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Lenten campaign invites fallen-away Catholics back to confession

Pittsburgh, Pa., Mar 23, 2018 / 12:39 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Through an annual initiative called “The light is on for you,” dioceses throughout the U.S. have opened their doors to welcome fallen away Catholics back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“It’s an opportunity to reach out to people who may not be regularly thinking about confession and for it to spark their interest,” said Father Nicholas Vaskov, executive director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“This is sort of the apex of a long journey back to a regular practice with their faith. They’ve come to a point to realize without this it’s not going to be complete, just that desire to be one with God,” he told CNA.

“The light is on for you” is present in dioceses including Arlington, Va., Washington, D.C., Boston, San Jose, and Dallas. Participating dioceses pick a night in Lent when every church has a priest available for confession, some with several nights throughout the Lenten season.  

For at least the sixth year in a row, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has also had one night in Lent when every church is open for confession. Since February, the diocese has promoted the event on radio stations, bus shelter signs, and social media.

As the pastor at St. Mary of Mercy Parish in downtown Pittsburgh, Father Vaskov heard confessions for three hours on March 22. Despite 10 inches of snow, he said people still lined up for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, including both Catholics who frequent the sacrament and those who had not been in years.

“I think it is a powerful experience for many who come… so often, and last night was no different, people who [had been] 10, 20, 30, even 40 years away from the sacraments” returned to confession.

The event is promoted especially as an opportunity for fallen-away Catholics to return to the sacraments without pressure, said Father Vaskov, who worked with radio stations and ad buyers to promote advertisements tailored to this audience.

The ads sought to respond to the reasons that people give for leaving the Church, such as a bad experience with a priest or why confession is necessary for forgiveness.

This opportunity is especially important during the time of Lent, said Father Vaskov, adding that confession nourishes spiritual strength and health all the more when accompanied by the disciplines of Lent.

Additionally, he said, confession accompanies a meditation on Christ’s suffering at the cross and Christ’s conquering of sin to renew our relationship with God.

“We are meditating so much during these days on the passion of Christ. … And the beauty of restoring that relationship of being one with Christ in his suffering and restoring that relationship with God through the sacraments so that there is nothing preventing us from being one with him.”

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, whose diocese hosts the event twice a year, said one of the greatest joys a priest can experience is the bringing fallen-away Catholics back to fold of the Church.

“We are here to welcome people back, to offer mercy and to help them experience God’s love,” Bishop Zubik said in a 2018 Lenten press release.

“One of the most rewarding experiences that any priest can have is to hear the Confession of someone who may have been away from the Church for decades, and to have a role in lifting that burden of guilt and restoring the person to spiritual wholeness.”


Amid political pressure, Nebraska works to prevent abortion funding

Lincoln, Neb., Mar 22, 2018 / 05:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Following reports that some Title X funds have wrongly gone to abortion-related expenses, Nebraska is considering stronger budget restrictions, but some legislators are resisting.

“It has long been a policy that we do not use taxpayer dollars to fund abortions,” Gov. Pete Ricketts told CNA March 22. “What we have seen in Nebraska is that these Title X dollars, according to a couple of our audits, have been used to fund abortions.”

“Nebraska is a pro-life state, and that our budget ought to reflect that,” Ricketts said. “I believe that abortion is inherently wrong, so personally I do not want to see those dollars to go to that, but in general even those who are pro-choice understand that it’s bad policy to have federal tax dollars fund something that is so controversial and really ought not be funded by fed tax dollars.”

Gov. Ricketts backs proposed budget language that would require clinics that receive Title X funds to be “objectively independent” from abortion providers, meaning they have “legal, physical and financial separation.”

The unicameral legislature narrowly voted to pass the $8.8 billion budget bill, L.B. 944, to the second round of debate, the Omaha World Herald reports. On March 21 a vote for cloture, to end debate on the bill, failed by three votes. Three members of the Appropriations Committee were recorded as “present not voting,” Sens. Kate Bolz, Anna Wishart, and Tony Vargas, who is Catholic.

Under the legislature’s current rules, which legislators may suspend by vote, the budget bill must advance by Friday, March 23.

Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, told CNA that some legislators are under political pressure to remove the provision.

“Overall, a majority of Nebraska state legislators have pro-life values, and want to provide support for mothers and protect unborn children,” he said. “As we’ve seen throughout the country, we’ve noticed that some legislators seem to be succumbing to the pressure of abortion lobbyists and special interest groups. That is always a pressure of which to be aware.”

The 2015 and 2016 Nebraska statewide audits found that abortion-related expenses were wrongly funded using taxpayer dollars, according to a summary from Marion Miner, the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s associate director for pro-life and family issues.

The expenses included a nearly $2,000 payment for abortion-related physician fees through Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. Such misappropriations would put federal funding to the state at risk given federal rules against funding abortion, state auditor Charlie Janssen told the Appropriations Committee in Feb. 8 testimony.

Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln has backed the proposed policy, saying it “protects the health clinics’ ability to provide the best healthcare for men and women by ensuring that Nebraska’s Title X dollars are not compromised.”

Ricketts said the state budget rules “can ensure that those health care dollars that we’re getting from the federal government are not being used to provide or subsidize abortion.”

“That is something that is not unwarranted in our budget,” he said, pointing to similar provisions barring funding for biomedical research involving human fetuses.

He compared the limits to other rules like the Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funding for overseas organizations that promote or perform abortions.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, however, objected to the ban on funds for abortion providers and characterized it as a policy statement.

“What social policy is going to be in the budget next?” she said, the Lincoln Journal-Star reports. “We could talk about gambling and helmets and property taxes and environmental issues. Let's just put it all in the budget and then we don't have to have bills or committee hearings.”

About $1.5 million in Title X grants goes through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, aiming to provide services like well-woman exams, STD testing and treatment, HPV testing and vaccinations, and contraception. The leading grant recipient is Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which receives about $300,000 per year, according to the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

“Whether it is direct or indirect, tax payer money should not go to abortion services,” said Venzor. “The pro-life provision in the state budget simply keeps these clinics accountable and ensures that taxpayer dollars are not used for the killing of unborn life.”

In January, the Omaha World-Herald said the provision would cut funding from Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland said the money helps its clinics serve about 8,000 patients. Its clinics in Omaha and Lincoln also perform abortions.

Ricketts told CNA it was “absolutely false” to claim the funding rules would limit women’s services.

“The exact same amount of dollars will be spent after we pass this bill, with this budget language in it, as was being spent before,” he said. “Anybody is able to apply for those dollars.”

“The clear majority of legislators want to have this Title X language in there,” Ricketts said. He accused three members of the appropriations committee of voting the bill out of committee then working to undermine it.

“They’re playing reckless games with the budget process. If they had a problem with this bill, they ought to not have voted for it out of committee,” he said. “The legislature still has time to address this. They still have plenty of time to go back and pass this bill.”

Venzor encouraged voters and legislators in other states who want to implement similar restrictions on Title X money to contact the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

“We’re all working hard across the country to defend life and advance the common good, and we should learn from each other,” he said.

US House passes spending bill which continues funding Planned Parenthood

Washington D.C., Mar 22, 2018 / 04:45 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The stopgap omnibus funding bill passed the House of Representatives on Thursday, despite heavy criticism from the US bishops and conservative members over the continued federal funding of Planned Parenthood, among other things.

The bill passed March 22 by a vote of 256-167.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) released a scathing letter after the vote.

“This omnibus is nowhere close to what Republicans promised to fight for,” said Meadows.

“When the American people sent us to Congress, their message was loud and their mandate clear: Secure the border, [...] Defund Planned Parenthood; Cut wasteful spending; ‘Drain the swamp and change the unsustainable way Washington, D.C. does business. This budget embraces the polar opposite of these principles.”

Last year, Planned Parenthood received over half a billion dollars in federal funding.

The inclusion of federal funding for Planned Parenthood was not the only controversial thing about the bill. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying they were “deeply disappoint[ed]” that the Conscience Protection Act (CPA) was not included in the appropriations bill, and said that members of Congress who did not support the CPA were extremists.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chair of the conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty, said that "The CPA is an extraordinarily modest bill that proposes almost no change to existing conscience protection laws on abortion—laws that receive wide public and bi-partisan support.”

“The CPA simply proposes to provide victims of discrimination with the ability to defend their rights in court to help ensure that no one is forced to participate in abortion. Those inside and outside of Congress who worked to defeat the CPA have placed themselves squarely into the category of extremists who insist that all Americans must be forced to participate in the violent act of abortion. We call on Congress not to give up until this critical legislation is enacted."

Prior to the vote, many congressmen took to Twitter to complain about the bill’s large size (over 2,000 pages), the limited amount of time they had to read the bill before they were to vote on it, and specific programs that were still going to be receiving federal funding.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), joked that “It’s a good thing we have Republican control of Congress or the Democrats might bust the budget caps, fund planned parenthood and Obamacare, and sneak gun control without due process into an Omni...wait, what?”


It’s a good thing we have Republican control of Congress or the Democrats might bust the budget caps, fund planned parenthood and Obamacare, and sneak gun control without due process into an Omni...wait, what?

— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 21, 2018


Later he tweeted a list of the things the bill funded that he found objectionable, including $51 million appropriated for “international family planning and reproductive health.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), speaking on Fox News, said this may be the “worst bill I’ve seen in my time in Congress.”

“I don’t think we told the voters when we were running for the job [...] that we were going to continue to fund Planned Parenthood, we were going to restrict Second Amendment liberties, let some bureaucrats take away your Second Amendment rights, not a court of law.”

The omnibus bill now moves to the Senate, where it must be approved before the end of Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

Police search Michigan bishop’s home, citing lack of cooperation in sex abuse investigation

Saginaw, Mich., Mar 22, 2018 / 03:37 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On Thursday, police in Saginaw, Michigan raided the home of Bishop Joseph Cistone, as well as the diocesan chancery and its cathedral rectory, as part of an ongoing investigation into sex abuse allegations against several diocesan priests.

CNA has reached out to the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

Police told local media that they could not reveal what they were searching for or taking from the properties. However, authorities did say that the search warrants were due to a lack of cooperation on the part of the diocese related to an ongoing clerical sex abuse investigation.

"Contrary to the statements of the diocese and the bishop that they would fully cooperate with law enforcement, they did not," Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Mark Gaertner told local news source Michigan Live. "Therefore it was necessary for law enforcement to use other investigative tools, including search warrants."

Gaertner told Michigan Live that search warrants were executed on Thursday at Bishop Cistone’s home as well as on the rectory of the diocesan cathedral and on the diocesan offices.

Two priests have been placed on leave from their duties after a recent wave of accusations of sexual abuse against priests in the diocese.

Last month, Fr. Robert Deland, a Saginaw priest and pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Freeland, was charged with one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of gross indecency between male persons, and one count of attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct/personal injury, following the accusations of a 21-year-old man and a 17-year-old high school student.  

DeLand, who also served as judicial vicar for the Diocese of Saginaw, was placed on administrative leave during the investigation. He was also banned from school properties and from presenting himself as a priest.

In February, Bishop Cistone said in a statement that he had “no previous knowledge of the police investigation or of these allegations” against DeLand, and that “the diocese will cooperate fully with law enforcement and their investigation.”

On March 8, the diocese released a statement clarifying that further review of records determined that the diocese had been informed of rumors about DeLand in 1992, and that in 2005, a woman contacted the diocese about the possibility that DeLand might have sexually abused her brother, who since had died, in the 1970s. The diocese said it had contracted an investigator to assess the matter, and that “the independent Diocesan Review Board, Bishop Robert Carlson, who was Bishop of Saginaw at the time, as well as the family agreed that the suspicion against Father DeLand was unfounded.”

Police have told local news sources that they have received numerous tips against other clergy following the arrest of DeLand in February.

The second priest to be placed on leave in the recent investigation is Father Ronald J. Dombrowski, following an accusation that he sexually assaulted a minor. According to the diocese, the alleged victim first brought the complaint to the diocese, which contacted the authorities.

While Dombrowsi, 72, has not been criminally charged, he has also been banned from school properties and from presenting himself as a priest during the investigation. He most recently served as sacramental minister at Holy Family Parish in Saginaw and received “senior priest” status in 2013.

In 2012, Cistone was accused of misleading a grand jury about his compliance in the destruction of documents containing the names of priests suspected of child molestation in 1994, while he was serving as a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Cistone was not criminally charged in the incident.  

In February, Cistone announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.


Death penalty for drug dealers? Catholic group responds to federal memo

Washington D.C., Mar 22, 2018 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- The Trump administration’s call for increased use of the death penalty in drug-related crimes will not address the root causes of the opioid crisis, one Catholic advocate said Thursday.

“To suggest the use of the death penalty as a way to address the opioid epidemic ignores what we know to be true: the death penalty is a flawed and broken system of justice,” said Krisanne Murphy, managing director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which opposes the death penalty and promotes restorative justice.

“The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis and it needs to be addressed as such. Suggesting the death penalty as a solution to the opioid epidemic is simply a distraction from dealing with the real problem,” she told CNA.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration released a memo encouraging federal prosecutors to pursue the death penalty for drug traffickers in certain cases.

“The opioid epidemic has inflicted an unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering and death on communities throughout our nation,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a March 20 memo.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses claimed the lives of more than 64,000 Americans in 2016, and remains the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.

“To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal…this should also include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases,” Sessions continued, saying “we cannot continue with business as usual.”

Sessions listed several existing statutes which could warrant capital punishment, including racketeering activities, the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime, murder in a continuing criminal enterprise, and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.

The push for tougher penalties is part of a three-pronged plan to fight the drug abuse crisis within the nation. The plan also includes efforts to reduce demand for and over-prescription of opioids and cut off the supply of illegal drugs, as well as efforts to boost access to treatment for those affected by the opioid epidemic.

While the memo released by Sessions was met with controversy, it does not change what is currently allowable under federal law, Murphy said.

“The suggestion the Trump Administration put forth is nothing new and only reiterated what is currently on the books,” she explained.

Particularly controversial is the recommendation for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty for “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.” While federal statutes allow for capital punishment in such cases, the punishment has never before been pursued on these grounds, a Justice Department official said, according to CNN.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told CNA that the “U.S. Supreme Court has categorically stated that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals that do not result in death. That is unequivocal.”

He pointed to a 1977 case, “Coker vs. Georgia,” where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for a rape that did not result in death, and similarly overruled capital punishment in another Georgia kidnapping case.

“Prosecutors are to take a look at the law, which is the same as it has been, and pursue the death penalty when it’s appropriate,” he continued.  

However, he noted the distinction between crimes against an individual versus crimes against the state.

Typically, Dunham said, crimes against an individual would be lower-level drug dealers, in which case, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that capital punishment would be unconstitutional if it is not a crime resulting in death.

In cases of higher-level drug dealing, which is typically international, most treaties and international law will not extradite an individual who may face the death penalty.

“The death penalty is clearly unconstitutional in respect to small-dealers, and it is ineffective with respect to international drug trafficking because no country will turn over any drug trafficker to the United States who may face the death penalty,” Dunham said.

As a result, he does not believe the attorney general’s memo will open the door to capital punishment being used for more non-murder crimes.

Ultimately, Murphy was critical of the use of the death penalty as an effective way to combat the growing opioid crisis within the U.S.

Instead, she suggested transferring the funds which would have been used for the death penalty toward supporting healthcare professionals who provide support and treatment for individuals impacted by drug use.

“Those suffering from addicting, their families, and their communities need healing and restoration,” Murphy noted, saying, “the death penalty does not provide either.”

“Solutions to any instance of harm must be restorative and allow for the flourishing of all people. We must seek resources for prevention, rehabilitation and treatment – not retribution and vengeance.”