Archive of December 20, 2011

Students defend Christian Life Movement program from professor's attack

Ontario, Canada, Dec 20, 2011 (CNA) - Alumni of a study abroad program at Brock University in Ontario, Canada are criticizing a professor's attempt to sever the program’s ties with the school because of its connections with the Christian Life Movement.

“These trips have been a wonderful experience for thousands of students with unique opportunities for personal and professional development,” said former student Layla S. Mofid, a current doctoral candidate at McGill University in Quebec.

“Instead of denouncing” the program, “Brock University should be embracing their ability to provide an international program that contributes to cross-cultural learning and global awareness,” she said.

Over 200 letters of support have flooded the school in recent days after Ana Isla – a Peruvian-Canadian Brock University assistant professor in Sociology and Women’s Studies – urged the Sociology Department to ask the university to end the program and remove “all ties” to local partners of the trips.

In a three-page letter to the department, she criticized the placement of Brock students in Christian Life Movement facilities and projects while abroad.

Isla cited one Brock student's feelings that the Christian Life Movement “portrayed their community as good and everything outside of it as evil.” She also claimed that the program allowed untrained students to provide medical care at charity clinics in Lima, Peru.

Most of Isla's letter repeated various charges against the Christian Life Movement unrelated to the program. She ultimately contended that the movement's agreement with the university gives it the “right to disseminate and practice homophobia, anti-choice, and racism/imperialism under the guise of 'culture,' and their right to University resources through shared projects and budgets.”

Among the dozens of alumni who countered Isla's claims, Mofid she never felt harassed or unsafe in any way during her experience with the program. She added that she is now conducting a study in rural Peru as part of her doctoral thesis and credits the program for inspiring her, and countless others, in their career pursuits.

The Solidarity Experiences Abroad program was started in 2004 by the university’s Catholic campus ministry but has no religious affiliation. Nearly 1,000 students from Brock University and 16 other universities have helped support education and health care work while developing their own careers.

The program offers experiences in Ecuador, South Africa, Namibia, Costa Rica and Brazil through trips organized by chaplains from various denominations.

Other students and graduates of the Solidarity Experiences Abroad program who have asked the university to continue supporting it include Daryl Kayton, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Carleton.

“The trips are an excellent introduction to the culture, the values and the politics of South America, as well as an important starting point for those who deal with issues of social justice, the environment and distribution,” Kayton said.

In his letter, Kayton said the program promoted social justice “without any form of imperialism or harassment.”

“I personally experienced these trips alongside Protestants, Jews, Hindus, deists, agnostics, atheists and others. I find it hard to believe that an Inuit leading a trip the Arctic that partakes in religious practices and spiritual traditions of their own would be criticized half as much as the SEA trips have been, and that is truly a shame.”

Br. Raoul Masseur, a consecrated layman and Catholic chaplain at the University of Brock, oversees the trips to Peru, where students primarily work in Lima and Cuzco. They have also rebuilt a school destroyed in the 2007 earthquake in the southern Peruvian town of Chincha.

“On each trip we develop projects in health care, education, care of the environment and construction. The purpose is for young people to develop their university careers in service to those most in need,” said Br. Masseur, who is a member of the Christian Life Movement.

He credits the program with helping more than 100,000 Peruvians through preschool centers, schools, medical outposts, health and educational campaigns, libraries for children and other projects.

Rachelle Demetriades, a registered nurse and a non-Catholic who went through the program, rejected accusations of religious pressure. She said that the topic of spirituality is “often addressed and discussed throughout the trips.”

Br. Raoul and members of his community dialogue on topics ranging from poverty to their own spiritual journeys and provided a forum for discussions that allowed all participants – regardless of their religious views – to share their own experiences and beliefs, Demetriades said.

Participants who declined to participate in religious experiences faced no judgment or stigma, she reported.

CNA contacted Isla for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

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Deadly floods in Philippines trigger Catholic response

Manila, Philippines, Dec 20, 2011 (CNA) - Catholic organizations are helping organize aid for the victims of Typhoon Sendong in the Philippines after it caused flash floods that have killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless.

“Thousands are in the evacuation centers, many are women and children—hungry, chilling, crying,” the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines of the Northern Mindanao Region said on its website.

Tropical Storm Washi, known locally as Typhoon Sendong, made landfall on Friday Dec. 16, striking several provinces of Northern Mindanao on the second-largest island of the Philippines.

At least 927 were killed by the storm and floods, while at least 800 are still missing. About 143,000 people were affected and 45,000 fled to evacuation centers, the Associated Press reports.

Most of the victims were asleep when the floodwaters came from the mountains, which were inundated with 12 hours of rainfall.

“Some people don’t even have shoes – their sandals were pulled off their feet in the flood,” said Joe Curry, Catholic Relief Services’ country representative for the Philippines, who said some people had lost everything.

The disaster is without precedent in the area.

The Catholic Relief Services office in Davao has sent a needs assessment team to Cagayan de Oro City, the site of some of the most severe devastation. The organization is working with its partners, Caritas Philippines, the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro and Xavier University, as well as with the Philippine government.

“We’ve seen that people in the flood’s path need basic household goods like water jugs, cooking utensils and soap. Water is most important over the next few days. The government has distributed food to some people, but they don’t have water or pots to cook a meal,” Curry reported.

About 80 percent of Cagayan de Oro City’s 600,000 people are without running water. The floods washed out the city’s water main and the pumping stations along the river. Government officials say it could be up to 30 days before water is restored to most of the city.

“I’m hopeful that we will be able to reach people quickly and help them meet their most urgent needs,” Curry said. “We’re seeing people in the community pull together and share what little they have.”

Archbishop Tony Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro is playing an important role in facilitating cooperation between non-profits and the government in the flood response, Catholic Relief Services says.

Catholic Relief Services Philippines is the organization’s oldest continuously operating program. It launched in 1945 to provide war relief.

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KC Star risks credibility with bias against accused priest

Kansas City, Mo., Dec 20, 2011 (CNA) - The Kansas City Star stands accused of violating journalistic standards, by presenting a priest as guilty of abuse on the basis of one man's uncorroborated account.

“When I first read this, I assumed he'd been convicted,” Marquette University Professor Dr. William Thorn told CNA, offering his reaction on Dec. 19 to Judy L. Thomas' recent three-part series about an allegation and lawsuit against 85-year-old Missouri priest Monsignor Thomas O'Brien.

“That's how it reads: as a post-conviction story, not as a story about suits that have been filed. It's prejudicial,” said Thorn, a professor of journalism at Marquette's Diederich College of Communications.

He said Thomas' series of features was “all focused on the accuser, and designed to generate enormous emotional support for him,” while downplaying the conflicting account offered by others.

Thomas, whose past work includes the 14-part “AIDS in the Priesthood” series, based three December 2011 articles on the allegations of 41-year-old Jon David Couzens. The Kansas City-area plumber says Msgr. O'Brien sexually abused him and three other altar servers, two of whom have since died, in 1981.

But Thomas could not corroborate Couzens' account for her article. His charges are denied both by the priest in question, and by the unidentified “fourth altar boy” Couzens says was abused along with him.

In the series' final part, Thomas devotes five sentences to the response of the “fourth altar boy” in Couzens' account, whose disagreement she also mentions briefly in the series' first installment.

That man, who was a close friend of one of the two deceased boys, said he did not “remember anything like” the story about Msgr. O'Brien.

“That just doesn't sound right … I have no memories of that,” the man told Thomas.

Msgr. O'Brien, who retired in 2002, also told Thomas there was “just no truth to any of these things.”

Thomas, however, presented Couzens as an abuse survivor. He was portrayed as making the “wrenching” decision to reveal “the altar boys' secret” to surviving family members of one boy in the group who committed suicide.

Professor Thorn, a member of the Catholic Press Association who has worked with the U.S. bishops' communications committee, said Thomas sacrificed fairness and balance in her handling of the case.

“There's literal adherence to avoiding libel,” Thorn observed, “but the overall cast of the story implies guilt.”

He said Thomas framed the story in a way that “implies that 'what the priest did' caused Brian to commit suicide, 'what the priest did' caused this and that.”

“While 'allegedly is in there, and so it's not technically libelous, the overall cast of the story is prejudicial.”

Thorn noted that the story's title  – “The altar boys' secret” – assumes or implies that abuse took place, despite the denial by Couzens' fellow surviving altar server.

Catholic League President Bill Donohue blasted Thomas' reporting in a Dec. 6 statement, saying “responsible newspapers never run stories about alleged wrongdoing unless they can be corroborated.”

Donohue also called attention to an allegation against Couzens himself – which Thomas failed to mention, while detailing various claims about Msgr. O'Brien.

“Thomas never told readers that on the night Mark Trader was murdered about a dozen years ago, Couzens got into a fight with him over a botched drug deal,” Donohue stated.

“Although another man was convicted, on appeal it was alleged that Couzens and two other men had 'motive to commit the murder and the opportunity to do so.' This is public record, so why the cover up?”

Donohue also criticized the Star's editorial board for its praise of Couzens in a Dec. 8 column.

“Why is Couzens’ story deemed believable, and the one who says it never happened is ignored?” he asked. “Why hasn’t the Star released the name of the person who says the whole story is bogus?”

The Star, Donohue said, “needs to explain why it thinks that it is possible for a person who was allegedly abused several times to have no recollection of it.”

Thorn warned that media outlets risk their own credibility by giving accusers the benefit of the doubt, particularly in a climate where accusations can be taken as proof of guilt.

That risk is vividly illustrated by the case of Irish missionary priest Father Kevin Reynolds, who was accused of rape before a television and radio audience of over 800,000 and later exonerated by DNA testing.

On Dec. 2 – one day before the Star published Thomas' first installment of “The altar boys' secret” –  National Catholic Reporter correspondent John L. Allen wrote a column about Fr. Reynolds' case, which has prompted a government investigation of the Irish national television network RTE.

Allen called Fr. Reynolds “a new symbol” of “the way all Catholic priests have been tarred with the same brush” and “presumed guilty until proven innocent.”

Thorn told CNA that the Star should learn from RTE's mistake, and the damage done to its reputation as a result.

The Kansas City paper, he said, “could get a black eye, especially if in one or more cases (Msgr. O'Brien) is exonerated.”

Neither Thomas, nor Kansas City Star Editor Mike Fannin, responded to requests for comment on the “altar boys' secret” series.

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As Iraq war winds down, Christian community finds itself ‘devastated’

Baghdad, Iraq, Dec 20, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - As the United States finishes pulling its final troops out of Iraq, analysts say that the tragic results of the war, predicted by Pope John Paul II, are being sharply felt by Christians in the country.

Iraqi priest Fr. Firas Behnam Benoka told CNA on Dec. 19 that if world leaders had listened to the “prophetic words” of the late pontiff, “love wouldn’t have been killed off in favor of violence and hate.”

Fr. Benoka said that the Iraqi people continue to face “a terrible tragedy,” as they fight the “shadow of violence” that has been left upon their souls.

The nine-year war has had “dire consequences” for the Christian population in Iraq, said Michael La Civita, vice president for communications at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Pope John Paul II had opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, urging negotiation and other nonviolent efforts to work for peace in the country.

He warned that war would bring about “tremendous consequences” for the Iraqi people, living in a region that was “already sorely tried” by violence.

Sadly, La Civita told CNA on Dec. 16, the Pope’s predictions about the war’s effects on the country proved accurate.

He noted that more than 150,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war. In addition to the cost in human lives, the war has “absolutely devastated” the Christian community in Iraq, he said.

In a Dec. 15 blog post, La Civita pointed to a United Nations report indicating that “more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes.”

He explained that according to U.N. estimates, “almost half of Iraq’s middle and professional classes have fled.”

A large percentage of this class was Christian, he said, observing that about 75 percent of the Iraq’s Christian, Mandaean and Yazidi minorities have left their homes.

A recent report by the U.S. State Department found that the Christian population in the country is currently less than half of what it was in 2003.

The result, La Civita said, has been empty churches and lack of financial support for parish communities and programs.

Broken families abound, he added, and many women and children have been left “to fend for themselves.”

Fr. Benoka described “the Iraqi of today” as a “fragile man without hope” in a society that is still deeply divided.

He said that Christians in Iraq “have disappeared, along with the other minorities.”

As the United States pulls its final troops out of the country, the future of these minority groups is uncertain.

Fr. Benoka said that Christians in the country worry about “the idea of extinction” and are fearful “of being used” for political reasons. Still, he said, the survival of Iraqi Christians is possible if peace is established in the country.

La Civita believes the treatment that minorities receive will play an important role in determining the direction that the country is headed in coming years.

“Minorities or a lack thereof will determine the future of Iraq,” he said.

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