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Happy Thanksgiving from Word on Fire!

From the team here at Word on Fire, we would like to wish you and yours a very blessed Thanksgiving holiday! Read today's post for a short reflection on the biblical representation of the "sacred banquet," as well as what thanksgiving really means in the life of the Church.

Petition seeks to return St. Junipero Serra statue to ‘place of honor’ at Catholic university

An illustration of Saint Junipero Serra. / Public domain.

Los Angeles, Calif., Nov 24, 2021 / 18:04 pm (CNA).

A statue of Saint Junipero Serra must return to the Loyola Marymount University campus, an alumni group has said in a letter and petition to the president of the Los Angeles-area Catholic university.

St. Junipero Serra “recently completed the lengthy and rigorous examination process involved in becoming a canonized saint,” Marcos Chavira, a Loyola Marymount University 1995 graduate, said in an open letter to university president Timothy Snyder, posted at the Renew LMU website.

“Regardless of what any committee may recommend to you, we hope your decision about this statue does not further erode our Catholic identity,” Chavira said.

He cited Pope Francis’ words about Serra during a Sept. 23, 2015 canonization Mass. Serra “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” the pope said.

Chavira’s letter to Snyder cited recent comments from Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

Serra “defended indigenous people’s humanity, decried the abuse of indigenous women, and argued against imposing the death penalty on natives who had burned down a mission and murdered one of his friends,” the archbishops wrote in a Sept. 12 essay for the Wall Street Journal. “At age 60, ill and with a chronically sore leg, Serra traveled 2,000 miles to Mexico City to demand that authorities adopt a native bill of rights he had written.”

The statue dates back to the 1990s, when it was placed outside the campus library as a gift of William H. Hannon, a Catholic philanthropist and passionate admirer of Serra. Hannon was a major benefactor of the campus, an honorary trustee, and regent emeritus. Many campus buildings are named for him at the university, which claims affiliation with both the Society of Jesus and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.

In a Nov. 24 statement to CNA, the university said: “In summer of 2020, the statue of Rev. Serra on LMU's Westchester campus was removed to conduct repairs. When the campus reopened from the pandemic in fall of 2021, the university convened a task force to invite feedback from the community and to develop recommendations on future plans. No final decisions have been made, and the university remains committed to a thoughtful process of open dialogue.”

Chavira said Snyder’s choice to remove the statue was “one more step you have made towards LMU losing its distinctive identity and becoming just like any secular school.”

“With all due respect to some on campus who see things differently, the statue of St. Junípero Serra should be returned to a place of honor,” Chavira said. “The saint’s statue should be accompanied by exactly the same contextualization, historical perspective, and critical evaluation that accompanies all the other statues, plaques, memorials, and quotations in stone on campus from figures including Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the Virgin Mary.” 

“That is to say, none,” Chavira added. “For these figures, we do not publicly document their real or alleged sins, or the sins of those associated with them, near their sites of commemoration.”

Renew LMU has objected to the new mission statement of the university’s liberal arts college, which dropped wording that expresses a “commitment to Roman Catholicism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” The alumni group was also critical of the university for allowing a student group to hold an on-campus fundraiser for Planned Parenthood at the campus’ Roski Dining Hall.

Chavira referred to this event in his letter.

“If a Planned Parenthood fundraiser can be held at LMU in Roski, certainly a statue of this country’s first Hispanic saint canonized by the first Hispanic pope can be in a place of honor and respect at LMU,” he said. “If you wish to have the statue placed inside, so as to lessen the likelihood of vandalism, it should be in a place of high visibility as it was before. We suggest putting it in Roski.”

Renew LMU has asked supporters of the Serra statue to add their name to Chavira’s letter at its website, RenewLMU.com. The alumni group describes itself as “an alliance of students, alumni, faculty, donors, and other LMU supporters who seek to strengthen LMU’s Catholic mission and identity.” CNA sought comment from RenewLMU but did not receive a response by deadline.

Serra, a Franciscan friar from Spain, left a prestigious university chair in Majorca for what is now the United States in 1749. He founded a system of missions to evangelize the Indigenous in modern-day California. He celebrated more than 6,000 baptisms and 5,000 confirmations, and the missions are at the historic center of many of the state’s cities.

While he was lionized through much of the 20th century, critics have since lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism. They said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Serra himself was abusive.

Serra’s defenders point to the priest’s advocacy for native people and a champion of human rights. They note that he often found himself at odds with Spanish authorities over mistreatment of native people, and the native communities themselves showed an outpouring of grief at his death. They said Serra is wrongly blamed for injustices that came after his death.

Last year, the death of Minnesota man George Floyd during his arrest by a police officer, who was later convicted of his murder, led to racial tensions, protests against police brutality, and riots. In California, protesters and vandals targeted statues of Serra on the grounds that he represented colonialism and oppression of Native Americans. Some state and local lawmakers renewed previous efforts to remove images of Serra from public parks and other official places, and many succeeded.

The Los Angeles-area San Gabriel Mission, which Serra founded in 1771, burned in a devastating fire on July 11, 2020. The alleged arsonist, 57-year-old John David Corey, faces two felony counts in connection with the fire. He was known to the mission and had quarreled with staff members in the past. He reportedly harbored anger toward the Catholic Church.

On Nov. 4, Loyola Marymount University hosted a discussion about Serra linked to the observance of Indigenous Heritage Month, the university news site LMU This Week reported. 

At the discussion Robert M. Senkewicz, emeritus history professor at Santa Clara University, cited both a letter from Serra seeking mercy for indigenous people who had attacked a mission and another letter instructing harsh punishment for indigenous people who had left a mission and were returned by force. He depicted the Catholic mission presence and the Spanish military presence as mutually reinforcing and said Catholic evangelization efforts accepted the use of force. Mexican and Californian representations of this time of history erased the indigenous peoples’ experiences, Senkewicz said.

Cecilia González-Andrieu, a Loyola Marymount professor of theological studies, said that the missions are now in mainly Latino neighborhoods, but she said there is no devotion to Serra at these places. Edgar Perez, a member of the Gabrielino-Tongva people, said the mission system planted the seeds for policies to separate indigenous people from their language and religion and lands. Serra is an integral part of that history, he said.

Than Povi Martinez, a sophomore dance major at Loyola Marymount from the Tewa Pueblo People of San Ildefonso in New Mexico, said Serra’s statue should be permanently removed. According to LMU This Week, she said the statue represents pain and racism and such representations trigger trauma.

Among the critics of Serra are the Indigenous Student Union of LMU. A petition on Change.org attributed to the group had 243 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. The petition said Serra’s statue should “stay off of our LMU campus.”

“One of our founding goals at ISU has been the removal of the Junipero Serra statue on LMU’s campus,” the petition said. “We see this as just one step acknowledging that LMU currently resides on stolen land of the Tongva Tribe and taking action towards making our campus a safe and welcoming place for Indigenous people and others of marginalized identities and backgrounds.”

“We demand that the statue stay off campus and that the education surrounding Christian colonization be conducted through a different, more intentional manner that centers the lives of our community members of Indigenous and/or marginalized backgrounds,” the group continued. “If the university is truly committed to ongoing efforts to increase diversity and inclusion within our institution, the Junipero Serra statue would be kept off our campus.”

Dr. Reuben Mendoza, an archeologist and professor at California State University-Monterey Bay, who has studied the missions for more than 25 years, told CNA last year that Serra was motivated by a missionary zeal to bring salvation to the Native people through the Catholic faith, rather than by genocidal, racist, or opportunistic motivations.

“Serra writes excitedly about how he had finally found his life's calling, and that he would give his life to these people and their salvation,” Mendoza said.

Fr. Tom Elewaut, pastor of the Old Mission Basilica of San Buenaventura in Ventura, told CNA last year that indigenous people are not uniformly critical of Serra.

“There is substantial evidence that among the Chumash that St. Junipero Serra is revered and respected for his contributions to our country,” said Elewaut. “Their voices have not been heard or respected. Their voices should have equal weight and import.” 

Some indigenous Americans, both in Ventura and Santa Barbara, are “appalled by the character assassination of St. Junipero Serra,” the priest reported.

Few Americans blame God for suffering in the world, new survey finds

A woman prays the rosary. / siam.pukkato/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Nov 24, 2021 / 16:17 pm (CNA).

A new study by the Pew Research Center found that few Americans blame God for suffering in the world. Instead, Americans are more likely to blame suffering on random chance, the actions of others, or society at large. 

The survey included questions about both religious or spiritual belief, and the meaning of suffering. Respondents who expressed a belief in God, or a higher power, were subsequently asked if they blame God when bad things happen in the world. 

Nearly 75% of respondents who expressed a belief in God, or a higher power, said they “rarely” or “never” feel angry with God in the face of suffering. Protestants in the historically Black tradition and older Americans were more likely to say this, the survey found. 

Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center.

Fewer than 15% of those same respondents said suffering in the world makes them doubt God’s existence, omnipotence, or kindness. The survey found that doubt as a response to suffering was somewhat more common among young adults, Democrats, and religiously unaffiliated Americans. 

Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center.

Similarly, few of those same respondents said they believe suffering in the world is a punishment from God. Only 4% believe “all” or “most” suffering is a punishment from God, while 18% said “some,” and 22% said “only a little” is a punishment from God, the survey found. 

Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center.

The survey found that more than 70% of all respondents believe suffering in the world is mostly a consequence of people’s own actions, while 80% of respondents who expressed a belief in God or a higher power believe suffering in the world is mostly a consequence of people’s own actions, not from God. 

Slightly more than half of those respondents believe God allows human suffering as part of a larger plan, with Evangelical Protestants most likely to hold that belief. 

The survey included questions ranging from beliefs about the purpose of suffering, to beliefs in the afterlife. This was reportedly the first time the Pew Research Center attempted to pose some of these philosophical questions to U.S. adults, the survey stated. Pew asked Americans to share their views both in their own words, and by selecting from a list of options. 

Painting at center of George Floyd controversy stolen from Catholic University

A pieta painting, "Mama," by artist Kelly Latimore, has been displayed outside the law school chapel at The Catholic University of America since February 2021. It was stolen on Nov. 23, 2021. / The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 24, 2021 / 14:15 pm (CNA).

A pieta painting displayed at The Catholic University of America’s law school that some see as depicting George Floyd in the place of Jesus was stolen Tuesday night, the school announced.

But in an email Wednesday, Nov. 24, President John Garvey said the artwork — which sparked a social media backlash and an ongoing petition drive demanding its removal  — has been replaced by a smaller version of the same painting that previously hung in the school's campus ministry office.

Titled "Mama," the painting, by artist Kelly Latimore, was installed in February outside the chapel at the university's Columbus School of Law.

Lattimore has said the painting was commissioned to “mourn” Floyd, but when asked by an interviewer if the figure in the pieta is Floyd or Jesus, he responded ambiguously, answering “yes.” 

Floyd, 46, was killed in police custody in May 2020, sparking nationwide protests. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes, was later convicted on three charges of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison.

“Many see the male figure as George Floyd,” Garvey said in the email, “but our Law School has always seen the figure as Jesus.”

In response to media coverage of the painting earlier this week, the university has received a “substantial number of emails and phone calls,” Garvey said.

“Some critics called the image blasphemous because they saw it as deifying or canonizing George Floyd. Some comments that we received were thoughtful and reasonable. Some were offensive and racist. Much of the criticism came from people unconnected to the University,” he said.

Garvey wrote that as the controversy developed, the university issued a statement, which he included in his email.

“The icon ‘Mama’ is a pieta depicting Mary and her Son, Jesus Christ. The letters in the halo are Ὁ ὬΝ, which is shorthand in Greek for ‘I Am.’ The letters are used in icons only in connection with Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the earlier statement said.

“There are those who would like to see George Floyd as the male figure in the icon. That is not how we read it. The image represents to our community a good-faith attempt to include religious imagery on campus that reflects the universality of the Catholic Church,” the statement said.

A group of CUA students started a petition to take down the painting because they “believe they are disrespectful, and sacrilegious.” The petition, which started on Tuesday, Nov. 23, had nearly 2,500 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Garvey said would not be ordering the school to take down the painting because of his “no cancellation” policy. 

“It has been the University’s policy, throughout my time as President, not to cancel speakers or prevent speech by members of the community,” Garvey said in the email.

"We hope to continue to build on campus a culture that engages in thoughtful dialogue and debate, not the sort of bully tactics epitomized by this theft," he added.

Congressman Smith: Nigeria's removal from U.S. watch list a 'retreat' from fight against religious persecution

Rep. Chris Smith. Public Domain. / null

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 24, 2021 / 11:45 am (CNA).

The decision to remove Nigeria from the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” was “totally unjustified,” and a backwards step in the fight against religious persecution, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith said in a speech Nov. 23.

“Despite the fact that Fulani militants are systematically targeting and slaughtering Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt as well as attacking non-Fulanis throughout the country with the apparent complicity or at least indifference of Nigerian authorities — a record that landed Nigeria on the CPC list last year — the State Department no longer identifies Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), nor even places Nigeria on its Special Watch List,” Smith said.

The New Jersey Republican, the author of several bills related to religious freedom including the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, called the Biden administration’s decision “a retreat from the noble and necessary fight to protect victims of religious persecution.” 

Each year, the U.S. Department of State releases a list of countries with egregious religious liberty violations. In its most recent report, released Nov. 15, Nigeria was not included

The decision to exclude Nigeria from this list has angered religious freedom advocates. 

Two days after the release of the report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a statement saying that it was “appalled” at the State Department’s “unexplainable” decision to treat Nigeria as a country with no severe religious freedom violations. 

The USCIRF, which also publishes an annual report on religious freedom, found that Nigerian citizens are at risk of violence by militant Islamists, as well as discrimination, arbitrary detentions, and capital blasphemy sentences by state-sanctioned Sharia courts.

Smith noted that the removal of Nigeria from the list of CPCs “coincided with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Nigeria — when he should have been confronting President [Muhammadu] Buhari on his record.” 

This removal, he said, is “appalling,” and could serve to worsen the situation in the country.  

“The failure to hold Buhari to account—indeed to reward him by withdrawing the CPC designation—will only embolden Fulani militants,” he said. “The Nigerian government has also failed to protect Nigerians from other extremists such as Boko Haram, Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa.”  

Smith, who has led multiple hearings concerning the situation in Nigeria, said he “couldn’t be more disappointed in Secretary Blinken.” 

“You can’t give President Buhari a passing grade when he has utterly failed to protect religious freedom, including and especially that of Christians,” he said. “A core principle of any robust democracy is respect for human rights, including religious freedom.”  

Pius Giraldus

“Gerald Russello.”

“Hi, Jerry, it’s Scott.”

“Scott! Great to hear from you. How is everything?”

That’s how most of our phone conversations began. I was one of the people in Jerry Russello’s life who knew him as Jerry, the guy from Regis High School—not Gerald, the well-respected securities lawyer, the editor of the University Bookman, the writer whose prose graced many and various publications.

I must have been fifteen when I met Jerry. Along with some Regis classmates, I had started a Catholic reading group under the tutelage of the great John L. Connelly, a legendary teacher who formed the lives of countless Regians, from Fr. Robert Imbelli (his classmate there) to novelist Phil Klay. With the kind of braggadocio not uncommon among Regis students, we fancied ourselves Catholic intellectuals, and asked Mr. Connelly if there were any heirs today to the authors we were reading. Who was engaged in writing about and therefore preserving a compelling vision of the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic culture? Mr. Connelly told us that we’d get to meet such a person the following week at our regular meeting time—8:00 am on Wednesdays, an hour before classes began—when we gathered to discuss Evelyn Waugh and Etienne Gilson and John Paul II and all the rest.

Twenty-seven years later I still have a vivid memory of Jerry walking through Mr. Connelly’s classroom door in his suit, holding his briefcase, thanking Mr. Connelly for inviting him, and assuring him that he was in no rush—the judge he was clerking for knew he’d be coming in closer to 9:30 than 9:00. (With all he did, was Jerry ever in a rush? Did he ever not have time for you?) I confess that I don’t remember much more about that day, but I know that we asked Jerry how he got started as a writer. His advice was simple: writing and exploring ideas should be exciting. Send something to a magazine and see what happens. You’ll probably get rejected, but you’ll also probably learn something. Do this again and again, reading as much as you can along the way, until you get published.   

That first encounter with Jerry made a lasting impression on me. We all need role models, and that day I found one of mine. But if Jerry had just been someone who dispensed good advice, I don’t think there would have been such an outpouring of grief and so many beautiful tributes after his death. Jerry’s life was much more attractive than that.

On the façade of Regis High School there is an inscription that reads Deo et Patriae Pietas Christiana Erexit: Christian piety built this for God and country. During both of our times at Regis, Jerry and I heard a great deal about our charge to become “men for others,” a goal that Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, set out for all graduates of Jesuit schools. Jerry took those words to heart. He truly lived a life of service to others, in service to God and to his country.

Jerry’s greatest gift to me, though, was the way he embodied pietas Christiana—Christian piety. “Piety,” unfortunately, often calls to mind images of “simple” believers or uncritical religious naiveté. But piety is really an approach to life, a virtue that practices being grateful. It reminds us that we ought to be thankful to God for our country, for our family, for our friends—even for our high school. That gratitude, in turn, shapes our encounters with those around us. True piety doesn’t have time for grudges; instead, like the agape for which it is most grateful, true piety “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). True piety never draws attention to itself, and Jerry certainly never drew attention to himself. Those who knew where to look, however, could see the piety with which he approached education, ideas, family, and God.

Jerry would be quick to tell you that piety was a Roman virtue as much as a Christian one. He learned about piety from the Aeneid and from the Bible. And he was always learning. A few years ago, six or so of us got together for dinner with Mr. Connelly, as we did about once a year. One friend had just completed a doctorate on Spinoza, another had completed a residency in psychiatry, a third was working in consulting. As we went around the table updating each other about our lives, Jerry, typically, asked the most questions. He had a knack for being genuinely curious and genuinely affirming. He was proud of all of us, in the way an older brother looks with pride on his younger brothers’ accomplishments.

He understood that, while laws could help bring order to people’s lives, the goal of life wasn’t order. The goal of life was love.

Jerry supported Regis and other educational endeavors because he believed they were places where students could ask enduring questions and cultivate abiding friendships. This is also what he saw in the Russell Kirk Center, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Lumen Christi Institute. His education—after Regis, he received a degree in Classics from Georgetown and graduated from NYU’s law school—taught him what was worth studying, and his piety reminded him he didn’t have all the answers. Jerry deeply believed that ancient Greek and Latin texts could help us encounter the permanent things, but he didn’t love them just because they stood as a bulwark against the latest educational fad; he loved them because of the joy he found in getting together with friends—as we did—to read them.

Most people knew Jerry through his careers as an attorney and as the editor of the University Bookman. I can’t speak to the intricacies of his work as a lawyer (I’m blissfully ignorant of securities law), but I can attest to the way he brought his piety to legal questions. Even in the rarified world of corporate law, Jerry always had an eye on what specific laws meant to people’s lives, and how the practice of law affected lawyers themselves. His legal practice was important, but it was not the most important part of his life. He understood that, while laws could help bring order to people’s lives, the goal of life wasn’t order. The goal of life was love.

The kinds of thinkers Jerry admired displayed the same kind of piety in their writing that he exemplified in his life. Orestes Brownson, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and Roger Scruton could all be classified as “conservative” thinkers, but Jerry wasn’t interested in their labels. He saw them as writers who took serious questions seriously. They were concerned about what human beings owed each other and how history and culture shape us. Jerry edited a book of Dawson’s writings (Christianity and European Culture) and wrote an excellent book on Russell Kirk (The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk). In those books, Jerry showed that these two thinkers were still vital for understanding contemporary life. He also wrote introductions for reissued texts of Brownson and Dawson. All these writers remained essential because they raised the most important question: How can we be faithful? Or rather, how can we be pious? They didn’t answer this or any other question for you, nor would Jerry presume to do that. But they offered models, pictures of what a life well-lived looked like.

I honestly don’t know how Jerry kept up with editing the University Bookman, published by the Russell Kirk Center. Every week, a new essay would appear reviewing a book about history or politics or culture. Jerry was always actively seeking out new reviewers, and he had a special gift for nurturing young writers. He had a light touch with his editing, and he always made your work better, often in ways that you couldn’t quite foresee. Most importantly, though, working with Jerry was fun. It was clear that he enjoyed editorial work, but more than that he enjoyed the friendships that came with editing the Bookman. Under the @ubookman handle on Twitter, Jerry brought these qualities with him to the usually depressing world of social media. Even there, he managed to show his bonhomie, and he never failed to see the best in others and engage in actual conversations.

Part of what drew Jerry to Russell Kirk, I’m certain, was Kirk’s piety toward place. Jerry had a wonderfully expansive notion of community, and the republic of letters of which Jerry was such an active citizen knew no physical boundaries. Jerry would want to remind us, however, not to forget that we are individuals from particular families who grew up in specific places. Like Jerry, I’m an Italian-American kid from Brooklyn (although my mom’s family is Irish, and we moved to Long Island when I was six). Perhaps Jerry’s most important lesson to me was that our grandparents—their traditions, their love of family, and yes, their piety—possessed a wisdom that our fancy degrees and “connections” could only hope to emulate. Our educations were valuable insofar as they helped us deepen our love for where we came from and for those who raised us. Sure, Washington D.C. or Oxford or Chicago or Wall Street are great. Have you ever visited Mill Basin or Bay Ridge, though? You can read about filial piety when you read about Aeneas carrying Anchises, but you can actually experience it every Sunday over dinner at your grandparents while watching the Mets. These places and these people opened up our worlds. Our task was to share what we learned. I just wish I had more time to learn from Jerry.

I especially wish I had more time to learn about parenting from Jerry. He was always interested to know about my students because he always wanted to learn what sorts of questions his own children might raise. He cared deeply about passing on the faith to them. I loved getting updates on their lives, and Jerry relished his role as a father. In my sadness hearing about his death, I was heartened to know that when he died, he was surrounded by his beloved wife, his children, and his sister.

Each morning at prayer, I recite a litany of family and friends who have died. Jerry, of course, is now part of that somber list. As I say his name, I don’t worry that Jerry needs to be freed from the temporary torments of purgatory. (I’m sure Dante has already Vergiled this son of Mill Basin up that particular mountain.) Instead, in mentioning Jerry I ask God to allow me to practice the piety that Jerry lived because I want to be conformed to the Love that Jerry now encounters. Oremus pro invicem, my friend, that I may see you again.

“Fiddler on the Roof” Fifty Years Later: A Fresh Take on Tradition

Half a century since its original film adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof came to our local stage last week. I was seeing it for the first time but was familiar enough with it to anticipate at least the most celebrated of its catchphrases, “Tradition!” What I did not anticipate was how the play’s handling of that topic within an early-twentieth-century Ukrainian-Jewish context would cast such a revealing light upon the Christian meaning of the term. Without tradition, Fiddler’s protagonist Tevye tells us right at the start, the lives of his fellow Ashkenazi Jews would be as precarious as someone playing violin on a housetop. Making ends meet in the humble fictional village of Anatevka, he relates, is not easy, so “how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one…

Former priest files new sexual abuse lawsuit against Theodore McCarrick

Theodore McCarrick outside Dedham District Court, Friday, Sept. 4, 2021. / Joe Bukuras/CNA

Denver Newsroom, Nov 23, 2021 / 18:35 pm (CNA).

A former Catholic priest who has previously alleged that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually abused him when he was a seminarian has filed a lawsuit against McCarrick and the Newark archdiocese.

“I’m only doing the lawsuit mainly because three years ago when I did that, I also wrote a letter to Cardinal (Joseph) Tobin, and the Archdiocese of Newark and I never heard anything back,” plaintiff Michael Reading said in a video message posted to his attorneys’ website. “The whole thing is disappointing, but I’m just very disappointed that I never heard anything and got no response from the Church.”

When he sees media coverage of McCarrick’s court appearances, he said, “it all comes back again.”

“Today is actually the anniversary of the day I was ordained by him, 35 years ago today,” he said in the Nov. 22 video, adding that he “felt like telling my story could be helpful.”

Reading, who now lives near Seattle, is represented by Jeff Anderson of the Minnesota-based firm Jeff Anderson & Associates.

“When he was in formation, in preparation for becoming a priest, in the Archdiocese of Newark, it was then-Archbishop Ted McCarrick who was mentoring him and ultimately had the power over him to become a priest,” Anderson said at a Nov. 23 press conference. “McCarrick used his position as the archbishop, over him, to assault and coerce and exploit him.”

McCarrick’s civil attorney, Barry Coburn of the Washington, D.C. firm Coburn & Greenbaum, declined to comment to CNA. For its part, the Newark archdiocese said it takes all allegations seriously and has programs in place to prevent abuse and work with survivors.

“Although we are limited in what information we can share given pending litigation, it is important to note that the Archdiocese of Newark takes seriously all allegations of abuse,” Maria Margiotta, communications director for the Newark archdiocese, told CNA Nov. 23.

“We remain fully committed to our comprehensive programs and protocols to protect the faithful and to working with survivors of abuse, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations of past abuse,” she said.

At the Tuesday press conference with Anderson’s law firm, Reading said he initially wanted to remain anonymous because he was worried about others’ perceptions. However, he decided to use his real name to encourage other victims in New Jersey to come forward.

“I feel a sense of relief, and of a burden being lifted,” he said. “It’s a long way to go with that, but it’s a start.”

The New Jersey legislature created a special window for victims who suffered sex abuse as adults or children to file lawsuits, but this legal window closes on Nov. 30.

Reading’s lawsuit is the eighth lawsuit that Anderson’s law firm has filed against McCarrick.

Anderson has filed abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church for decades. While some say he has been an advocate for victims, critics characterize him as a self-promoter who has sensationalized and embellished claims in order to attract media attention to litigation.

In statements about other lawsuits he has claimed papal power is to blame for abuse, and has blamed Pope Francis himself. He has cited unproven claims by the controversial Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano about the Holy See's response to McCarrick.

Anderson’s lawsuit on behalf of Reading also cites the Vatican’s 2020 report on its investigation into what church officials knew about McCarrick.

Reading, known as Doe 308 in the lawsuit, was ordained a priest on Nov. 22, 1986. He served as a priest for only seven years.

The lawsuit accuses McCarrick of committing “harmful and offensive bodily sexual contact” on Reading. The former priest has told his story elsewhere, including in a Sept. 12, 2018 Washington Post story.

Reading told the Washington Post that in 1986 he was invited to a barbeque and overnight stay for seminarians at McCarrick’s beach house in Sea Girt, N.J. According to Reading, McCarrick lingered in the bedroom when the twentysomething seminarian was changing into a swimsuit. McCarrick later approached the seminarian after the barbeque and put his hand down his swimsuit.

The seminarian was shocked by the incident and didn’t report it or tell family members until allegations against McCarrick became public in 2018.

He said that the incident affected him throughout the rest of his time as a priest.

“I feel like the priesthood was taken away from me,” he told the Washington Post. “And I loved what I did.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Father Edward J. Eilert engaged in “unpermitted sexual contact” with Reading in 1978. At the time, the plaintiff was a parishioner at St. John the Apostle Church in Linden, N.J., a city on the state border across from the New York City borough of Staten Island.

Eilert is on the Newark archdiocese’s February 2019 list of credibly accused clergy for “multiple” allegations. He is listed as permanently removed from ministry. The website of Anderson’s law firm lists him at a retirement home for priests as early as 2005.

In 2002 Eilert was among three priests accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl in the 1980s. Though the Union County Prosecutor’s Office said the accusations were credible, charges were not allowed under the statute of limitations, NJ.com reported in 2013.

Anderson’s law firm has recently filed three separate actions against other priests who allegedly committed abuse, including one priest who is still active in ministry.

In September, McCarrick pleaded “not guilty” to several charges of sexual assault in Massachusetts regarding incidents which allegedly took place in the 1970s.

McCarrick was once a high-ranking and influential U.S. prelate with an impressive international resume. He resigned from the College of Cardinals in July 2018 following a past allegation of sex abuse against a teenager that the New York archdiocese deemed credible. In February 2019, Pope Francis laicized McCarrick after a canonical investigation found him guilty of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”

The exposure of McCarrick prompted many questions about how he rose in the Church despite long-rumored claims of corruption. Various individuals came forward saying they had sought to report his misconduct.

In 2018, Cardinal Joseph Tobin told a journalist that shortly after his 2017 arrival as head of the Newark archdiocese, he had heard rumors about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct. He said he did not investigate those rumors because he found them unbelievable.

The Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen in June 2018 acknowledged that they had reached legal settlements with some alleged victims of McCarrick in 2005 and 2007. Tobin said he did not learn about those settlements until June 2018, shortly before they were publicly announced.

Brisbane archbishop gives priests until Dec. 15 to be fully vaccinated

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane speaks at a Vatican press conference, Oct. 19, 2015. / Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 23, 2021 / 17:12 pm (CNA).

The Australian Archdiocese of Brisbane has announced that all archdiocesan employees, including clergy, contractors and some volunteers, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 15 in accord with the state’s mandate unless they have a medical exemption. 

“As we view the situation in Australia and internationally, it is clear that vaccination is the most effective way to lessen the risk of exposure or the risk of passing the virus on to others within our community,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge said a Nov. 16 statement on the archdiocese’s website says. 

“Therefore,” the statement continued, “the Archdiocese of Brisbane has made the decision that employees, contractors and certain volunteers will need to have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccination by 15 December unless they have an official medical exemption.”

Coleridge said that clergy who are not fully vaccinated are putting the faithful at “risk.”

“A pastor or assistant pastor in parish ministry is to know the faithful, visit families, care for the faithful strengthening them in the Lord and refresh the faithful with the sacraments,” he wrote in the letter.

“That means that clergy engaged in parish ministry must be close to people. In the circumstances of the pandemic, clergy engaged in pastoral ministry who are not doubly vaccinated put the faithful of the parish at risk. They present a risk to the faithful to whom they minister, as well as to their families,” he added.

Priests and deacons who are not “doubly vaccinated are failing in their duty of care for the faithful,” Coleridge wrote.

An official medical exemption is the only type of exemption Archbishop Mark Coleridge will be accepting, according to a letter that the archbishop sent to deacons and priests seen by The Australian, Sky News reported.

According to the archdiocese’s website, the medical exemption certificate must certify “that the person is unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccination because they have a recognised medical contraindication; and indicating whether the medical contraindication will permanently or temporarily prevent COVID-19 vaccination; and if the medical contraindication only temporarily prevents a COVID19 vaccination, specifying when the person may be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.”

“A medical contraindication against one COVID-19 vaccination does not necessarily translate to a contraindication against all vaccines,” he said.

“I will not consider conscientious objection to receiving the vaccination as a valid exception to the provisions set out here,” Coleridge wrote.

“I fully respect the right of conscience, especially when properly formed in the Catholic understanding," he stated. “But I too have a conscience, and it is not just legal obligation but consciences which has led to my decision."

The statement on the archdiocese’s website notes that Queensland, the state that encompasses the archdiocese, will reopen their borders in the coming weeks causing an increased risk of COVID-19 infection.

Queensland has implemented strict guidelines on travel in and out of the state. Reaching 70% vaccination in November, Queensland has laid out a plan to ease restrictions, mostly for fully vaccinated travelers across state borders, as vaccination rates go up.

When Queensland reaches 80% vaccination, estimated to be on Dec. 17, unvaccinated people will be unable to visit “vulnerable settings” like nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and others.

Unvaccinated individuals also will not be able to attend “hospitality venues” such as hotels and pubs, and others. They will not be able to attend indoor or outdoor entertainment venues, festivals, or attend Queensland government-owned galleries, museums or libraries. 

A full list of restrictions can be seen on the website

The Archdiocese of Brisbane has 98 Parishes, 144 schools and 109 Centacare early EdCare, aged care, disability and family and relationships service locations, according to their website. Almost 22,000 jobs are provided for by the archdiocese.

City of Philadelphia to pay $2 million to Catholic foster care agency in settlement

Sharonell Fulton has fostered more than 40 children through Catholic Social Services. / Photo courtesy of Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Philadelphia, Pa., Nov 23, 2021 / 16:08 pm (CNA).

The city of Philadelphia will pay Catholic Social Services a $2 million settlement and reinstate their foster care contract after the Supreme Court unanimously found in June that the city had discriminated against the group due to their religious beliefs. 

Most of the money will be used to pay Catholic Social Services’ [CSS] legal fees, and CSS will receive $56,000. 

As part of the settlement, CSS will be exempt from Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination ordinance, and will receive a contract for $350,000 for foster care. Additionally, CSS will have to state on its website that, while it does not work with same-sex couples, it will refer them to an organization that will. 

Ken Gavin, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the archdiocese was “grateful that our ministries can continue serving those who count on us, especially foster children in need of a loving home.” 

The Supreme Court ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that the city discriminated in ending its contract with Catholic Social Services. The suit was sent back to the appellate court, and the city did not pursue additional legal action. Their settlement agreement was approved by the U.S. District Court on Oct. 1. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city backed down due to fears of additional constitutional changes. 

“Certainly, this was not the outcome we wanted,” Deputy Mayor Cynthia Figueroa told the Inquirer. “But it was clear if we took this further down the road, we could actually open it up for radically changing other existing constitutional law.”

Two foster mothers who worked with CSS, Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, filed suit against the city in 2018 after the contract was canceled.

That year, Philadelphia abruptly ended CSS’s contract for its foster-care program, since CSS would not certify same-sex couples as foster parents on religious grounds. No same-sex couple ever approached CSS seeking certification as a foster parent. 

Part of the settlement reached requires that Philadelphia work with Fulton and Simms-Busch under the new contract. 

In the majority ruling, the high court found that “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

“CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. 

In March 2018, the city of Philadelphia announced that it was experiencing a shortage of foster families, in part due to the opioid crisis, and put out a call for 300 new families to help accept children.

A few days later, the city announced that it would no longer refer foster children to agencies that would not place them with same-sex couples, including CSS. Prior to that announcement, CSS served about 120 foster children in approximately 100 homes at any given time. 

In recent years, faith-based child welfare providers in multiple states including in Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and the District of Columbia, have also been forced to shut down their adoption and foster care services due to their beliefs that children should be placed with a married mother and father.