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Churches often have 'best way forward' for helping inmates, Betsy DeVos says

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 22:00

Washington D.C., Sep 30, 2019 / 08:00 pm (CNA).- The Secretary of Education said on Monday that churches are among the institutions with the best solutions for using education to reduce incarceration and reoffending.

“I’m not one to suggest that government should step in or can step in in an effective way into many situations,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said at the Justice Declaration Symposium, hosted by the group Prison Fellowship, at the National Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 30.

“I am one that believes that the Church and private sector organizations are by definition the best solutions and answers very often.”

DeVos was speaking at the Museum of the Bible about the role of churches in advancing education and other initiatives to reduce incarceration. Her appearance followed a day of panel discussions on prison ministry at the Justice Declaration Symposium. 

Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, followed her as the keynote speaker.

The Justice Declaration is a document signed by 4,700 Christians and faith leaders expressing the need for churches to lead efforts to reduce incarceration.

The declaration states principles of human dignity and acknowledges the responsibility of churches and communities to be “seedbeds of virtue.” It commits signatories to fighting on behalf of the poor for better education and access to legal representation, proportional punishment in the justice system, care for victims of crime, and help for former prisoners to reenter society.

The U.S. represents five percent of the world’s population but houses 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, the declaration notes. Nearly 2.2 million Americans are in prison and an estimated 65 million American citizens have a criminal record, presenting an obstacle to their future career opportunities.

The role of education in reducing incarceration was the topic of discussion on Monday, with DeVos noting that, at one of her visits to a prison in Indiana, the warden told her the biggest problem was not violence, but illiteracy.

She noted that many in the audience may already have been involved in church-run ministries to address problems like illiteracy or education and training for former inmates reentering society. “There’s great opportunity to expand on that,” she said.

DeVos addressed efforts to promote Second Chance Pell Grants for former inmates. In 1994, Congress stopped access to Pell grants for those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, but in 2015 the Obama administration announced the Second Chance Pell (SCP) pilot program.

The administration partnered with 67 colleges and universities in the 2016 pilot, which allowed inmates a chance to pursue post-secondary studies with Pell Grants. Over 10,000 students received Federal Pell Grant funding from 64 institutions from July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019.

Legislation is currently in the Senate to make the Second Chance Pell Grants permanent.

While Pell grants and other policy initiatives are important for reducing incarceration, “it really, to me, is only a vehicle for helping to compensate for the access to some of these education opportunities,” DeVos said on Monday.

“I believe that the church writ large, and our local churches, and those who make up those communities, really do have very often the best methods and the best way forward to form relationships with individuals that are behind bars,” she said.

Moderator Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, said that “the Church and others have to be there” to mentor and volunteer children and teens at risk, and ensure they have the education they need. “Absolutely,” DeVos agreed, emphasizing the need to help each individual person figure out their education goals and interests, and help steer them towards their vocation.

For those reentering society from prison, “I try to put myself in their position,” DeVos said, one perhaps of uncertainty. “And education is the ticket to a good future for just about anyone and everyone.”

“We should be embracing these opportunities for brothers and sisters who are behind bars today, who will be in our communities and with their families, and giving them a purpose—giving them a means for their purpose,” she said.

Independent report released on New York archdiocese abuse response

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 18:30

New York City, N.Y., Sep 30, 2019 / 04:30 pm (CNA).- An independent reviewer for the Archdiocese of New York has found overall compliance with proper protocols for reports of sexual abuse, while offering recommendations to further strengthen the archdiocese’s response to abuse cases.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan commissioned retired federal judge Barbara Jones in September 2018 to give her “honest, objective assessment” of the diosesan protocols for responding to allegations of sexual abuse.

Among other findings, Jones found that no archdiocesan priest or deacon with a substantiated complaint of abuse of a minor is currently in ministry. She said the archdiocese’s current processes for dealing with abuse complaints are “working very well.”

“Overall, I have found that the Archdiocese has complied with the Charter in all material respects. It has faithfully followed its policies and procedures and responded appropriately to abuse complaints, and is committed to supporting victims-survivors of abuse,” Jones wrote in her report, while also citing several recommendations for “enhancements” to current practices.

In 1995 Jones was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She retired from the court in 2013.

Jones said in a Sept. 30 press conference that she received the archdiocese’s “total cooperation,” including complete access to all records, and conducted dozens of interviews, as well as performed an exhaustive review of documents, including “easily a couple of thousand” priest personnel files.

Nearly 300 lawsuits are pending against the eight dioceses in New York state, The Journal News reports, many of them filed in recent weeks, as the state of New York has created a one-year window extending the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims.

Jones has a long record of investigating complex organizations. She began her legal career in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, serving as a part of the agency’s Manhattan Strike Force in the 1970s. She was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York from 1977 to 1987, leading an organized crime unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, before becoming a high-ranking prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office.

During her time as a federal judge, Jones presided over U.S. v. Windsor, a case that challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In a 2012 decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Jones found that definition violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Jones reported that any time the archdiocese receives an allegation of sexual abuse, the District Attorney for the appropriate county is notified. When an allegation is made against a cleric in ministry, the archdiocese initiates an independent review of the allegation which is presented to the Lay Review Board, which determines if the allegation is substantiated and subsequently recommends to Cardinal Dolan that the cleric be permanently removed from ministry.

“Cardinal Dolan accepts the Board’s recommendation and has never returned a cleric to ministry against whom there has been a substantiated complaint,” Jones reported.

Regarding the Lay Review Board, Jones recommended that the board add new members who have more areas of expertise. The board currently includes judges, lawyers, parents, a priest, a psychiatrist, and a religious sister.

She noted that the archdiocese has provided a website where victims can lodge their complaints, as well as free counseling.

The archdiocese has paid a total of over $67 million to 338 victim-survivors since launching the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) in 2016.

Jones recommended that the archdiocese hire a full-time employee to oversee its response to sexual abuse complaints, as well as annual safe environment training for all employees working with children.

She noted that the Archdiocese’s Office of Priest Personnel has protocols that require any priest from outside the archdiocese who wants to minister in New York, on a short-term or long-term basis, to provide a certification from his home diocese or religious order that he has never been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

A New York Archdiocese priest must present a similar certification if he wishes to minister in another diocese, she reported.

“These protocols are sound but are hindered by a paper filing system that can be susceptible to mistakes,” she said, suggesting a digitizing of all priest personnel files, which she said the archdiocese has already purchased and plans to implement next month.

“The Office could perform its functions more effectively with better technology,” she said, adding that she recommends hiring a compliance officer for the office to monitor its functions and oversee the new electronic management system.

Jones made a similar recommendation for the Archdiocese’s Safe Environment Office, which promulgates the code of conduct for adults interacting with children in archdiocesan institutions and monitors “more than 30,000 employees and volunteers,” conducting criminal background checks and training before any employee or volunteer can begin working with children.

She said in addition to updating that office’s technology— including the creation of a database to monitor adults who want to work with children in the archdiocese— more cooperation from parishes and programs is also needed to maintain up-to-date information and track compliance.

Jones also recommended that the archdiocese’s Memoranda of Understanding with the 10 New York-area District Attorneys be updated to include “a reporting protocol for allegations of sexual abuse of non-consenting adults, as well as for allegations of sexual abuse committed by employees and volunteers.”

Illinois bill would ban government travel to pro-life states

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 15:15

Springfield, Ill., Sep 30, 2019 / 01:15 pm (CNA).- An Illinois state representative has introduced legislation to prevent government employees from traveling to states which have enacted pro-life legislation. The Illinois state Catholic conference told CNA the bill is "absurd."

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Daniel Didech (D-Buffalo Grove), would ban any Illinois state agency from requiring or approving travel by any of its employees or officers to states with laws that prohibited abortion at 8 weeks of pregnancy or upon the detection of a fetal heartbeat.

The bill would also ban state-sponsored travel to jurisdictions that do not have exemptions in abortion laws for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or that require an investigation in the cause of a miscarriage.

Didech filed HB 3901 Sept. 26, saying the measures is intended to protect Illinois employees.

“What these other states are doing is, to me, very dangerous. To a large extent, yes, abortion is a big part of it, but it’s not entirely about abortion,” Didech told the State Journal-Register.

“As a member of the legislature, I have the responsibility to protect our state employees.”

Since the beginning of the year, 12 states have passed measures to tighten restrictions on abortion. Several states, including Georgia and Missouri, which borders Illinois, have enacted so-called heartbeat bills that prohibit abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Several of those laws are now under judicial review.

The Illinois bill would create a general prohibition on state employees or representatives from state-funded or approved travel to other states for any reason, including conferences, litigation, or for training.

“This is not like a boycott of those states or anything like that, although in effect, it may look similar,” Didech said.

“The purpose of the bill is to protect women who may not be able to get the health care they may need when they’re traveling on official state business,” he said, though it is unclear which other state’s legislation would create such effects. Many of the laws passed since January only apply to residents of the state.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Conference, which serves as the public policy voice for the state’s six Catholic dioceses, called the bill “absurd.”

“Where does this thinking begin and end?” he said to CNA Sept. 30.

“There are states that have weaker gun laws, different speed limits out West, different smoking laws - why don’t we protect our state employees when they travel to other states when they may not have the same laws as Illinois on these issues?” he asked.

“The obvious point is: why does this always have to come back to abortion?”

Gilligan told CNA that beyond taking a stand against other state’s views on abortion, there was no clear rationale for the measure.

“I mean it is absurd... do we prevent state employees from traveling to Flint, Michigan where they have less safe water? This type of thinking is endless. State laws should pertain to what happens in Illinois, and this is an unjust law so it shouldn’t even be on the books.”

“Where does this type of thinking end and where do you draw the line?” asked Gilligan.

“If the real aim of this bill is to protect people, surely we should ban traveling to states where they have different laws from Illinois on all sorts of things and it isn’t safe for them to travel to.”

Gilligan noted that the bill would allow state-sponsored travel in special cases, should the trip be deemed by a state agency to be necessary despite the ban, and suggested that the bill could prove to be almost unenforceable.

“If there is a conference and it’s determined that an employee needs to be there, they should go,” he told CNA. “And if they do not need to be there, they should not be spending state dollars going in the first place.”

The bill would also require the state attorney general “to develop, maintain, and post on his or her internet website a current list of states that have enacted specified laws prohibiting or restricting abortion rights,” to which other departments would defer in making travel plans.

“I think we should have a list of all states with weaker air pollution laws, water laws, driving laws, gun laws, and we shouldn’t be sending people to those areas either,” Gilligan told CNA.

DOJ backs Archdiocese of Indianapolis over firing of teacher for gay marriage

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 14:30

Washington D.C., Sep 30, 2019 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- The Justice Department (DOJ) said on Friday that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is protected by the First Amendment in its request that a Catholic school dismiss a teacher for publicly violating Church teaching after he entered a same-sex marriage.

“The United States has a substantial interest in religious liberty,” the DOJ said in a statement regarding a lawsuit filed by a former teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis who was dismissed this summer after he contracted a same-sex marriage.

The statement of interest, released Sept. 27, said that “religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts, and, more broadly, that the United States Constitution bars the government from interfering with the autonomy of a religious organization.”

In 2017, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis requested that Cathedral High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School not renew the contracts of two male teachers who had entered a same-sex marriage in 2017. 

Brebeuf Jesuit resisted the order and Thompson subsequently withdrew the school’s ability to call itself “Catholic” and said that the archdiocese would no longer recognize the school as Catholic. That case is now being considered on appeal at the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome.

Cathedral High School complied with the archbishop’s request and terminated the contract of social studies teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott. 

Following his dismissal, Elliott sued the archdiocese in a county court for wrongfully interfering in his contract with Cathedral Catholic; the lawsuit ultimately prompted the DOJ’s intervention on Friday.

The DOJ statement said that the archdiocese’s decision to apply the teachings of the Church on sexual morality and marriage in Catholic schools is legally protected under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

“This case presents an important question: whether a religious entity’s interpretation and implementation of its own religious teachings can expose it to third-party intentional-tort liability. The First Amendment answers that question in the negative,” the DOJ statement read.

In its decision to terminate Elliott’s contract, Cathedral High School had cited the threat of losing its Catholic identity. The school said it would have lost the ability to provide access to some sacraments and its permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in its chapel. The school also said it would have lost its tax-exempt status if it was no longer recognized as Catholic, among other consequences.

The Justice Department issued a “statement of interest” in Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit, supporting the right of the archbishop to determine the Catholic identity of schools. The statement added that courts cannot “second-guess” the decisions of religious institutions to exercise their religious mission and implement doctrine.

Archdiocesan policy states that every Catholic school, archdiocesan and private, must clearly state in its contracts and job descriptions that all teachers are ministers of the Gospel and must convey and be supportive of all teachings of the Catholic Church.

In a June 20 statement, the archdiocese explained that teachers at Catholic schools are considered ministers, as part of the schools’ mission to forming students in the Catholic faith.

“To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching,” the archdiocese said.

Citing previous religious freedom guidance from the Attorney General in October of 2017, that outlined principles of protection for religious freedom for all government agencies to follow, the DOJ statement reaffirmed the rights of religious organizations to employ persons based on conduct in accordance with their principles.

The statement of interest cites the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage; the Court, DOJ said, while recognizing a right for same-sex couples to marry, also made sure to “emphasize that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”

Despite any public opinion to the contrary, the Court must respect the archdiocese’s “free exercise” of religion in this case under the First Amendment, DOJ said.

“The archdiocese determined that, consistent with its interpretation of Church teachings, a school within its diocesan boundaries cannot identify as Catholic and simultaneously employ a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage,” the DOJ stated.

“Many may lament the archdiocese’s determination. But the First Amendment forbids this court from interfering with the archdiocese’s right to expressive association, and from second-guessing the archdiocese’s interpretation and application of Catholic law,” the statement read.

The case has a wider significance, as a bundle of employment discrimination cases will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall. Several cases involve Title VII protections against employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act, and whether protections against sex discrimination in the workplace also apply to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Court will also consider the freedom of employers with a religious mission to make hiring and firing decisions based on employee conduct in accord with their mission.

At UN, Holy See requests increased aid for Middle Eastern Christians

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 08:01

New York City, N.Y., Sep 28, 2019 / 06:01 am (CNA).- As displaced Christians return to their homes in the Middle East, the Vatican Secretary of State encouraged U.N. representatives Friday to help rebuild a culture ravaged by the Islamic State.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin spoke Sept. 27 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City during a panel discussion hosted by Hungary.

The panel was titled “Rebuilding Lives, Rebuilding Communities: Ensuring a Future for Persecuted Christians.” It discussed the restoration of war-torn areas such as Iraq and Syria. In the spring the last sector of Islamic State territory in Syria was dislodged, but guerilla warfare throughout the two countries has continued.

Parolin discussed his recent visit to the Nineveh Plain of Iraq. He said his trip was both inspiring and difficult to see Christians return to the cities destroyed by the Islamic State.

“Last December 24th to 28th, I had the privilege to travel to the Nineveh Plains in Iraq to celebrate Christmas with some of the most courageous and inspiring people I have ever met,” he said.

“While I was so edified by their rich humanity, infectious joy and strong faith, I was also struck at the state of the rebuilding process,” he further added.

He said the flight and return of Middle East Christians parallels the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt when Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled Bethlehem fearing the wrath of King Herod. He said it’s a sign of Christian victory and triumph over evil.

“Many of the Christians of the Nineveh Plains, after their escape and exile, have now been able to return home, to begin the arduous process, not just of reconstructing buildings, but of reassembling the social fabric that has been rent asunder by hatred, betrayal and brutality,” he said.

“Their return, I told them, is a sign that evil does not have the last word. It is also a powerful witness of the importance of a Christian presence in the Middle East, where Christianity has its deepest historical roots and has been a fundamental source of peace, stability and pluralism for centuries.”

Cardinal Parolin thanked the Hungarian government and charities, like Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus, and Caritas International, for their humanitarian efforts. However, the cardinal said there is much more work to be done, especially regarding security and shelter.

“As I walked in the city of Mosul, there was still rubble everywhere, making it difficult to traverse. Much of the basic infrastructure still needs to be rebuilt. The security situation, which is essential for the region to flourish anew, is still tenuous,” he said.

“Basic humanitarian aid also remains necessary. There is a pressing need for jobs and job training, for education and youth programs, for mental health care and much more.”

He encouraged humanitarian groups to continue to build up these countries, stressing the importance of the religious rights of minorities. He said countries must take a stand to ensure religious protections, especially physical defenses. He drew attention to recent instances of religious violence such as the Easter bombing in Sri Lanka and the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“All of us here this morning know that religious freedom is a fundamental right. It is grounded in human dignity. It means far more than the right to believe or worship, and includes the right to seek the truth and the liberty to live, privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles that flow from religious ones. Protecting religious freedom, which is a grave duty incumbent upon civil authorities, is a great challenge in our present world.”

He pointed to the efforts of Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, who signed the joint “Declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” Feb. 4. The document strongly discouraged religious violence and emphasized the importance of religious liberty.

“They explicitly addressed the right to religious freedom and what must be done to defend and advance it. They then spoke about the protection of places of worship as a direct consequence of the defense of freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” he said.

“And, very importantly, they mutually affirmed that in order to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, there is a need to bolster the concept of the rule of law and equality before the law based on the principle of citizenship, regardless of one’s religion, race or ethnicity.”