).- North Dakota’s sole abortion clinic, located in Fargo, is filing a lawsuit against two state laws that it claims force doctors to present false information, and is asking a judge to block the laws’ enforcement.

The complaint is from the pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the American Medical Association, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, and the clinic’s medical director, Dr. Kathryn Eggleston.

The lawsuit alleges that two state laws, set to go into effect Aug. 1, force doctors to “lie”: one requires doctors to affirm that an unborn baby is a “unique, living human being,” and the other requires doctors to inform patients that reversals of medication abortions are possible.

Medication abortions have become an increasingly common method of abortion in the United States, making up 30-40 percent of all abortions.

North Dakota State Rep. Daniel Johnston said he sponsored the bill so that “women having second thoughts” about going through with a medication abortion know they have options, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reports that Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Utah have passed similar laws that require patients to be informed about medication abortion reversal.

The lawsuit asserts that there is no “credible, scientific evidence” that a medication abortion can be reversed.

Medical abortions involve the taking of two pills - the first pill, mifepristone (RU-486) blocks the progesterone hormone, which is essential for maintaining the health of the baby. The second pill, misoprostol, is taken 24 hours after mifepristone and works to induce contractions in order to expel the baby. Some women, after taking the first pill (mifepristone), experience regret and do not want to follow through with the abortion by taking misoprostol.

A study published last year in Issues in Law and Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal affiliated with the pro-life organization Watson Bowes Research Institute, examined 261 successful abortion pill reversals, and showed that the reversal success rates were 68 percent with a high-dose oral progesterone protocol and 64 percent with an injected progesterone protocol.

Dr. Mary Davenport and Dr. George Delgado, who have been studying the abortion pill reversal procedures since 2009, authored the study. Delgado sits on the board of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and co-founded the Abortion Pill Rescue Network, a coalition of 800 medical providers across the country.

“When I learned about the work of Dr. George Delgado...I jumped right on that. I felt we needed to educate women that they had a choice,” Tammy Taylor, a nurse practitioner at Guiding Star, a women’s health care clinic in Tampa, told Pregnancy Help News this month.

Taylor’s Tampa clinic has provided 15 women so far with abortion pill reversals, some of whom have traveled up to two hours for the procedure, Pregnancy Help News reports.

The director of a women’s clinic in Denver told CNA in April 2018 that she has found the abortion pill reversal protocol to be safe and effective with her patients, and her clinic has successfully treated several women who come in seeking a reversal after taking the first pill.

“I think the fact that we have now over 300 successful reversals is evidence that it works,” nurse practitioner Dede Chism, co-founder and executive director of Bella Natural Women’s Care in Englewood, CO, told CNA at the time.

“This isn’t make-believe and it isn’t coincidental.”

Delgado told the Washington Post that he believed more research should be done on abortion pill reversal, but that he believes there should be nothing to stop doctors from using the progesterone protocol in the meantime.

“(T)he science is good enough that, since we have no alternative therapy and we know it's safe, we should go with it,” he said.

The pro-life group Heartbeat International has documented numerous cases of successful abortion pill reversals resulting in healthy babies being born. A recent report from Pregnancy Help News, a service of Heartbeat International, said 750 babies have been saved in this manner.

The AMA also took issue with a law that requires physicians to tell patients that abortion terminates “the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” a statement that the AMA deemed a “controversial, ideological, and non-medical message.”

North Dakota’s governor signed into law in April a bill that outlaws the common abortion procedure known as “dilation and evacuation,” also known as “dismemberment abortion.”

'Sister Strike' nominated for Best Viral Sports Moment

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 19:01

Chicago, Ill., Jun 26, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- Maybe it’s the signature bump of the baseball off her bicep before pitching the perfect curve ball. Maybe it’s that she does it all in a full black and white habit with a beaming smile on her face.

Whatever it is, the pitch of baseball whiz Sister Mary Jo Sobieck, OP, that captured the hearts of many over the past year inspired a baseball card, a bobble head, and now a nomination for a national sports award.

“Sister Strike,” as the DominIcan sister has been called, has been nominated for an ESPY award in the category “Best Viral Sports Moment.” The ESPYs (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) are an annual sports awards ceremony honoring memorable people and moments in sports. This year’s ceremony will be hosted by Tracy Morgan in Los Angeles July 10.

The moment for which Sister is nominated? It’s called “Don’t Sleep on Sister Mary Jo’s curveball”, and it’s the moment when she threw a curveball strike to Lucas Giolito at the ceremonial opening of a Chicago White Sox game in August 2018.

The fans went wild and the moment went viral, catching the attention of baseball fans and casual observers on social media and national media. Her strike also aired on ESPN’s Sportscenter highlight reel.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum now sells a Sister Mary Joe bobblehead for $25. She stands in a pitching stance, wearing a baseball jersey pulled over her habit, and a baseball mitt. Her right hand is cocked back with a baseball, ready to strike.

In April, Topps announced that they would be premiering a Sister Mary Jo baseball card this summer.

Patrick O'Sullivan, Topps Associate Brand Manager, told CNA in April that Sister is a good reminder that: “Baseball is for everyone from every walk of life. That's what makes it so special and fun to be a fan.”

There’s a reason Sr. Mary Jo, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and a teacher at Marian Catholic High School, seems so comfortable on the pitching mound. She played softball starting in elementary school and through college and has coached high school sports.

She told the Chicago Catholic in December that she wasn’t about to “get ripped” by past coaches and teammates for a lousy pitch, so she gave the White Sox throw her all. But then again, that’s how she lives her whole life.

“Before (the pitch), she was just kind of like that loud nun,” Jen Pasyk, a fellow Marian Catholic teacher, told the Chicago Catholic. “She’s kind of gregarious and outgoing. There’s this image that sisters are kind of quiet and reserved, and that was never her. She is very popular, because she makes it a point to meet the students wherever they are. She really goes out for those shy kids who just want to blend into the bricks. She will learn something about them, so someone knows something about them.”

Since the viral moment, Sr. Mary Jo has been invited to various sporting events and speaking engagements. She wants to use the attention to lead others to God, she told the Chicago Catholic.

“The best gift I can give now is to give a good example of what it means to be virtuous,” Sister Mary Jo said. “It’s transitioned to what happens on the field of life. I try my best and sometimes I fail miserably and I get back up and try again. You get up the next day and try again.”

‘Hear victims, treat the whole problem,’ human trafficking conference told

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 17:00

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Human trafficking survivors shared their stories of abuse and oppression before an audience on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, kicking off a day of education and advocacy in the U.S. Congress.

Experts, members of Congress, and trafficking victims spoke at a Capitol Hill conference on human trafficking held on June 26. The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd co-hosted the event, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the DC Baptist Convention.

“I cannot talk about human trafficking without saying ‘modern-day slavery’. Because when I think about my situation, it was a form of modern-day slavery,” said Evelyn Chumbow, speaker with Survivors of Slavery and a survivor of labor trafficking. 

Chumbow emphasized the importance of not separating sex trafficking from labor trafficking when discussing the problems. “One thing I hate is separation. I hate to separate the issue of sex and labor [trafficking],” she said, because “if you’re going to address the issue, address the whole issue.”  

There are an estimated 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization; the trafficking industry is estimated to be around $150 billion.

The lack of investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking in the United States is a significant problem, said Hilary Chester, PhD, Associate Director of the Anti-Trafficking Program for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While “we do have relatively robust laws” against trafficking, she said, pointing to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), “what’s missing right now is accountability.”

This creates a system of impunity where “there is no consequence for exploiting a worker,” whether it be in a small business, agriculture, or a hotel chain. “There really isn’t much risk for them,” Chester said.

Sister Winifred Doherty, RGS, the United Nations Representative for the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, said there is a common thread running through global systems of exploitation.

“Laudato Si, as I Iook on it and reflect on it, connects the dots,” she said, referencing Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical. Doherty said the Pope has frequently drawn attention to how economies built towards the pursuit of profit rather than respect for human dignity lead to a market culture based on exploitation.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) also spoke at the conference about her service as a U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, during which time she helped to draft the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, and which first exposed her to human trafficking to Europe through the Balkans.

“Then I came home to my own suburban community in St. Louis County,” she said, seeing that trafficking was also “hiding in plain sight in the United States of America.”

In her testimony before trafficking experts and other audience members, Chumbow told of how she wanted to travel to America from Cameroon for opportunity, and at nine years old she came to the U.S. Unbeknownst to her, her uncle had sold her for $1,000 and she was taken to a family home in Maryland where other trafficking victims were put to work cooking and cleaning. 

Chumbow said was promised education and opportunities. “I thought I was coming to America to go to school, to be a lawyer.” “I remember my trafficker’s mother--my uncle was sitting right there--and the mother asked ‘is she old enough for the job?’ I’m thinking, ‘what job?’”

“She turned me around, she opened my mouth, she looked at me to see if I was strong enough to do whatever job I was coming to America to do. Obviously, to the mother, I passed the test,” said Chumbow. 

Her illegal entry into the U.S. and her exploitation were not coincidental, she explained. 

“You cannot talk about immigration without talking about trafficking,” she said, both “go hand in hand.” Chumbow was also sexually assaulted during her time of slavery. 

Then she escaped the home, and went to a Catholic church. She told the priest her story, and he asked her what she wanted to do. Chumbow answered that she wished to return home or go to school. However, she did not have the legal documents that she needed for employment or education. She was able to obtain fake documents to work at Taco Bell.

After spending time later in foster care, during which she says she was nearly recruited for sex trafficking but was able to recognize the threat, she eventually obtained her GED and Bachelor’s degree. She now works at the law firm Baker McKenzie. 

“Healing is a process. I’m 33 years old, I’m still struggling,” Chumbow said.

Abortion is key issue for 2020 voters, new poll says

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 16:00

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A new poll has shown that abortion is a top consideration among a large section of voters, indicating the issue may be a crucial policy battleground in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

The study, conducted by Monmouth University, surveyed 751 people from June 12 to 17. It found that over a third of respondents rated abortion as either the “most important” or a “very important” issue for the presidential election. An additional 30% of respondents said that the issue was “somewhat important.” 

The poll found that Democrats were the most likely to rate abortion as the “most” or a “very” important issue for 2020, ahead of both Republicans or independents.

The 2016 Democratic Party platform included a call to roll back both the Hyde Amendment, which blocks the use of federal funds in most abortions, and the Mexico City Policy, which prevents U.S. overseas aid from going to organizations that provide or support abortion.

Abortion has played an increasing role in the Democratic presidential primary race, with Senator Bernie Sanders publicly backing unrestricted access to abortion up to birth, and Senator Joe Biden publicly reversing his decades of support for the Hyde Amendment.

Among Democrats most likely to weigh abortion rights in determining their vote, 28% said they support Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, 21% prefered Elizabeth Warren, and 18% hoped Bernie Sanders is the nominee. 

The poll also found that while a plurality--32% --of respondents said they thought abortion should be “always legal,” a combined 55% were in favor of making the procedure “legal with limitations” or “illegal with exceptions,” such as in the cases of rape or incest. 

Ten percent of respondents were in favor of making abortion always illegal. 

Of that 10%, nearly two-thirds said that their pro-life stance will play a “very important role” in the 2020 election. Forty-three percent of the people who said they believe abortion should be legal all times said they consider abortion to be one of their key issues for the presidential election. 

Earlier this year, the Trump administration changed Title X regulations, prohibiting funding recipients from co-locating with abortion facilities, a move projected to cost Planned Parenthood approximately $60 million in federal funding. 

At the state level, several legislatures have moved to pass so-called “heartbeat bills” and other restrictive abortion laws, many of which are the subject of legal appeals. Other states, most notably New York and Vermont, have codified the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision into law, allowing virtually unrestricted access to abortion throughout pregnancy. 

Both Democrats and Republicans said that the other party as too focused on this issue.

Among Republicans, 58% said Democrats focused too much abortion but only 26% thought that their own party gave the matter too much attention at the federal level. 

Surveyed Democrats registered nearly identical numbers: only 23% thought federal-level Democrats were spending too much time on abortion, but 64% said Republicans were disproportionately focused on the issue.

House passes emergency border funding, Trump threatens veto

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 13:00

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday night to provide emergency funding for the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The bill, HR 3401, provides $4.5 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, and to provide for security. It passed the House by a vote of 230 to 195, largely along party lines with the exception of four Democrats voting against the bill, and three Republicans voting for it.

President Trump has threatened to veto the measure, stating that the legislation “does not provide adequate funding to meet the current crisis” and “contains partisan provisions designed to hamstring the Administration’s border enforcement efforts.”

The appropriations would go to the U.S. Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. According to ABC news reports, $934.5 million would go to funding processing facilities, food, water and personal items, and transportation and medical services.

Last-minute changes to the legislation included requirements that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issue new standards for the care of migrants and requiring HHS contractors to supply sufficient supplies and medical care for migrants in custody.

“We must meet our responsibility to ensure the humane treatment of children and families in U.S. custody, and this legislation further strengthens protections for those individuals and increases accountability,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) stated.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) criticized the legislation as partisan, noting that it included no funding for a border wall and would likely be vetoed by the president if it passed the Senate. Scalise called instead for the passage of legislation to support border personnel and reform immigration laws to address the root causes of the crisis.

Tuesday’s vote came after President Trump postponed nationwide raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that were planned to pick up thousands of migrant families with deportation orders for removal.

The chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, stated on Saturday, before the raids were delayed, that “broad enforcement actions instigate panic in our communities and will not serve as an effective deterrent to irregular migration.”

“Instead,” he stated, “we should focus on the root causes in Central America that have compelled so many to leave their homes in search of safety and reform our immigration system with a view toward justice and the common good.”

The situation along the U.S. - Mexico border remains a highly emotive situation, with individual cases drawing comment and attention from civil and religious leaders. A recent photograph showing the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, floating along the Rio Grande riverbank circulated across the world after they were discovered on June 24.

The image caused Pope Francis to speak of his “profound sadness” at the tragic loss of life and his prayers “for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery.” 

On Wednesday, the USCCB released a statement from Vasquez and conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo calling the image “horrific” and the “unspeakable consequence of a failed immigration system.”

“This image silences politics,” DiNardo and Vasquez wrote. 

“Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution to the immigration crisis? Sadly, this picture shows the daily plight of our brothers and sisters.  Not only does their cry reach heaven. It reaches us. And it must now reach our federal government.”

Religious freedom laws 'more necessary than ever,' Congress hears

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 09:00

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2019 / 07:00 am (CNA).- The House Committee on Education and Labor heard testimony June 25 on the Do No Harm Act, a proposed measure to limit the application of landmark religious freedom legislation. 

The Do No Harm Act proposes to limit the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Critics of the measure warned Tuesday that tampering with the law could hurt religious minorities who need its protections the most.

Matt Sharp, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said during his testimony that at a time when certain religious freedom protections are unpopular, “RFRA is more urgent and necessary to ensure that the political whims don’t dictate whether an individual or an organization’s faith is respected.”

Sharp said that the Do No Harm Act would withdraw the “opportunity for relief” available to religious groups, “shutting the doors of a courthouse to a lot of individuals and organizations if their claims fall out of disfavor.” 

Tuesday’s hearing on Capitol Hill also heard testimony from several witnesses in favor of Do No Harm, including Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Johnson (R-LA), and Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by Congress and enacted into law in 1993, receiving unanimous bipartisan support in the House and passing the Senate by a vote of 97-3. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation.

RFRA was supported by leaders in both parties as a response to the 1990 Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court upheld the government in a case involving two Native Americans fired after testing positive for the drug peyote, which they argued they had ingested as part of a religious ritual. 

The law prevents the federal government from imposing a substantial burden on the sincerely-held religious beliefs of a person, unless it can establish a compelling government interest in passing the law and the legislation is the least-restrictive means of furthering that interest.  

At the time of its passage, RFRA enjoyed broad support from both parties and from advocacy groups across the political spectrum. 

“The reason all those diverse groups came together was because the Smith decision caused great alarm around the country,” stated Rep. Johnson in his member testimony at the hearing. 

Prior to his time in Congress, Johnson served for nearly 20 years as a constitutional law attorney and a defense litigator in religious freedom cases.

The consensus behind RFRA’s passage was not, he said, a reflection of support for the men in the Smith case, but “the personal views of the lawmakers was not the point.”

“Everyone, both liberal and conservative, recognized that even the sincerely-held religious beliefs of small minority groups are important for us to protect,” Johnson said. “RFRA supporters understood that one day, it could be their own religious beliefs and practices that would be unpopular and face government scorn and restriction.”

“All RFRA provides is a fair hearing,” Rep. Johnson said. “[It] was created to provide a very reasonable balancing test” between sincerely-held religious beliefs and the government’s interest in federal law.

Supporters of the Do No Harm Act argued that, since its passage, application of RFRA has been broadened to allow religious groups to avoid complying with equality and employment laws.

In 2014, RFRA was at the center of the Supreme Court case Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, in the Christian owners of the closely-held for-profit company objected on religious grounds to the Obama administration’s mandate of provision of coverage for certain drugs that can cause abortions. 

The Court ruled that Hobby Lobby was exempt from the mandate, which was not the least-restrictive means for furthering the government’s compelling interest of providing contraceptive coverage.

After that decision, critics claimed it violated women’s right to obtain healthcare coverage - including contraceptives, setilizations, and abortifaceant drugs. Legislation was introduced in Congress to limit the use of RFRA in religious freedom cases.

In 2019, Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) reintroduced the “Do No Harm Act” to forbid the use of RFRA against “equal opportunity and protection against discriminatory laws, protections in the workplace and against child abuse, and health care access, coverage and services.

“Over the years,” Rep. Kennedy explained in his member testimony on Tuesday, “RFRA has morphed from a shield of protection to a sword of infringement.”

“Religion has played a vital role in our nation’s history,” stated Rep. Scott in his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, helping fuel social justice causes such as the civil rights movement and child labor movement. Yet, he said, it has been used as a “pawn” to justify segregation and discriminatory attacks.  

New conscience protections, introduced by the Trump administration for health care workers opposed to procedures such as abortions, were cited as a discriminatory practice that was protected by RFRA but against the original spirit of the law.

Opposition to the contraceptive mandate, notably by groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, was also argued by supporters of the Do No Harm Act to be an unreasonable religious exemption under RFRA, along with religious adoption agencies only placing children with opposite-sex couples—or even with couples from a certain church or Christian denomination.

The Do No Harm Act would “restore RFRA to its original purpose,” Kennedy said. “If civil liberties and legal rights exist only in absence of a neighbor’s legal objection” then they’re not rights, he said.

Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that the proposed legislation would prevent RFRA from being “misused for something that it wasn’t originally intended to do.”

Against these arguments, Congressmen Sharp and Johnson both testified that RFRA does not disproportionately benefit Christians at the expense of other groups. 

In 25 years, Sharp argued in his written testimony, only 16.3% of appellate court religious freedom cases under RFRA were successful—“in other words, the government almost always wins,” Johnson said.

“Critics of the Hobby Lobby decision insisted that the decision would ‘open the floodgates’ to all sorts of new claims under RFRA and to ‘impose Christian values in America and use religious freedom as a license to discriminate.’ That simply has not happened,” Johnson said, citing a Becket Fund study showing that Christians were actually underrepresented among the religious groups making claims under RFRA.

The bill, if enacted, “would eviscerate one of the most important and widely-regarded laws that’s ever been passed by the Congress,” Rep. Johnson said.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) dismissed the argument that RFRA was being used to protect unfair discrimination in health care, “that is not what RFRA is about,” she said. 

“RFRA is not about denying anything to anybody except the freedom of religion—the Do No Harm bill will deny that.”

Historic mission bell removed from California college

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 20:49

Santa Cruz, California, Jun 25, 2019 / 06:49 pm (CNA).- A university in California removed a bell last week after a Native American group claimed the historic piece was disrespectful to their heritage.

The El Camino Real Bell, named for the California route connecting the 21 Franciscan missions, was removed by the University of California, Santa Cruz on Friday. The bell has been on UCSC’s campus since the 1990s. It is one of a series of bells placed along the route.

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band issued an objection to the bell during the last school year. The group said the bell symbolized the enslavement and humiliation of their ancestors.

“It is shameful that these places where our ancestors were enslaved, whipped, raped, tortured and exposed to fatal diseases have been whitewashed and converted into tourist attractions,” said Valentine Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, according to Fox News.

Sarah Latham, the university’s vice chancellor of administrative services, said the move was “in support of efforts to be more inclusive,” the Associated Press reported.

A decision regarding the bell’s transfer or destruction has not been announced yet. Amah Mutsun suggested it should either be placed in a museum or melted down.

The bell is one of the hundreds of others placed around California in 1906. According to the Fox News, a press release from UCSC claimed that these bells has been meant to honor California’s “Hispanic past” and “expand tourism.”

“The bell marker, which memorializes the California Missions and an imagined route of travel that once connected them, is viewed by the Amah Mutsun and many other California indigenous people as a racist symbol that glorifies the domination and dehumanization of their ancestors,” the release continued.

The removal of the bell follows other outcries against historical monuments in recent years. California legislators attempted in 2015 to replace a statue of St. Junipero Serra with Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, at the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C.

Last year, a bronze statue titled “Early Days” was removed from San Francisco City Hall. It involved three figures - a Native American, the seafarer Francis Drake, and St. Junipero Serra.

Critics argued that the statue was degrading to Native Americans and used visual stereotypes that were racist.

Serra played a key role in the evangelization of 18th-century California. The missions he founded took in thousands of Native American converts to Christianity and taught them technological development skills.

Serra and other missionaries have drawn criticism from those who see them as a symbol of European colonialism and characterize the missions as engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans.

However, their defenders vigorously dispute these claims, noting that participation in mission life, while strict, was voluntary, as well as the efforts by the missionaries to feed, clothe, and house those who came to them.

Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015. He praised the saint for seeking “to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Serra, the pope said, “was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”

Trump administration officials promise action for global religious liberty

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 19:07

Washington D.C., Jun 25, 2019 / 05:07 pm (CNA).- With the latest U.S. report on global persecution of individuals and groups based on their religious beliefs, the Trump administration promised action to counter the human rights violations of the countries and groups listed in the U.S. State Department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom.

“As in previous years, our report exposes a chilling array of abuses committed by oppressive regimes, violent extremist groups, and individual citizens. For all those that run roughshod over religious freedom, I’ll say this: The United States is watching and you will be held to account,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Pompeo released the report at a June 21 briefing with U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback.

The Secretary of State summarized the situation in the worst countries: “People are persecuted – handcuffed, thrown in jail, even killed – for their decision to believe, or not to believe. For worshipping according to their conscience. For teaching their children about their faith. For speaking about their beliefs in public. For gathering in private, as so many of us have done, to study the Bible, the Torah, or the Qu’ran,” he said.

“Go into any mosque, any church, any temple in America, and you’ll hear the same thing: Americans believe that kind of intolerance is deeply wrong,” said Pompeo, who said it is “a distinctly American responsibility to stand up for faith in every nation’s public square.”

The State Department has 90 days to designate “countries of particular concern” and to choose which countries to put on a special watch list. It can also designate non-state actors as “entities of particular concern.” The designations can have significant legal consequences

Pompeo cited the “good news” that Uzbekistan is no longer listed as a country of particular concern, for the first time in 13 years. Though the secretary said “much work remains,” the country has created a “religious freedom roadmap.” It has released about 1,500 religious prisoners and ended a blacklist that banned about 16,000 people from travel due to their religious affiliations.

Pompeo said the State Department looks forward to legal reforms on registration requirements so that more religious groups may worship freely and so that children may pray at mosques with their parents.

He credited President Donald Trump for leading a government-wide effort to secure the release of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey, saying he had been wrongly imprisoned for his faith.

The briefing also turned critical.

While Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted the Catholic woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy and spared her from execution after almost a decade in prison, over 40 people are serving a life sentence or face execution for the same charge. Pompeo called for these captives’ release and for the government to appoint an envoy to address various religious freedom concerns.

Pompeo opposed what he said was Iran’s “crackdown” on Baha’is, Christians and others.

Brownback expanded on this, saying Iranian religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims, “face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs.”

“Their religious books are banned. They are denied access to education. Their cemeteries are desecrated. Blasphemy and proselytization of Muslims is punishable by death,” he said.

Pompeo criticized Russia’s categorization of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “terrorists,” the confiscation of their property, and the threats to their families. He spoke against the Burmese military’s violence against Rohingya Muslims, saying hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee or to live in overcrowded refugee camps.

China also drew criticism from Pompeo, who said, “The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding. The party demands that it alone be called God.”

Brownback added: “China has declared war on faith. We’ve seen increasing Chinese Government abuse of believers of nearly all faiths and from all parts of the mainland.”

“They’ve increased their repression of Christians, shutting down churches and arresting adherents for their peaceful religious practices,” said Brownback, predicting this will affect China’s standing domestically and around the world.

China’s government has made “intense persecution” normal for many religious believers, including Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, Pompeo said.

The State Department added a special section to its report on China to discuss the country’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang autonomous region.

Brownback went into more detail on problems in other countries. He objected to Eritrean authorities’ continued house arrest of Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Antonios, detained since 2006, and the detention of hundreds of other “prisoners of conscience.” The Turkish government continues to keep closed the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople’s Theological School of Halki, he said.

According to Brownback, religious leaders in Nicaragua report “constant surveillance, intimidation and threats.”

“The national police assault priests in full daylight, revealing the government’s contempt for any religious leaders they view as a threat to their authority,” he said.

In Brownback’s view, the Trump administration has made religious freedom a top priority and fought “for people of all faiths.”

“We will not stop until we see the iron curtain of religious persecution come down; until governments no longer detain and torture people for simply being of a particular faith or associated with it; until people are no longer charged and prosecuted on specious charges of blasphemy; until the world no longer believes it can get away with persecuting anyone of any faith without consequences,” he said. “We will not stop.”

Pompeo noted the upcoming second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, to be held in mid-July, expected to draw up to 1,000 people.

He said the first ministerial was “truly a stunning show of unity – people of all faiths standing up for the most basic of all human rights.” It inspired follow-up conferences in the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.

The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund, launched to support victims of persecution and to “give groups the tools to respond,” has received millions of dollars, he reported.

Pompeo said the State Department is elevating its Office of International Religious Freedom and its Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, effective immediately. These offices will now report directly to the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

Tony Perkins, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, welcomed the report. He said the State Department should not use pre-existing sanctions or indefinite wavers because these “provide little or no incentive for governments of CPC-designated countries to reduce or halt egregious religious freedom violations.”

The commission was established by Congress to monitor and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. It makes policy recommendations to the President, to the Secretary of State and to Congress. It released its own report in April.

The U.S. itself has been a focus of concerns for religious freedom. While freedom of religion is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, anti-discrimination laws and policies have forced Catholic adoption agencies to close, while Christians in the wedding industry face pressure to serve same-sex wedding ceremonies or face lawsuits.

The House of Representatives recently passed the Equality Act, which would strip religious freedom protections against many discrimination lawsuits.

The Little Sisters of the Poor continue a legal fight to secure their protections from mandatory health care coverage of drugs and procedures barred by Catholic ethics.

The Trump administration’s ban against travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, characterized during his campaign as a “Muslim ban,” was among other actions that prompted strong concern. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

Missouri abortion clinic given until Friday to appeal license revocation

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 18:01

St. Louis, Mo., Jun 25, 2019 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- A Missouri judge has agreed to allow the state’s last abortion clinic to continue performing abortions until this Friday, while the clinic appeals the revocation of its license.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services rejected a license renewal request June 21 from Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, citing an “unprecedented lack of cooperation, failure to meet basic standards of patient care, and refusal to comply with state law and regulations.”

Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer of the Missouri Circuit Court in St. Louis ruled June 24 that the Planned Parenthood clinic must take its appeal to the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission for review. Until then, it can continue to perform abortions.

“The Court has no authority to intercede in this matter until there has been a final decision by the AHC,” Stelzer wrote June 24.

The judge had previously granted the clinic a preliminary injunction allowing the facility to continue performing abortions until June 21, despite the state’s refusal to renew its license.

The clinic had sued the state in May to be able to continue to perform abortions. The organization contends there is no valid reason for state rules mandating two pelvic exams before the administration of drugs that induce abortions. It has also rejected state demands that officials interview its medical trainees on staff.

A 2016 state report on an inspection of the clinic, the most recent available through, shows that the clinic at that time was in violation of multiple state standards involving the sterilization and storing of equipment, and the proper documentation of medication and procedures.

In the DHSS' June 21 ruling, the department cited four botched abortions, one in which the mother developed sepsis and another in which the patient was hospitalized with life threatening complications.

The court’s preliminary injunction allowing the clinic to continue performing abortions is set to expire at 5 pm June 28. Until then the clinic will have to make its case before the independent state commission.

One of the four commission members, former Macon County Associate Circuit Judge Philip Prewitt, has been reprimanded in the past by the Missouri Supreme Court for encouraging people to donate to a local pro-life pregnancy center, the AP reported. Prewitt told the AP that he would consider recusing himself from Planned Parenthood’s appeal.

In a separate case, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Dowd ruled June 14 that Missouri’s legislature cannot cut funding from the Planned Parenthood clinic, after the clinic argued that it not only provided abortions, but other health care services, according to a local Fox News affiliate. Missouri Governor Mike Parson said the decision will be appealed.

Parson signed a bill into law in May that punishes abortion doctors who perform abortions on a woman who is past eight weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for medical emergencies which seriously threaten the life or quality of life of the mother. The law does not penalize women who obtain abortions; it is set to go into effect Aug. 28.

Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis called the eight-week abortion ban “a giant step forward for the pro-life movement.”

Although the Planned Parenthood clinic is the last licensed “abortion facility” in the state, the law regulating abortion clinics in Missouri does not apply to hospitals. Several of the largest hospitals in St. Louis are operated by SSM Health, a Catholic health system that does not allow direct abortion.

Barnes Jewish Hospital’s Women and Infants Center in St. Louis, however, lists “pregnancy termination” as one of the services offered at the hospital. St. Louis Public Radio reported in 2017 that Barnes Jewish performs about 150 abortions per year, generally in the case of danger to the life of the mother or fetal abnormalities.

The pro-abortion research group Guttmacher Institute reports that around four percent of abortions are performed in hospitals.

Should the Planned Parenthood clinic be barred from performing abortions, Missouri will be the only US state without a legal abortion clinic. Despite this, there is a private surgical abortion clinic close to St. Louis, across the Mississippi River in Granite City, Ill. In addition, a Planned Parenthood clinic 20 miles from St. Louis in Belleville, Ill. offers medication-induced abortion.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed this month a law vastly expanding abortion in Illinois.

Besides ending a ban on dilation and extraction, the law removes regulations for abortion clinics and ends required waiting periods to obtain an abortion; lifts criminal penalties for performing abortions and would prevent any further state regulation of abortion; requires all private health insurance plans to cover elective abortions, and eliminates abortion reporting requirements as well as regulations requiring the investigation of maternal deaths due to abortion. Illinois’ Catholic bishops have denounced the new law.

On the other side of the state, nearly half of all abortions performed in Kansas in 2017 were on Missouri residents, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Kansas has two licenced abortion cinics, one in Overland Park near Kansas City and one in Wichita.

Maryland Christian school sues after being evicted from voucher program

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 14:08

Baltimore, Md., Jun 25, 2019 / 12:08 pm (CNA).- A Christian grade school in Maryland is filing a lawsuit after state officials denied its participation in a voucher program for low-income students and ordered it to reimburse the state for participating in the program in previous years.

“Bethel Christian Academy offers an academically rigorous and caring Christian education in a diverse environment,” said Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Christen Price in a statement.

“Unfortunately, Maryland bureaucrats are telling low-income students that this high-quality education can’t be an option for them due solely to the school’s religious beliefs. Worse still, the state is now demanding Bethel pay back over $100,000 from the two years it participated in the program, which would be a serious financial hardship for the school.”

Bethel Christian Academy is a faith-based grade school in the Baltimore area with some 280 students from more than 40 different countries, including recent immigrants. The schools serves Christian students, as well as those with different religious affiliation, or none at all.

The Maryland Department of Education has disqualified the academy from participating in the state’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) voucher program, which benefits low-income students in the area.

The department had previously requested to see the student handbooks of schools in the program. Bethel’s handbook includes a statement of Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

In making its decision, the Department of Education cited a state law forbidding BOOST schools from discriminating in the admissions process on sexual orientation.

However, lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the academy, stressed that the school does not turn away any students based on their sexual orientation. Rather, it asks all of its grade school students to refrain from any kind of sexual conduct.

“While Bethel fully complied with the program’s requirements, Maryland let its hostility toward Bethel’s religious views, not the law, decide the school’s eligibility,” said legal counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Maryland’s families deserve better; that’s why we’re asking the court to address the state’s hostility.”

Bethel families were notified that they could no longer use the voucher at the academy just a few weeks before the start of the 2018-2019 school year. Several families had to remove their children from the school, because they could not afford to send them there without the voucher. One in five students at Bethel relies on some kind of financial aid.

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a church-owned playground could not be excluded from a playground resurfacing reimbursement program run by the state solely on the grounds of being religious.

In that case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, the state of Missouri had argued that funding a church-run school violated state constitutional prohibitions on taxpayer funding of churches.

However, the Supreme Court held in a 7-2 ruling that excluding the religious-owned playground violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Portland diocese to engage third-party system for reporting ethics violations

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 13:48

Portland, Maine, Jun 25, 2019 / 11:48 am (CNA).- The Diocese of Portland announced Tuesday it will be using a third-party reporting system for violations of its standards of ethical conduct, such as fraud or harassment.

“Several months ago, after hearing from people around the state, the diocese started the process of establishing this system for individuals to express their concerns in an easily accessible way,” Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland said June 25. “The system is organized to ensure that these reports will be handled in a timely and thorough manner.”

The system will be operated by Red Flag Reporting, an ethics, safety, fraud, and whistleblower hotline based in Akron. According to its website, it was founded “by one of the nation’s largest CPA firms.”

Reports of violations of the diocese's code of ethics will be made through Red Flag Reporting's website or telephone hotline. Red Flag will oversee the handling of each complaint by the diocese.

It is not meant to be used for reporting sexual abuse of minors; the Portland diocese indicated that in those cases, civil authorities and its head of professional responsibility should be contacted.

The reporting system could be used to report such ethical violations as fraud, misconduct, safety violations, harassment, or substance abuse at parishes, schools, or the chancery.

Bishop Deeley said that “To ensure transparency and the success of this initiative, the Church needs the committed involvement of the laity. In partnering with Red Flag Reporting, the diocese is offering stronger protections against problematic activity.”

“It is gratifying to report that the protocols already implemented in the Diocese of Portland regarding the safety of children, through the vigilance of both clergy and laity, have helped to make our Church a safer place for all. Since many of the procedures began in 2002, there have been no substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric in the Diocese of Portland. We have similar hope for this new system of accountability.”