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Archive of January 3, 2014

Columnist: US should counter anti-Christian persecution

Washington D.C., Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Americans should not resign themselves to “a Middle East without Christians” but should work to expand their traditions of religious freedom overseas, says Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

“Across North Africa and the greater Middle East, anti-Christian pressure has grown during the past few decades, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt,” Gerson wrote on Dec. 26.

He cited the Christmas Day bombings in Iraq that killed more than 30 people, the flight of Syrian Christians to Turkey, and attacks on Coptic Christians and their churches in Egypt.

Gerson said the United States should see its “unique success” in dealing with religion at home as a guide for global action. He advocated a foreign policy that more strongly condemns human rights abuses, backs moderate forces and makes foreign aid conditional on the protection of minorities.

He also praised Prince Charles of Wales' efforts to build bridges between Islam and Christianity, noting that the prince believes there is now a “crisis” where these bridges are “rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so.”

Gerson said that other countries' respect for religious minorities is important for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. Citing William Inboden of the University of Texas, he said there is a “robust correlation” between religious persecution and threats to national security.

The United States' major wars of the past 70 years have taken place against enemies that have “severely violated religious freedom,” Inboden has said.

“There is not a single nation in the world...that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States,” according to Inboden.

Gerson contended that religious freedom involves “the full and final internalization of democratic values” and “requires the state to recognize the existence of binding loyalties that reach beyond the state’s official views.”

He noted that it took “many centuries” for Christendom to achieve a strong form of religious pluralism and it is a major geopolitical question whether the Islamic world can achieve its own distinctive version.

“Every major religious faith contains elements of tribal exclusivity and teachings of respect for the other. The emergence of social pluralism depends on emphasizing the latter above the former,” the columnist said.

Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a proponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, argued against criticisms that the promotion of democracy in the Middle East often results in “oppressive Sunni religious ascendancy” and that majority rule results in “the harsh imposition of the majority faith.”

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about half of Iraq's 1.5 million Christians have left the country, fearing violence and religious persecution.

Gerson said protecting minority rights is “particularly difficult in transitioning societies.” However, he said that “clinging to authoritarianism” further weakens civil society and makes the situation “even more chaotic and dangerous when a dictator falls.”

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Cardinal O'Malley denounces Dominican Republic immigration ruling

Boston, Mass., Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston is lamenting a court ruling in the Dominican Republic that retroactively strips away citizenship from any person born after 1929 to parents without Dominican ancestry.

“It is the destiny of the Dominican and Haitian peoples to share an island,” Cardinal O’Malley said in a letter last month to the Dominican ambassador to the United States, Anibal de Castro. “Events of history have left their scars, but I believe that Dominicans and Haitians of goodwill long for a future of greater solidarity and friendship.”

“Please communicate to your government the concerns and disappointment of a priest who considers himself a friend to the people of the Dominican Republic,” the cardinal said.

His letter came in response to the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court ruling that the children of undocumented immigrants who were born in the country beginning in 1929 and who are registered as Dominican citizens will lose their status because their parents were “in transit” in the country.  

The court’s decision could affect some 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, including many who have had no ties with Haiti for generations.

A delegation from the governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic will meet on Jan. 7 to discuss the issue of immigration, after negotiations between the two countries mediated by Venezuela broke off last November. Representatives from Venezuela, the United Nations, the European Union and the Caribbean Community will attend the talks as observers.

In his letter, Cardinal O’Malley recalled his work with the Hispanic community in Washington, D.C., which began more than 40 years ago.

“I worked with the Dominican community in Washington D.C. for 20 years, then for 10 years in the West Indies, and now in Massachusetts,” he said. “President Joaquin Balaguer honored me with the decoration, the Order of Cristobal Colon, for my pastoral work with Dominicans. I have always had a great affection for the Dominican Republic and their people.”

“It is in the same spirit,” the cardinal continued, “that I turn to you today to share my sadness at the Constitutional Tribunal's ruling that creates such hardship for so many people of Haitian extraction who live in the Dominican Republic, many of whom have been born in your country. Indeed, their hard work and dedication contribute much to the wellbeing of the country.”

“To be a person without a state, ‘a man without a country’ makes it nearly impossible to study, to get a decent job, to acquire insurance, to contribute to a pension fund, to get married legally, to open bank accounts and even to travel in or out of one's own country of origin,” he explained.

Recalling the help many Dominicans provided for Haitians affected by 2012 earthquake, Cardinal O’Malley stressed that many people of goodwill in both nations desire peace and solidarity.

“As a young priest in Washington,” he said, “I celebrated Mass for immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the very same parish. I never saw any divisions or discrimination. The faith of the people and their common struggle to provide for their families united them in community.”

“At Christmastime we relive the events of Christ's life, beginning with the Holy Family's search for lodging in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn. It is my hope that at this Christmas season the government and people of the Dominican Republic will reject these unjust rulings that cause so much pain and suffering,” the cardinal wrote.

“Every country has the right to control its own boundaries,” he pointed out, “but no one has the right to trample people's dignity and diminish their humanity.”

“I hope and pray that the government and people of the Dominican Republic will be inspired by the ideals of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that appears on your beautiful national flag.”

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Bangladeshi bishop calls for peace amid pre-election violence

Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - As Bangladesh experiences widespread strikes and violent protests in the run-up to its parliamentary elections, the bishop of the nation's capital is encouraging a peaceful contribution from local Christians.

“The situation is very tense. For months we have been experiencing strikes, blockades, violent conflict, terrorist attacks, arson and hatred here in Bangladesh. There have been deaths and hundreds of people have been injured,” Archbishop Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka told the charity Aid to the Church in Need in a Dec. 26 interview.

“I am asking all Christians in the country and elsewhere to pray for peace and reconciliation in Bangladesh … our prayers are not in vain,” he added. “The country needs dialogue and I hope that it will succeed!”

Elections for members of parliament in the South Asian nation are scheduled for Jan. 5, but are being boycotted by several opposition parties. The government is currently controlled by the Awami League, and other parties such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami believe the Awami League will rig the results.

Bangladesh is among the more corrupt of the world's nations, scoring 27 out of 100 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013. It is ranked 136 out of 177 countries for transparency, in the company of Ivory Coast, Guyana, and Kenya. In April, a clothing factory building collapsed near Dhaka, killing more than 1,100 workers.

The political opposition wants a caretaker government to administer next week's elections to ensure fairness and transparency, as was long the case in Bangladeshi elections, but the Awami League has rejected the proposal.

Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, has been barred from participating in the elections, and one of its leaders was executed Dec. 12 for war crimes committed during Bangladesh's war for independence in 1971.

The political impasse has led to violent clashes between protesters and security forces; strikes; and blockades of roads and railways. The country's army was deployed nationwide last week in an attempt to stem the violence. More than 100 persons have died in political violence in recent weeks.

Archbishop D'Rozario's appeal for peace noted that Christians, a tiny minority in the country, have a deep solidarity with their fellow Bangladeshis.

“In Bangladesh all Christians, regardless of their denomination, feel solidarity with their compatriots of other faiths,” he said.

“Our charitable and social initiatives serve the entire country, with our work supporting education and development, as well as serving the poor and those who are particularly affected by climate change. We are trying to live out our faith and the values we advocate.”

Christians constitute less than one percent of the Bangladeshi population, as do Buddhists. The population is 90 percent Muslim, and 8 percent Hindu.

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Calif. community grieves loss of murdered pastor

Santa Rosa, Calif., Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - The people of Humboldt County, located on California's North Coast, are grieving the loss of Fr. Eric Freed, a “wonderful” pastor, who was murdered early on New Years’ Day.

“Amid sadness, anger, and disbelief, we would like to give thanks to God for tremendously blessing the parishioners of St. Bernard's Catholic Parish with Fr. Eric Freed. Though his life on Earth was unfairly taken away, we remember that the greatest gift of all cannot be taken, which is eternal life with God,” Laura Martinez, a parishioner at Fr. Freed's St. Bernard parish in Eureka, wrote at the parish's website.

“May the Lord rest his soul. This tragedy reminds us how fragile life is, and how we really do not know how much time we have left on Earth. In honor of Fr. Eric, may we make a greater effort to live each day as if it were our last; to do our duty well, whatever it may be; and to love God and others to the
fullest.”

St. Bernard parishioners became concerned when Fr. Freed failed to show up for 9 am Mass on Jan. 1, and his corpse was found in his rectory by the parish's deacon who,  according to Hank Sims, a local journalist, told the parishioners at St. Bernard that “Something is terribly wrong with Father Freed.”  The congregation then stayed to pray a rosary until police and medical personnel arrived.

Fr. Freed had been the pastor at St. Bernard since 2011. The parish is located in Eureka, which is on the Pacific coast nearly 200 miles north of Santa Rosa.

According to the Eureka Police Department, Fr. Freed was observed to be dead by a doctor who is a parishioner at St. Bernard once police arrived at the scene. It appears “that there was blunt force trauma to the victim” though the “exact cause of death has yet to be determined,” the department added.

Eureka police chief Andrew Mills confirmed the death and announced that the police were launching an investigation at a Jan. 1 press conference. The following day, the the Humboldt County coroner ruled Fr. Freed’s death as a homicide on Jan. 2.

Mills confirmed Jan. 2 to the Local Coast Outpost, a northern California news outlet, that Gary Lee Bullock had been arrested for Fr. Freed’s murder. Earlier that day, Mills had announced an arrest warrant for Bullock, after a person matching his description was reported near the parish acting “suspicious.”

Hours before Fr. Freed’s death, Bullock been held in the county jail and then hospital due to “strange behavior” and “erratic” actions, but was released shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, the police department stated.

In addition to serving as pastor at St. Bernard, Fr. Freed was director of the Newman Center at Humboldt State University, located in nearby Arcata. There he gave weekly lectures and catechetical classes, and said Masses.

According to the university's Newman Center Facebook page, the college students will hold a memorial once students return to campus from Christmas break. Local residents have been gathering for Mass at St. Bernard. Fr. Freed also taught two classes at Humboldt State: an introduction to Christianity, and Japanese calligraphy.

Fr. Freed was active in the local Japanese community, having lived abroad there for over 20 years, and had helped a poet and Hiroshima survivor translate her works on the bombing of her home.

As well as living in Japan, Fr. Freed had also lived in Italy for a time.

Colleague and chairman of Humboldt State University's religious studies department Stephen Cunha described Fr. Freed as “a really, genuinely warm individual," in a Jan. 2 interview with CNN.

Kind is the word that comes to mind, sensitive. He connected with everybody."

Eureka mayor Frank Jager described Fr. Freed at a Jan. 1 press conference as a friend and a “tremendous person in this community.”

Jager described Fr. Freed as “involved with the Japanese community, multi-lingual,” and called his death “an absolutely tremendous loss, not only for St. Bernard’s parish, but for our community in general.”

"Every once in a while, you meet one of those people who is truly wonderful — someone you’d like to clone and fill the world with. He was one of those people."

“(For) those of us who believe in prayer, this is the time for that.”

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Archbishop Müller affirms doctrine, pastoral care for divorced

Rome, Italy, Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - In a recent interview with Corriere della Sera, the Vatican's head official on doctrinal matters discussed the importance of personal pastoral care for divorced re-married persons, while adhering to Church teaching.

“We must try a combination of general principles and particular, personal situations. Finding solutions to individual problems, though always on the foundation of Catholic doctrine,” Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Gian Guido Vecchi of the Italian daily in an interview published Dec. 22.

“You cannot adjust the doctrine to the circumstances: the Church is not a political party which does surveys to look for consent. A true, pastoral dialogue is necessary. There are different situations, which are to be evaluated in different ways.”

The archbishop's comments follow months of back-and-forth between himself and bishops from his native Germany who have suggested that divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion under certain circumstances.

In November, Archbishop Müller wrote a letter to the emeritus archbishop of Freiburg clarifying that “no pastoral directions are sanctioned which are in opposition to Church teaching,” and he had made the same point in an essay published at L'Osservatore Romano the preceding month.

In his Corriere della Sera interview, the archbishop explained, “the truth is that we cannot clarify these situations with a general statement. On those divorced and civilly remarried, many think the Pope or a synod can say: of course, receive Communion. But this is not possible.”

He added that this is because a “valid, sacramental marriage is indissoluble: this is the Catholic practice, reaffirmed by Popes and Councils, in fidelity to the Words of Jesus. And the Church has not the authority to relativize the Words and Commandments of God.”

Archbishop Müller added that while the sacraments have a “medicinal aspect” and are not restricted to “the perfect,” an irregular marriage is an “objective obstacle to receiving the Eucharist.” This is “not a punishment” and the bar on divorced and re-married persons receiving Communion does not keep them from attending Mass.

He affirmed that annulments can be granted, adding that in many places, Christian tradition “has lost its meaning” and there is a “total confusion” about who man is and what is his purpose and dignity.

The archbishop also discussed Church structures in the wake of Pope Francis' Nov. 24 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii gaudium”, in which he discussed a “conversion of the papacy” and suggested that bishops' conferences could be given a greater role, including “genuine doctrinal authority.”

He said the interpretation of “some” who believe the exhortation means the Pope “wishes to promote a certain autonomy of local Churches, a tendency to distance themselves from Rome” “is not possible” and would be “the first step towards autocephaly.”

Archbishop Müller clarified that “the Catholic Church is composed of local Churches, but it is One. 'National' churches do not exist … the presidents of bishops' conferences, while important, are coordinators, nothing more, not vice-popes!”

He emphasized that both the Roman Pontiff and individual bishops are of “divine right, instituted by Jesus Christ,” while patriarchates and bishops' conferences are established by the Church, by man.”

“Each bishop has a direct and immediate relationship with the Pope. We cannot have a decentralization in the conferences, as there would be the peril of a new centralism: in which the president has all the information and the bishops are submerged in documents.”

The archbishop added that Pope Francis' statements in “Evangelii gaudium” were in the context of Bl. John Paul II's encyclical on ecumenism, and that the Church must find a “practical equilibrium” between the errors of conciliarism or Gallicanism on the one hand, and a certain curialism on the other.

The interview continued with a brief discussion of the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to form priests, as a response to what he described as errors that had crept into the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Its relations with the Holy See became strained in 1988 when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.

The illicit episcopal ordinations resulted in the five being excommunicated, though in 2009 Benedict XVI, acting through Cardinal Giovanni Re, remitted the automatic excommunication from the four surviving bishops. After that time, doctrinal discussions between the Society and Rome were conducted, until the discussions effectively broke down in 2012.

Asked about the position of the Society of St. Pius X, Archbishop Müller said that while “the canonical excommunication” was revoked, “the sacramental one remains, de facto, for the schism: because they have removed themselves from communion with the Church.”

“Having said that, we do not close the door, ever, and invite them to reconcile. But they also must change their approach, accepting the conditions of the Catholic Church and the Supreme Pontiff as the definitive criterion of belonging (to it).”

The final question posed to the archbishop by Corriere della Sera was about Pope Francis' Sept. 11 meeting with Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, the “founder” of liberation theology, whom the doctrine head said “has always been orthodox.”

Archbishop Müller and Fr. Gutierrez are friends, and in conclusion he said he had learned from Fr. Gutierrez “to broaden the horizons, to find an equilibrium,” and “to open up to a concrete experience: to see poverty and also the joy of the people.”

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Faith desires to 'change the world,' Pope Francis says

Vatican City, Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis celebrated Mass Jan. 3 in thanksgiving for the Jesuit saint Peter Faber, praising his “lofty desires” to be centered in God and to evangelize at the “peripheries.”

“An authentic faith always implies a deep desire to change the world,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the Church of the Gesu in Rome.

“And this is the question we should pose ourselves: do we too have great visions and zeal? Are we bold too? Do our dreams fly high? Are we consumed by zeal? Or are we mediocre and satisfied with our theoretical apostolic plans?”

He said that the Church's strength is not in its organizational capacity but rather is “concealed in the deep waters of God” that “agitate our desires” and these desires in turn “expand our hearts.”

Pope Francis celebrated the Mass on the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus at Rome's Church of the Gesu. The home church of the Society of Jesus hosts the relics of the saint.

In his homily, the first Jesuit Pope noted Faber's saying that the heart's first movement must prioritize seeking God.

“Faber experienced the desire to let the center of his heart be occupied by Christ. Only when centered in God is it possible to go out towards the peripheries of the world!”

He said the saint was “consumed by the intense desire to communicate the Lord.”

“If we do not have the same desire, then we need to pause a while in prayer and, with silent fervor, ask the Lord, through the intercession of our brother Peter, that we might again experience the fascination of the Lord who led Peter in his 'apostolic follies.'”

Pope Francis effectively canonized Peter Faber on Dec. 17. Faber was the first companion of the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola and the first to be ordained a priest for the Society of Jesus, which the two co-founded with St. Francis Xavier.

Peter Faber, also called Pierre Favre, was born in 16th century France. He served across Europe before his death in 1546. Pope Pius IX beatified him in 1872.

Pope Francis recognized the sainthood of Peter Faber on Dec. 17, authorizing his enrollment in the catalogue of the saints. This differed from the normal canonization process, which seeks a second recognized miracle attributed to the saint's intercession.

On Jan. 3 the Pope said St. Peter Faber had a “restless, indecisive spirit, never satisfied.” Under St. Ignatius of Loyola, Faber learned to unite this restlessness with decision-making. When he was faced with difficult tasks, “he demonstrated the true spirit that sets into action.”

Faber had “the true and deep desire to open up in God.” His centeredness in God allowed him to go everywhere in Europe” and to “enter into dialogue with everyone, with gentleness, and to proclaim the Gospel.”

During his remarks, Pope Francis also reflected on the problems some people have in evangelizing.

“I think of the temptation that perhaps we experience, to which many people succumb, to link the proclamation of the Gospel with inquisitionary bludgeoning and condemnation,” he said. “No, the Gospel must be proclaimed with gentleness, in a fraternal spirit, with love.”

The Pope encouraged Catholics to “pray to desire and desire to expand your heart,” adding that without desires, “one cannot go forth, and this is why we must offer our desires to the Lord.”

Concelebrants for the Pope's Jan. 3 Mass included Father Adolfo Nicholas, the Jesuit superior general, and seven young Jesuit priests. Also concelebrating were Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, vicar general of Rome Cardinal Agostino Vallini, and Bishop Yves Boivineau of Annency, France, the home diocese of Peter Faber.

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Pope encouraged Malta bishop to speak out against gay adoption bill

Rome, Italy, Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis was “shocked” by a bill in Malta that would allow gay couples to adopt children, said a bishop from the small island nation, adding that the Holy Father had encouraged him to speak up on the issue.

“We discussed many aspects...and when I raised the issue that’s worrying me as a bishop [the same-sex adoption bill] he encouraged me to speak out,” Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna told The Sunday Times of Malta.

The bishop spoke about the importance of strong families in his Christmas homily. His concerns come after lawmakers in Malta introduced a bill to allow same-sex civil unions and adoption of children.

Reports of the Pope’s words to Bishop Scicluna led to surprise and criticism from some media commenters, with Damian Thompson, blog editor of The Telegraph, questioning whether Time Magazine would “take back its Person of the Year award” from the Holy Father.

Some commenters and media outlets have portrayed the Pope as moving towards a change in Church teaching on homosexuality, pointing to his comments in July, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?”

Later, the Pontiff cautioned against an excessive fixation on moral issues such as homosexuality by some in the Church, saying that this view risked reducing the Gospel to a mere moral code.

These comments were cited by American LGBT magazine The Advocate, which named Pope Francis its Person of the Year for 2013.

However, the Pope has also said on several occasions that he is a “son of the Church” who agrees with the moral teachings of the Church.

He opposed legislation to legalize “gay marriage” in Argentina in 2010, saying that it was “a destructive proposal to God's plan.”

Speaking to NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Dec. 1, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York explained that Pope Francis is not – and cannot – change Church doctrine on moral issues.

Rather, he said, the Holy Father is offering a shift in emphasis, calling Catholics to live out Church teaching of loving and respecting all individuals while working to promote the Gospel, including Catholic moral doctrine.

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Archbishop Chaput calls contribution to priest's bail 'just'

Philadelphia, Pa., Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has explained his decision to provide ten percent of the bail of Msgr. William Lynn, whose conviction for child endangerment was overturned last week.

Msgr. Lynn was secretary of clergy for the Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. The priest was convicted in 2012 on one count of child endangerment for failing to protect children from an abusive priest.

That conviction was unanimously overturned Dec. 26, 2013, by Pennsylvania's appellate court as “fundamentally flawed.”

He was released Jan. 2, after serving 18 months in prison, on a $250,000 bail and is subject to an electronic-monitoring device pending an appeal of the appellate court's decision to the state's supreme court.

“Msgr. Lynn presents no danger to anyone. He poses no flight risk,” Archbishop Chaput wrote Jan. 3 in a letter to the clergy and faithful of his Church.

“The funding for his bail has been taken from no parish, school or ministry resources, impacts no ongoing work of the Church and will be returned when the terms of bail are completed. Nor does it diminish in any way our determination to root out the possibility of sexual abuse from the life of our local Church.”
 
“As a result, I believe that assisting Msgr. Lynn's family and attorney with resources for his bail is both reasonable and just. We have acted accordingly.”

He added that the overturning of the priest's conviction “is not a matter of technicalities but of legal substance,” which is “made very clear” by the text of the appellate court's decision.

The Philadelphia district attorney, Seth Williams, has called the reversal “disappointing and puzzling,” and the contribution of the archdiocese to Msgr. Lynn's bail “disgusting,” according to the Philadelphia Daily News.

Archbishop Chaput emphasized that “the Superior Court ruling does not vindicate Msgr. Lynn's past decisions. Nor does it absolve the Archdiocese from deeply flawed thinking and actions in the past that resulted in bitter suffering for victims of sexual abuse and their families.”

“Above all, it does not and cannot erase the Archdiocese's duty to help survivors heal. We remain committed to that healing – now and in the future.”

Archbishop Chaput noted that Msgr. Lynn continues to be on administrative leave, and so may not function publicly as a priest.

He added that the archdiocese has “worked vigorously” to reform how it protects children and families, noting “new policies and procedures, new standards of ministerial behavior, new Archdiocesan Review Board members, mandated reporter training for thousands of volunteers, clergy and staff.”

The archbishop added that the archdiocese cooperated “fully and honestly with law enforcement and the court” throughout Msgr. Lynn's trial, and that “that cooperation will continue, whatever the final outcome of Msgr. Lynn's case.”

“We cannot change the past. But we can and will do everything in our power to prevent it from being repeated.”

“I understand and accept the anger felt toward the Archdiocese by many of our people and priests, as well as the general public, for the ugly events of the past decade,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Only time and a record of honest conversion by the Archdiocese can change that.”

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Little Sisters threatened by HHS mandate, lawyers argue

Washington D.C., Jan 3, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Despite the claims of the U.S. Justice Department, the demands of the federal contraception mandate threaten the continued works of service performed by the Little Sisters of the Poor, their attorneys say.

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the religious sisters in court, charged that the government's claim amounts to “doublespeak” and “trivializes” the situation of the sisters.

For 175 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have provided physical, spiritual and emotional care for the low-income elderly and dying in communities throughout the U.S.

Now, however, they are facing crippling fines due to the federal contraception mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans including free contraception, sterilization, and some early abortion drugs for employees. Failing to comply results in fines of up to $100 per employee per day.

While the mandate includes a narrow religious exemption, the Little Sisters fail to qualify for it because they are not affiliated with a particular house of worship. Instead, the group falls under an “accommodation” by which religious employers can sign a form authorizing an insurance company or third party to provide payments for the products they find objectionable. Critics argue that these costs will ultimately be passed on to the objecting employers, despite the government's claims otherwise.

The Little Sisters asked that they be temporarily shielded from the mandate by an emergency stay, which was granted by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Dec. 31, just hours before the mandate was to go into effect.

On Jan. 3, the Department of Justice responded to Sotomayor's order, arguing that the Little Sisters' “religious exercise is not substantially burdened” by the mandate because of the accommodation.

The Little Sisters contend that even being forced to sign a paper authorizing an outside party to provide the objectionable coverage is a violation of their religious beliefs.

The sisters are not alone in suing over the controversial regulation – lawsuits have been filed by more than 300 plaintiffs across the country. The majority have received preliminary injunctions while their cases work their way through the court system.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving for-profit businesses run by religious individuals who object to the mandate. A decision is expected in that case later this year.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has asked the federal government that temporary protection from the mandate be extended to all religious employers who object to it. The government has not publicly responded to his request.

Rassbach responded to the Justice Department's statement by saying that “the biggest tell here is what the government is doing.” He questioned why the government is “spending millions of dollars in legal costs” if it is, in fact, a minor matter for the nuns to sign the authorization form.

“In reality the government is acting as if the form matters a lot,” he said, noting that the government has said “in the lower courts that the purpose of the form is to authorize drugs and devices” that the nuns find unconscionable.

“The idea that it’s just a stroke of a pen trivializes the entire matter.”


 

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