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After investigation, Memphis bishop defends priest accused of racism

Memphis, Tenn., Aug 19, 2019 / 11:10 am (CNA).- The Diocese of Memphis is supporting a pastor whose staff denied a job to a black housekeeper on the grounds that his dog was racist. The diocese says the dog had a history of aggression and tended to become agitated around strangers with dark skin.

“Although the parish staff member’s choice of words was highly unfortunate and imprecise—they were not motivated by racial animus,” said Bishop David Talley of Memphis in an Aug. 16 letter.

“Rather, the concern by all involved was the safety of these women, one of whom was a stranger to the dog, and they knew that attempting to crate the dog would be dangerous when its owner was not present. Their concern was to prevent the cleaning company employees from being injured.”

Fr. Jacek Kowal, pastor of the Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, has been accused of turning away LaShundra Allen as a housekeeper because she was black.

On May 3, Kowal’s housekeeper, who is white, arrived at the rectory, announcing that she was quitting her job. She had brought Allen, who is black, with her, and asked if she could train Allen as her replacement.

Staff members at the rectory consulted with Kowal, who was at the church preparing for a May Crowning ceremony and then returned to the rectory.

According to a letter from the women’s attorney, they told the two women, “I’m sorry, we are not trying to be rude, but the dog doesn’t like black people,” the Commercial Appeal reported.

“The cleaning company employees interpreted this incident as a pretext by Fr. Kowal, motivated by a desire not to have an African American housekeeper. This is simply not true,” said Bishop Talley in his letter, noting that Kowal employed an African American housekeeper for the entire five-year duration of his previous assignment as pastor.

Following the conclusion of diocesan investigation, Talley said he believes Kowal and the parish staff were trying to be cautious, since Kowal’s dog – a German shepherd named Ceaser – was out of his crate and was “very protective of his home.”

The priest would have been concerned about the dog being out of his crate around any stranger, Talley said.

“The staff were aware that years ago the dog had been threatened by a person who happened to be African American, causing the dog to be somewhat more agitated initially around strangers with darker skin, until the dog gets to know them,” the bishop said. “The replacement employee who was planning to enter the rectory was an African-American person the dog had never met.”

In addition, “the parish staff were aware that in 2017 Fr. Kowal had been bitten on the hand by the dog while trying to crate him in an agitated state.”

For these reasons, the bishop said he believed “that the claims of racial bias and discrimination are unfounded, and that Fr. Kowal did nothing wrong.”

The two housekeepers, however, say the priest made no effort to contact Allen afterward and that no offer was made for Allen to come back on another day when Kowal would be available to introduce her to the dog. They say they will continue pursuing legal action.

The cleaning company that employs the two women has terminated its contract with the church, the Washington Post reports.

In his letter, Bishop Talley emphasized “that all human persons are created in the image of the one God and enjoy an equal dignity. Therefore, all forms of racial discrimination are sinful and wrong.”

However, he reiterated, “after our thorough investigation, I find these particular allegations of racial discrimination to be unfounded.”
 

Cincinnati priest arrested and indicted for sexually abusing minor

Cincinnati, Ohio, Aug 19, 2019 / 11:08 am (CNA).- A Cincinnati priest removed from ministry last month for grooming behavior has been indicted on nine counts of raping an altar server.

Fr. Geoff Drew was arrested Aug. 19 on allegations dating back 20 years, which concern Drew’s time as music minister at a local parish, prior to his ordination as a priest. The accusations concern abuse said to have taken place over two years, when the reported victim was 10 and 11 years old. If convicted, the priest could face life in prison.

Drew was removed from ministry last month, after allegations surfaced that he had sent a series of inappropriate text messages to a 17-year-old boy. A history of similar allegations against Drew was then confirmed by the archdiocese.

In a statement released Aug. 19, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati acknowledged the charges and urged anyone with information concerning the allegations to contact local law enforcement.

“Today, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati learned that a Hamilton County Grand Jury returned a nine-count indictment against Fr. Geoff Drew stemming from alleged crimes during his time at St. Jude Parish,” the statement said.
 
“We have fully cooperated with this investigation and will continue to do so.The protection of young people is of paramount importance and can never be compromised. We urge anyone who has any information regarding the accusations against Fr. Geoff Drew to please report it to Cincinnati Police.”

Drew worked as music minister at the parish of St. Jude in Bridgetown, Ohio, from 1984-1999. During that time he was also a music teacher at Elder High School until 1991. He entered seminary in 1999, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2004.

The archdiocesan statement emphasized that neither the archdiocese, nor Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr were aware of the rape allegations at the time of Drew’s removal last month.

“The Archdiocese of Cincinnati was made aware of these allegations after Archbishop Schnurr removed Fr. Drew as pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish on July 23” the statement said.
 
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told local media that Drew’s alleged victim came forward last month to report the rapes, calling the case “incredibly disturbing.”

Prosecutors also say it is likely the priest has had other victims.
 
The archdiocese indicated earlier this month that they had referred to law enforcement some allegations of Drew’s misconduct stemming from his time as a high school music teacher to law enforcement. Those allegations reportedly arose during a 2018 investigation into other complaints against the priest.

CNA reported earlier this month that complaints were raised to at least one archdiocesan official about Drew’s inappropriate behavior with teenage and pre-teenage boys as early as 2013. Complaints were made to auxiliary bishop Joseph Binzer, who is the archdiocesan vicar general, in 2013 and 2015.

Binzer referred the complaints to law enforcement, who found no evidence of criminal activity. 

Binzer did not, however, notify the archdiocesan personnel board or Archbishop Dennis Schnurr about the multiple complaints he had received against Drew.

The allegations were also reportedly not recorded by Binzer in the priest’s personnel file.

Drew’s 2018 request for a transfer from one parish to another was approved without any member of the board - apart from Binzer - being aware of the previous complaints.

One month after Drew’s arrival at his new parish, a parishioner at his previous church resubmitted a 2015 complaint made about the priest. The complaint was again reported to Butler County officials, but this time it was also brought to the attention of Archbishop Schnurr.

Sources close to the chancery told CNA that because Binzer failed to notify the archbishop or the priest personnel board about the previous allegations he had received, the accusation was believed by them to be an isolated incident.

The priest was asked to restrict his involvement with the school and was assigned to meet regularly with a “monitor,” but school faculty and administration were not told about these restrictions, or the reasons for them.

Sources have told CNA that Drew was on the verge of being sent to an inpatient treatment center for priests at the time he was arrested and charged with rape. 

Binzer was removed from his position as head of priest personnel for the archdiocese earlier this month, but remains vicar general of the archdiocese. 

On Monday, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati confirmed to CNA that following the initial reports of Drew's removeal from ministry, Bishop Binzer resigned from the USCCB’s committee on child and youth protection, which advises the bishops’ conference on all matters related to safe environment policy and child protection.

Following questions submitted by CNA, the archdiocese confirmed that the committee were informed of the resignation on Aug. 6.

Binzer had previously served as the representative for Region VI of the U.S. bishops’ conference, including the dioceses of Ohio and Michigan.

This post has been updated to reflect that Bishop Binzer has resigned from the USCCB's child and youth protection committee.

'Unplanned' actress establishes scholarship for pregnant women

Columbus, Ohio, Aug 18, 2019 / 04:55 pm (CNA).- Ashley Bratcher, lead actress in the pro-life movie “Unplanned,” has helped establish a scholarship for women pursing an education during an unexpected pregnancy.

“Women can pursue their careers, live out their dreams, and have richer, more fulfilling lives while balancing motherhood. Sometimes, it just takes a little help,” Bratcher said in a recent press release from Heartbeat International.

“I wanted to be a part of empowering mothers to chase their dreams and to provide a means for those who choose life to continue their educations.”

The scholarship, called the Unplanned Movie Scholarship, will give $5,000 annually for a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy. It can go toward educational educational opportunities including college or trade school.

The project is backed by Heartbeat International, a pro-life agency providing pregnancy resources to expecting mothers in over 2,000 locations worldwide.

“Not only will the scholarship financially support the decision of mothers to continue their education, but it will also connect them to an organization that will support them throughout their pregnancy and beyond,” Bratcher added.

Jor-El Godsey, president of Heartbeat International, said the scholarship will help expecting mothers embrace education and life.

“Tucked into Unplanned is a vivid reminder that education can present an obstacle to accepting the new life within,” said Godsey.

“The Unplanned Movie Scholarship will be a lifeline to a young mom's future as she makes the brave choice to embrace motherhood.”

Bratcher played Abby Johnson in the movie, “Unplanned.” The story follows the life of Johnson, a former clinic director for Planned Parenthood, who had a conversion experience after witnessing the horrors of abortion. Today, Johnson is a pro-life advocate and the director of And Then There Were None, a ministry that helps other abortion workers leave the industry.

Following the movie’s release, numerous women reached out to Bratcher to share their stories of difficult pregnancy situations. Andrea Trudden, director of communications for Heartbeat International, told CNA that many women shared a common conflict - they needed financial support to finish their education.

“After the release of ‘Unplanned,’ Ashley had a lot of different questions from moms who were reaching out sharing their stories about their unplanned pregnancies,” she said.

“The education aspect tended to be one of the hurdles.”

Trudden said the scholarship’s development is still underway. She said applicants will be recommended from one of the agency’s pregnancy help centers, where the mothers’ needs will be best addressed.

“[Pregnancy centers] provide parenting classes and financial classes. We are able to couple what we do through these pregnancy health organizations with the woman who wants to continue her education,” she said.

“We are really looking at exactly how to partner with our pregnancy help organizations in order to provide the funds to the women.”

She said the scholarship will begin accepting applicants at the end of this year, after the organization receives enough funds. The scholarship is now accepting donations at www.UnplannedMovieScholarship.com.

Trudden said the opportunity will provide women the support they need to pursue their education, but it also presents a bigger message.

“Women can have careers, they can have fulfilling lives and be mothers. It’s not an either-or situation,” she said.

“We want to do everything we can to support the mothers during these hard decisions, to help prepare her for motherhood and … [provide her with] everything she needs to get through her pregnancy in a loving and caring way so she can positive choices for her life.”

 

'Remember Me' - Should Catholics talk to their dead loved ones? 

Denver, Colo., Aug 18, 2019 / 04:57 am (CNA).- In the 2017 Disney-Pixar movie “Coco,” the main character, Miguel, accidentally passes over into the land of the dead on Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) while trying to reconcile his love of music with his family’s ban on it.

There, he learns that the dead can only visit their loved ones on that holiday if they can prove there is a photo of them on their family’s “ofrenda”, an altar with photos of loved ones, colorful decorations, and the favorite foods, drinks and mementos of the deceased.

“We've put their photos on the ofrenda so their spirits can cross over. That is very important! If we don't put them up, they can't come!” Miguel’s abuelita explains.

While in the land of the dead, Miguel bumps into his own deceased family members, and learns his true family history.

Though Miguel’s experience is fictional, it is not uncommon for grieving loved ones to experience what psychologists call “After Death Communication,” in which the bereaved believe that they see, hear the voices of, or even smell their dead loved ones.

These experiences, sometimes called “bereavement hallucinations,” can be healing and comforting for those who grieve, multiple studies have found.

But Catholics should proceed with caution when “communicating” with the dead, two Catholic psychologists told CNA, and they should ground their communications in prayer.

Dana Nygaard is a Catholic and a licensed professional counselor who speaks to grief groups and counsels clients through loss. Nygaard told CNA that because many Catholics misunderstand what happens to souls after death, she urges caution when talking about what it means to talk to dead loved ones.

“If they're speaking to a loved one, how are they doing that? Is it through saying, ‘Hey grandma, I think you're up there in heaven with God. I really hope you pray and look over me.’ Okay, well that sounds fine,” she said.

“Or...are they going to a psychic or a medium? Is this necromancy? How were they doing this?  I think that's an important question,” Nygaard said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “all forms of divination are to be rejected” which includes the “conjuring up the dead.”

However, the Church encourages Catholics to pray for the dead as one of the spiritual works of mercy.

“From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead,” the Catechism states.

“Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”

“Prayer, prayer, prayer,” Nygaard said, noting that because Catholics do not know the state of the souls of their loved ones when they die, it is important to pray for them after their death, as prayers can help the souls in purgatory get to heaven faster.

The Liturgy of the Hours, a set of prayers said periodically throughout the day by priests, religious and some lay Catholics, includes a special Office of the Dead, a set of prayers said specifically for those who have died.

Nygaard told CNA that she often encourages Catholics who are grieving a loss to ask for the intercessory prayers of saints already canonized by the Church, which means that they are assured to be with God in heaven.

“Maybe it was that my great-grandmother was really close to St. Anne. I'm going to ask St. Anne, ‘Would you please look after my sweet great grandmother? I pray she's there with you in heaven.’ I've known people also to pray, ‘God, I'm asking you, do I need to keep praying for my father?’” she said.

Nygaard said that those she counsels through grief will sometimes, after a period of prayer, feel a deep sense of peace that their loved one is in heaven.

Dr. Chris Stravitsch is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, as well as the president and founder of Rejoice Counseling Apostolate, a group of Catholic counselors. Stravitsch told CNA that in addition to prayer, he counsels his clients to prepare for their first year of grief, which can often be the most difficult.

“There are a lot of ‘firsts’ to pass through: the first Christmas without him or her; their first birthday without them present; the first wedding anniversary alone; etc. I counsel people to prepare for these occasions in advance because we know it will be painful and difficult,” he said.

He said he tells his clients to plan in advance how and with whom they will spend these difficult days, and how they will remember their loved ones at those times.

“It’s helpful to surround yourself with other loved ones who understand your loss, while also setting aside a little time to be alone in prayer and reminiscing,” he said.

“These are meaningful days to attend Mass, so that you can cling to Christ and receive His consolation. Visiting the gravesite or a place where you have a special memory can also be meaningful, whether that is done alone or with the support of others,” he said.

“Furthermore, be sure to tell stories and talk about your deceased loved ones,” he added. “We need to continue coming together at various times to remember them in a spirit of love and prayer. This is a balm for the brokenhearted.”

Stravitsch said it is important for Catholics to remember that death and grief are painful things to experience, and that Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

“(Jesus) wants to be with us and share our grief,” he said. This means Catholics should be sensitive towards those who are grieving, and avoid well-intentioned but unhelpful comments such as: “It was God’s will”; “It was their time to go”; “They’re in a better place now”; or “There’s a reason for everything”; Stravitsch said.

“Simply saying, ‘I’m sorry’, giving a warm embrace, sharing a tear, and remaining at their side as long as needed can be far more consoling,” he said.

Checking back in after the funeral has passed, and continuing to talk about the deceased with those who are grieving are other ways Catholics can show compassion, he said.

Both Nygaard and Stravitsch said that they have found that clients are usually deeply comforted by the Church’s teaching on the communion of saints and the promise of everlasting life for all souls who are united with God.

“In the Catholic Church, like we have the mystical body of Christ. And we know that the souls in heaven are surrounding the altar during communion,” she said.

“What I have found is that normally brings a great sense of peace,” to the bereaved, she said. “It's not just me sitting there when I go up for communion...we're mystically connected and that we can ask for the intercession of the saints,” which means any soul that is in heaven with God.

In his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul recalls those already in heaven, and says that the faithful are surrounded “by so great a cloud of witnesses.”

“When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating 'in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’ All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbors, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God. All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together,’” the Catechism states.

These teachings are a “great consolation for the bereaved,” Stravitsch said. 

“Not only is there the hope of being reunited with our loved ones after death, but there is the reality of remaining mysteriously connected with them even today. Whether we are interceding for them as we pray for the repose of their soul or we are asking for their prayers, there is a sense that we are within reach of one another,” he added.

“The bonds of true love are not destroyed in death but are made ever stronger. The Church recognizes this in a unique way when we celebrate All Souls Day and we call to mind our deceased loved ones. We are united in Christ.”

 

Catholic aid agency to US government: Don't cut foreign aid funding

Washington D.C., Aug 17, 2019 / 04:07 pm (CNA).- Catholic Relief Services is speaking out against a potential reassignment of U.S. funds that Congress appropriated for foreign assistance programs, which aid agencies say could mean a loss of between $2 billion and $4 billion they would otherwise use for humanitarian efforts.

The Office of Management and Budget requested the temporary hold on the funding last week, asking for an “accounting” of all funding that has not yet been officially designated for specific purposes.

The letter identified 10 areas of aid to which the funding hold would apply, including development assistance, global health, contributions to international organizations, international narcotics control and peacekeeping activities, the New York Times reported.

Though the funding freeze was lifted Aug. 9, aid groups still worry that the administration may send Congress a budget that pulls billions of dollars in foreign assistance, Politico reports.

“Local churches and Catholic Relief Services partner with the U.S. government to reduce poverty, alleviate suffering, and foster peace around the world,” CRS said.

“Rescinding some of these and other international poverty-reducing funds will limit the United States’ ability to support poor and vulnerable communities, respond to global health challenges, address root causes of forced migration, and advance international religious freedom, global security, and peacekeeping.”

A cut of $4 billion from the aid budget represents 0.08% of the expected federal budget of $4.5 trillion. Still, CRS says, the funding makes a significant difference to their operations abroad.

“We urge the Administration not to rescind foreign assistance funds. We urge Congress to reject any rescissions that target poverty-reducing and peacebuilding accounts and require the Administration to obligate previously appropriated funds. The conflicts and crises today are dire. U.S. moral and financial leadership is necessary,” CRS concluded.

'Overwhelmed with graces': Walking across America for life

Washington D.C., Aug 17, 2019 / 08:00 am (CNA).- A three-month journey from California to Washington, DC, came to an end August 13, as 23 walkers of this summer’s Crossroads Pro-Life Walks made it to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. 

Crossroads Pro-Life Walks began in 1995, and have expanded from the United States to Spain, Canada, Australia, and Ireland. This summer, there were two walks crossing the United States--the “Southern” walk, which started in Santa Monica, and the “Central” walk, which began in San Francisco. Both walks ended in DC.

Victoria Bliss, a 19-year-old from Virginia, was one of the participants on this year’s Central walk. Bliss said the experience, while full of challenges, was one that strengthened her faith and inspired her to continue doing pro-life work.

“I’ve always been passionately pro-life, and attended the Marches and 40 Days for Life, but I really wanted to do something bigger and commit my whole summer to the pro-life mission, truly going out into the streets and spreading the gospel of life.” 

She told CNA that participating in Crossroads this summer was a fulfilment of a lifelong dream. As a child, past Crossroads walkers spoke regularly at her church following their arrival in DC. 

According to Crossroads Pro-Life Walks VP Martha Nolan, about 1,500 walkers worldwide have completed their journeys, averaging 40 to 60 miles per day, while visiting churches, pregnancy centers, and convents along the way.

Nolan told CNA that they drive “a little bit” when they fall behind. Previously, walkers would carry on by day and night, but after a tragic accidental death in 2012, the day’s walk now stops at sunset. 

Bliss told CNA that, in addition to the spiritual battles one sometimes faces on a pilgrimage, her group experienced logistical and physical struggles as well. One walker fell very ill and had to leave after three weeks, and their RV broke down numerous times.

Despite this, Bliss said “the Holy Spirit brought good out of every situation, and there was never a time when our team even thought about giving up. We were overwhelmed with graces, every second of every day.”

“There were a few threatening times when we got screamed at or chased,” she told CNA. “A couple of times cars swerved into the shoulder and we had to leap out of the way, but our guardian angels were clearly with us.”

There were also many joys that came along the 12-week journey. For Bliss, the biggest was encountering people each day along the route, many of whom broke down in tears when they saw their pro-life teeshirts. 

“We saw Jesus in so many people,” she said. “I came to realize how beautiful people are, no matter how broken, and how much they need us to radiate God’s joy and peace to them.” 

The route was dotted with what Bliss described as “Divine Providence instances,” such as abortion clinics being unexpectedly closed following the group’s prayer vigil. 

“One time, we had been praying all four mysteries of the Rosary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and as we did the final Sign of the Cross, the lights in the clinic turned off,” she recounted.

Each day on Crossroads, the walkers attended Mass, offered “constant rosaries” when they as they went, and prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day at 3 p.m. 

Bliss said that the experience helped her to fall in love with Christ “more than ever before,” and that she witnessed the power of the rosary. 

Now that her walk has ended, Bliss said that she hopes to continue mission work, including becoming a trained sidewalk counselor outside of abortion clinics. But most of all, she hopes to continue the momentum she started this summer.

“Standing up for the unborn is the thing I have always been the most passionate about and I want to do everything I can to raise awareness of the evil of abortion, and change hearts by portraying the truth with love.”

New Jersey judge temporarily blocks assisted suicide law

Metuchen, N.J., Aug 16, 2019 / 02:31 pm (CNA).- A judge in New Jersey has temporarily halted a law allowing physician assisted suicide, which had gone into effect August 1.

The law is being challenged by a physician who says that it is a violation of religious freedom protections in the U.S. Constitution and laws against suicide.

Dr. Yosef Glassman is an Orthodox Jew who says that he is opposed to facilitating suicide both due to his religious beliefs and his profession as a doctor. He also objects to the law’s stipulation that a doctor who objects to assisted suicide must refer patients to another doctor who will help them end their life.

The law’s demands on doctors, Glassman said in his lawsuit, present “not only a violation of the rights to practice medicine without breaching the fiduciary duties owing to those patients ... but also violations of their First Amendment rights under the United States Constitution to freely practice their religions in which human life is sacred and must not be taken,” the AP reported.

The Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which passed the New Jersey legislature with bipartisan support, allows those deemed by a doctor to have less than six months to live to request lethal medication to end their lives. The patient then must administer the medication themselves.

The temporary injunction, signed by Judge Paul Innes of Superior Court in Mercer County, means that the state attorney general may not enforce the law while it is being challenged in court.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who signed the bill in April, said he will fight the lawsuit, the AP reported.

A self-described “lifelong, practicing Catholic,” Murphy said when he signed the bill into law that he was aware that the Church opposed assisted suicide, but after careful consideration and prayer, he believed assisted suicide was a personal decision and legalizing it would respect residents’ freedom and humanity.

Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen condemned assisted suicide as “a grievous affront to the dignity of human life” that “can never be morally justified” in a letter to his diocese on July 30.

“Passage of this law points to the utter failure of government, and indeed all society, to care truly, authentically and humanely for the suffering and vulnerable in our midst, especially those living with an incurable disease as well as the frail elderly, the infirm and those living with disabilities,” he said.

He stressed that despite the new legality of the practice, it remains gravely immoral, and said the Church would continue advocating for the sanctity of all human life and working to educate lawmakers and the general public about the dangers of assisted suicide.

“With this law there will be a further desensitization of the value of human life,” said the bishop, adding that the elderly, sick and disabled could feel pressure to choose suicide so as to avoid burdening others.

He also clarified that Saint Peter’s University Hospital, sponsored by the Diocese of Metuchen, will not condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Instead of assisted suicide, Checchio called for a renewed commitment caring for those living in pain and suffering while dying and who might otherwise consider suicide.

“Let us strive to help the sick and incapacitated find meaning in their lives, even and especially in the midst of their suffering,” he said. “Let us, as a society and as individuals choose to walk with them, in their suffering, not contribute to eliminating the gift of life.”

Assisted suicide is legal in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia, as well as in Montana under a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling.

Planned Parenthood to pull out of Title X program

Washington D.C., Aug 16, 2019 / 10:15 am (CNA).- Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest provider of abortion services, has announced that it will withdraw from the federal Title X family planning program, ending its access to millions of dollars in government funding.

The decision is set to take effect Aug. 19, the date by which funding recipients are required to make a “good faith” undertaking to comply with a new rule barring the referral of clients for abortion services.

After it was announced in final form in February, the Protect Life Rule was subject to court challenges from abortion providers and several states. In June, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the rule could come into force. In July, judges refused to issue a stay against that decision.

Planned Parenthood informed the court on Wednesday that, unless the reversed its refusal to grant a stay, it would leave the Title X program on Monday.

Planned Parenthood’s acting president Alexis McGill Johnson said the group refused “to let the Trump administration bully us into withholding abortion information from our patients.”

Calling the Protect Life Rule a “gag on health care providers,” Johnson said in a statement that the rule is “a blatant assault on our health and rights, and we will not stand for it.”

In addition to barring Title X fund recipients from referring women for abortions it also prevents participating groups from co-locating with abortion clinics and requires financial separation of government-funded programs from those that carry out abortions.

Planned Parenthood had previously intended to remain in the Title X program but refuse funding, an arrangement that HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary Diane Foley called “inconsistent” in a letter to the organization.

In guidance issued by HHS on Friday, the department responded directly to Planned Parenthood’s objections to the rule, noting that the organization operated less than 10% of participating sites nationwide.

“To the extent that Planned Parenthood claims that it must make burdensome changes to comply with the Final Rule, it is actually choosing to place a higher priority on the ability to refer for abortion instead of continuing to receive federal funds to provide a broad range of acceptable and effective family planning methods and services to clients in need of these services.”

Title X is a federal program created in 1965 that subsidizes family-planning and preventative health services, including contraception, for low-income families. It has been frequently updated and subject to new regulations.

The administration previously said in June that it would delay enforcement of the rule, provided that fund recipients submitted a compliance plan and made a “good faith” undertaking to comply with most of the rule’s requirements as soon as possible. Facilities are required to end co-location with abortion sites by March 2020.

Last month, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony List, welcomed the 9th Circuit’s decision to deny a stay, calling the Protect Life Rule “greatly encouraging.”

“Without reducing Title X funding by a dime, the Protect Life Rule simply draws a bright line between abortion and family planning, stopping abortion businesses like Planned Parenthood from treating Title X as their private slush fund.” 

Before announcing its withdrawal from the Title X program, Planned Parenthood and its affiliates had received some $60 million annually, about one-fifth of total Title X funds, making up approximately 15% of its annual federal funding.

After Epstein death, theologians discuss suicide, salvation, and the obligations of the state

Denver, Colo., Aug 15, 2019 / 05:03 pm (CNA).- On August 10, investment banker and multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell, in what officials have called an apparent suicide.

Epstein, already a convicted sex offender, was awaiting trial for sex trafficking charges, including one count of sex trafficking of a minor and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. He had pled not guilty to both.

Following his death, theories about how Epstein died abound.

The well-connected Epstein, who counted princes and presidents and other elites among his associates, might have exposed the crimes of powerful friends at trial, and the risk of that exposure, some speculate, could have prompted an assassination.

Epstein had been taken off of suicide watch just 12 days prior to his death. According to a report in the New York Times, two guards who were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes fell asleep for three hours and fudged the records of their rounds in an attempt to cover their mistake. They have since been removed from their posts at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where Epstein was being held.

An autopsy of Epstein has so far raised more questions than answers.

Whether or not Epstein committed suicide remains to be confirmed. But federal data shows that suicide rates in the U.S. are at the highest they’ve been since World War II, and even higher than they were during the Great Depression, according to a report from TIME magazine.

The Catholic Church teaches that suicide is a violation of the 5th commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill,” and a mortal sin.

CNA spoke with three moral theologians about suicide, on the hope for salvation that the Church holds for those who take their lives, and the obligations of the state to protect prisoners from themselves.

Grave matter and mortal sin

David Cloutier is a moral theologian and associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Cloutier told CNA that when considering suicide, it is important to remember that it is taught by the Church to be a grave sin.

“(That) means all things considered, this is a serious matter, and to make a choice against life is to choose against God, who gives everyone the gift of life, and to also choose against your obligations to others,” Cloutier told CNA.

In a section on suicide, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that God is the master of life, and that human beings “are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life.”

The Catechism adds that suicide “unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.”

While suicide is grave matter, the Catechism also notes that in order for a person to commit a mortal sin, three conditions must be a met: that the sin is grave matter, and that the person commits the sin with “full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

There could be mitigating factors, such as mental illness or some other kind of great distress, that might relieve a person of at least some culpability in committing suicide, Cloutier said.


The hope for salvation

Even given the gravity of suicide, Christians should always hope in the love and mercy of God in cases of suicide, Scott Hefelfinger, a moral theologian and assistant professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, told CNA.

“If we lose all hope with respect to this person's salvation, we could in fact be sort of repeating the same emotional disposition of despair that afflicted the person who did commit suicide. So we're counseled to hope rather than despair,” he said.

“We put our trust in God's mercy.”

Furthermore, Cloutier said, the Catechism itself is “pretty straightforward” in saying that those who commit suicide are not necessarily denied eternal salvatinon, because the state of their mind and soul at the time of committing the act is a factor.

If the person was in “some kind of emotional stress, or depression, or other various ways in which a person’s emotions get in the way of fully knowing what they’re doing,” their responsibility is at least somewhat mitigated, he said.

Fr. Edward Krasevac, OP, is a professor of theology, and the theology department chair at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California.

Krasevac said that because the will to live is such a basic human instinct, it seems possible that many cases of suicide are committed by people who are influenced by serious clinical depression or other mental illnesses or psychological factors that would impair their judgment and mitigate to at least some degree the consent of their will.

“People who are clinically depressed don’t think straight, they can’t think straight,” Krasevac said.

He added there could be other mitigating factors in a person’s life, such as fear of the pain of death, or the fear of what is going to happen to them if they stay alive, such as a person “facing the rest of their life in not a good prison situation, losing everything they ever had, not being able to deal with life in prison...these are what we call modifiers of responsibility.”

“So in many cases of suicide, a person's responsibility is seriously diminished,” he said. “[In such a case] it's not subjectively mortal sin even though it may look like it from the outside and it is objectively a mortal sin.”

Another reason to hope is that a person could have repented of their actions in the moments before their death, Hefelfinger noted.

“In the case of someone who, let's say is culpable of the act of suicide, and they begin this process. Well, usually there's some suffering involved, and usually death doesn't come about instantaneously,” he said.

“And so, God's mercy doesn't need a very wide crack to get through. I think there are always these opportunities prior to death, in the split second before death, where we certainly do not want to rule out the possibility of God's mercy,” he said. 

“And again, we say this without in any way diminishing the gravity of the act. It's the gravity of the act that makes us lean on God's mercy so much, so we turn our attention to that and pray for that so greatly.”

The state and the suicidal person

The Catholic Church teaches that states have a duty to uphold the common good of society, and although the Catechism does not specifically express what a state should do in the case of a suicidal person, Cloutier said the state has several interests in preventing the suicide of people in prison.

“The reason the state wants to avoid suicide is because it wants to allow the prisoner a fair, public trial, which is in the public interest,” he said.

“It’s in the interest of the prisoner, because then he might be found innocent, and it’s in the interest of the public, because if the prisoner is found guilty through this, then the prisoner is subjected to appropriate punishment,” he added.

“So the state...has an interest in the person going through the justice system.”

In upholding the common good, the state also has an interest in keeping prisoners alive, Cloutier said. “This is why we have suicide watch. It is also the case that in our society, we generally believe that anyone who is suicidal should be prevented from taking their own life,” he said.

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.

In the case of someone like Epstein, who was at one point known to be suicidal, the state assumes the responsibility for that person’s mental health while they are in prison, and therefore cut off from other communities of support, Hefelfinger added.

“(Prisoners) typically don't have access to those more closely knit communities,” he said. “And so there is a moral responsibility, it would seem, for the state and for those running these facilities to attend to the mental health of those folks who are in these institutions.”

The investigation of Epstein’s death is ongoing.

If you are feeling suicidal, contact the National suicide preention lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor in the United States.

Labor Department rule aims to widen religious freedom protection for employers

Washington D.C., Aug 15, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- The Department of Labor announced Wednesday that it is considering a new rule that would allow federal contractors who identify as religious to hire employees based on faith and religious practice.

The new policy would expand a Johnson-era executive order protecting the rights of religious employers with federal government contracts to hire from within their religious group. 

The new proposal was announced Aug. 14. The Department of Labor said the new policy “clarifies the scope and applications of the religious exemption contained in section 204(c) of Executive Order 11246.”  

Executive Order 11246 forbids federal contractors from engaging in discriminatory hiring on the basis “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” An exemption for religious-based employers allowed them legally to hire only people of a certain faith if they so choose, but the executive order did not fully define as to what “religious-based” meant. 

The proposed new rule takes steps to better define the term, saying that the “religious exemption covers not just churches but employers that are organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose.” 

The new definition also includes companies that claim to be religious “in response to inquiries from a member of the public or a government entity.” 

Additionally, the new rule states that “employers can condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets without sanction by the federal government,” meaning that a federal contractor can make hiring decisions based upon how devoutly an employee practices a certain religious faith. 

All companies are still barred from discriminating on other grounds. 

The Department of Labor cited recent Supreme Court cases, including Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Hobby Lobby v. Burwell as having underscored constitutional religious freedom protections.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella said in a released statement that “As people of faith with deeply held religious beliefs are making decisions on whether to participate in federal contracting, they deserve [a] clear understanding of their obligations and protections under the law.” 

About a quarter of workers in the United States are employed by a company that is contracted with the federal government. 

LGBT-rights activist groups like the Human Rights Campaign, who called the change a “license to discriminate,” came out strongly against the policy shift.

Louise Melling, acting deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union told a press call that the rule was “just the most recent in an ever-lengthening list of actions by this administration to authorize discrimination in name of religion.”

The White House responded to the criticism in a statement Wednesday, saying “In no way does today’s announcement by the Department of Labor undermine the President’s promise and commitment to the LGBTQ community.” 

“The proposed rule will continue to responsibly protect religious freedom and members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination,” the statement said.

While some activist groups have criticized the new rule as a license for widespread discrimination, Luke Goodrich, senior counsel and vice president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNA that he believes the policy is a far from controversial. 

"When a religious group hires people of the same religion to carry out their mission, it's not 'discrimination,' it's common sense,” Goodrich told CNA. 

“And when the government refuses to work with religious groups that do the best job of caring for the needy, it's not 'equality,' it's nonsense,” he added. 

The new rule is open for comment in the Federal Register until September 16.