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Payday loan expansion means fast money and cycle of debt for Michigan's poor, bishops say

CNA Staff, Dec 2, 2020 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- A Michigan proposal to quadruple the maximum lending amount allowed for payday lenders would exploit the poor and trap many people in a cycle of debt when alternatives are available, the Michigan Catholic Conference has told a State Senate committee.

“People in the state may be unaware that charity agencies and low-income lending opportunities exist to assist those who are in dire circumstances and need quick access to cash,” David Maluchnik, vice-president of communications for the Michigan Catholic Conference, said Dec. 1.

“High-interest loans that add greater financial burden to poor people should be opposed, as they contribute to an economy of exclusion rather than serving the dignity of the human person. The legislation before committee today is a form of modern-day usury; it would exploit individuals and families facing hardship and poses a danger to the common good,” he said.

Maluchnik testified before the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee against House Bill 5097, proposed by State Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Kalamazoo. The bill passed the House of Representatives in May, with support from 15 Democratic lawmakers.

The bill increases the amount that can be borrowed under the law from $600 to $2,500. It would allow monthly fees of 11% on the loan principal for payday loans, also known as cash advances.

The annual interest rate on a maximum loan would exceed 130%, the Catholic conference said. In a flier criticizing the bill, it said this was “exorbitant.”

“Data shows that rates such as these wreak financial havoc on individuals who typically need a one-time cash solution. In order to pay these loans off, over 70% of borrowers take out new payday loans within 30 days, causing a long-term debt cycle for their family,” said the flier.

The flier recommends alternatives to payday loans: alternative lending programs, credit unions, and financial education resources. During the coronavirus pandemic, it said, Michigan credit unions have made nearly 9,500 emergency cash loans totaling over $22.5 million.

Other critics of the law include the Michigan Poverty Law Program and Habitat for Humanity of Michigan.

Iden, the bill’s backer, told The Detroit News in September that inflation has increased since 2005, when payday loans first became legal and the limit was set. It now takes more money to replace a set of tires than 15 years ago. He said “a number of conversations” with constituents inspired the move.

The industry is also competing with online lenders.

Rep. Diana Farrington, R-Utica, chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee, opposed the bill. She said that the average loan is for $400.

“I was just concerned because individuals get into a debt cycle with payday lending,” she told the Detroit News.

Rep. John Chirkun, D-Roseville, supported the bill. He said people need the opportunity to get money in an emergency like the pandemic, and those who make payments on time will build their credit rating.

Hickson said that under the proposed change, someone could pay $4,600 on a $2,500 loan over a year, the maximum loan term allowed. He characterized the proposal as “legalized loan sharking.”

The Detroit News reported that companies or lobbyists backing increased payday lending had given tens of thousands of dollars to Michigan lawmakers’ campaigns.

The Church has consistently taught that usury is evil, including in numerous ecumenical councils.

In Vix pervenit, his 1745 encyclical on usury and other dishonest profit, Benedict XIV taught that a loan contract demands “that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given. Therefore he contends some gain is owed him beyond that which he loaned, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.”

In his General Audience address of Feb. 10, 2016, Pope Francis taught that “Scripture persistently exhorts a generous response to requests for loans, without making petty calculations and without demanding impossible interest rates,” citing Leviticus.

“This lesson is always timely,” he said. “How many families there are on the street, victims of profiteering … It is a grave sin, usury is a sin that cries out in the presence of God.”

New coalition champions spiritual rights of patients

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 2, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- A new coalition seeks to promote the rights of hospital patients to have “reasonable” access to family and clergy during the pandemic.

The Health Care Civil Rights Task Force is a project of the Christ Medicus Foundation, the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, and other groups. The task force issued a statement on Nov. 19 calling for the protection of civil rights during the pandemic, “Defending the Fundamental Dignity and Health Care Civil Rights of All.”

The NCBC’s Dr. Jozef Zalot explained the significance of the statement on the rights of hospital patients to clergy and family visitation during the pandemic.

“We’ve have been stating that since the spring,” Zalot told CNA on Wednesday. “It is absolutely essential,” he said, “that people not have to die alone, and we’re hearing that in consults.” Families have called the center for bioethical consultations, he said, having to make life-or-death decisions for their loved ones while not allowed to be physically present with them at the hospital.

“It’s a huge issue, not only for the patients but for the family members,” Zalot said. “They’re being denied access to see their loved ones, to interact with them, to say goodbye to them, to receive the sacraments of the Church. It’s a huge, huge civil rights issue.”

Strict hospital visitation policies during the pandemic have received repeated attention from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, which has intervened in several cases for patients to have access to clergy and for disabled patients to have access to an advocate.

In the statement on civil rights in health care, the coalition also called for preservation of access to the sacraments for the faithful and opposition to health care rationing based on a “value” of one’s life.

The statement’s authors warned that state and local COVID restrictions reflect a “chasm” where “[t]he spiritual is increasingly being forgotten, ignored, and trampled,” as churches are closed by public orders and the sacraments are denied to COVID patients.

Members of the Health Care Civil Rights Task Force include National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) president Joseph Meaney, Bobby Schindler—the brother of Terri Schiavo—and officials at the Christ Medicus Foundation and Healthcare Advocacy Leadership Organization.

“A secular view sees saving the physical life of a person as the only goal that matters,” the statement reads. “Faith and reason recognize that both care for spiritual health and care for emotional health are essential parts of health care.”

“However much government and courts want to keep people safe, the rights of the family are preeminent above the rights of the state,” the statement says. “There is no reason that PPE [personal protective equipment] cannot be used to allow reasonable visitation from loved ones in health care settings during this pandemic.”

Meaney, in particular, issued a statement in November on “the right not to be forced to die alone.” He stated that “simply denying all visitation is an unreasonable policy” for hospitals, and argued for patients and families to have a say in “restricted visitation.”

Meaney has said he was actually hospitalized with a heart condition in May, but could not have a Catholic priest visit to administer Last Rites.

NYC mayor de Blasio defends decision not to pay for coronavirus testing at private schools

CNA Staff, Dec 2, 2020 / 02:20 pm (CNA).- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is defending his decision not to extend state funding for on-site coronavirus testing to students in Catholic schools, as he fights a court mandate that the state department of education provide testing to both private and public school students.

“We believe the law is clear that it is not the city’s obligation to provide the actual testing service,” de Blasio told the New York Post Dec. 1.

“Our obligation right now is to continue the process of having New York City public schools be open and healthy and safe.”

In a lawsuit filed Nov. 18, the Archdiocese of New York argued that the New York City Department of Education has a legal mandate to provide children attending nonpublic schools within their districts with “all of the health and welfare services” they provide to their public school students, including “the administration of health screening tests.”

The archdiocese cited burdensome costs associated with the increased testing requirements, which at public schools are covered by the state.

On Nov. 24, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the archdiocese. The DOE is appealing the ruling, and de Blasio said Dec. 1 that he interprets the state law in question, Section 912, differently.

The legal fight comes amid new public health measures from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which included additional testing requirements for schools open for in-person learning in certain zones of the city with higher infection rates.

“Yellow zone” restrictions include a 25-person maximum capacity on gatherings, 4-person to a table maximum while dining, and weekly testing for at least 20% of in-person students and faculty in all schools.

If the results of the testing reveal that the positivity rate among the 20% of those tested is lower than the yellow zone's current 7-day positivity rate, testing at that school will no longer be required to continue, the state said in a Nov. 14 guidance.

The 172 Catholic schools in the New York archdiocese have been open for in-person instruction since September.

According to a Nov. 30 op-ed by archdiocesan school superintendent Michael Deegan, their schools’ positivity rate is significantly ­below the 3 percent threshold, at 0.0046 percent.

“The mayor has been on the news lately, saying (rightly) that the key to reopening schools is testing and more testing,” Deegan wrote.

“That’s great to hear. Why, then, are he and [schools chancellor Richard] Carranza so dead-set against following state law, now backed by a court order, requiring public and nonpublic kids to receive the same testing resources?”

"Do Mayor de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, really believe that children in nonpublic schools deserve inferior measures to protect their health? Apparently," Deegan stated.

On Nov. 18, de Blasio announced that the city’s public schools would “temporarily” suspend in-person classes. He subsequently announced Nov. 29 that he would allow elementary school and pre-K students to return to in-person learning Dec. 7, with special education students returning Dec. 10.

The initial decision to suspend in-person learning in public schools was made after one set of data found that the city’s coronavirus test positivity rate was 3%. Metrics shared by Cuomo at a press conference following the decision to close, however, stated that the city’s positivity rate was 2.5%, not yet at the anticipated threshold for school closure. De Blasio also announced Nov. 29 that the 3% threshold would no longer be used.

de Blasio has faced criticism for his treatment of houses of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, threatening mass arrests or even permanent closure of churches and synagogues that did not comply with public orders.

De Blasio said in June that ongoing protests in the city merit exceptions to coronavirus regulations, while religious services do not, drawing criticism from the New York archdiocese.

The Supreme Court ruled in late November that New York state restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic are a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free religious exercise.

The state’s restrictions forbade the attendance of more than 10 people at religious services in state designated “red zones, and 25 people in “orange zones.”

In a statement Nov. 26, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said he is “gratified by the decision of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, who have recognized the clear First Amendment violation and urgent need for relief in this case.”

The court’s ruling is temporary, as lawsuits filed by the Diocese of Brooklyn and by Orthodox Jewish synagogues in New York will continue, though the Supreme Court’s Nov. 26 decision is likely to weigh heavily in the outcome of those cases.

While cases of coronavirus have continued to spike throughout the country, schools have largely not been the sources of these infections.

Last month, Cuomo was part of a bipartisan group of governors from the northeast who signed a statement calling in-person learning the “best possible scenario” for children.

Once beloved Colorado priest among newly identified clerical abusers

CNA Staff, Dec 2, 2020 / 09:40 am (CNA).- Investigation into the history of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Colorado has found nine diocesan priests with “substantiated” sexual abuse allegations involving 70 more underage victims. Those priests come in addition to 43 abusers already identified in a 2019 report. The newly known abusers include a Denver priest who was a prominent advocate for the homeless.

A report on clerical abuse in Colorado was released Dec. 1 as a supplement to an October 2019 report on the history of clerical sexual abuse in the state.

“We hope and pray that this independent review and reparations process over the last two years has provided a measure of justice and healing for the survivors who came forward and shared their stories,” the Catholic bishops of Colorado said in a joint statement Dec. 1.

“We remain heart-broken by the pain they have endured, we again offer our deepest apologies for the past failures of the Church, and we promise that we will always pray for continued healing for them and their families.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo and Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez of Denver said they continue to be willing “to meet personally with survivors when they make the request.”

They pledged to “continue to work with and support anyone who comes forward.”

“We also hope that this process has demonstrated our commitment to continuing to enhance and strengthen our child-protection policies so that the sins of the past do not repeat themselves,” said the Colorado bishops.

None of the newly named priests are still in ministry. At least six of the men newly accused of abuse have died. The latest report also contains new substantiated accusations against another 16 previously known abusers.

The 93-page report from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office supplements a previous October 2019 report in a 22-month investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer.

The supplemental investigation concerns victims who made claims to the attorney general’s office or to an independent reparation and reconciliation program for the three dioceses in Colorado. It does not include victims who reported only to a diocese directly, nor does it include allegations against clergy in religious orders, church volunteers or other employees. Some victims who spoke to the reparation and reconciliation program decided not to speak for inclusion in the supplemental investigation.

Attorney General Phil Weiser said Dec. 1 that the program’s goals were “to support and comfort survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and to bring meaningful change to how the Colorado dioceses protect children from sexual abuse.”

“It takes incredible fortitude for victims of sexual abuse to come forward and tell their stories, and they are the heroes of this effort,” he said

The most prominent priest named in the latest report is Father Charles Woodrich, known as Father Woody, an outspoken advocate for the homeless of Denver. After he died in 1991 the Denver Catholic Register, which he had previously served as editor, called him “Denver’s patron saint of the hungry and homeless.”

He famously opened up the doors of his downtown parish, the beautiful Holy Ghost Church, to the homeless during cold winter nights. He would routinely give his friends on the street the coats off his back and the cash in his pockets.

Three victims alleged grooming behavior and sexual assault by him as far back as 1976, beginning at ages as young as 12. The Denver archdiocese received the allegations earlier this year through the reparations program and reported them to law enforcement.

Woodrich helped to found the Samaritan House homeless shelter and the Haven of Hope to provide hot meals and shelters for the homeless. Samaritan House, now run by Catholic Charities of Denver. Last year it served 1,405 men, women and children, providing over 80,000 nights of shelter and over 466,000 meals.

The priest also established school lunch programs for poor children. The name “Father Woody” had become synonymous with charity in the Denver community. He was the namesake of a popular Christmas party for the homeless and a service program at Regis University was named for him. A university spokesman told the Denver Post that the program will be renamed in honor of Jesuit priest St. John Francis Regis.

The latest report means that the number of diocesan clergy known to be abusive now numbers 52, with 212 victims. Several children were younger than 10. While abusers sometimes had more than one known victim, particularly dangerous was Father Harold White. The priest abused 70 known victims from 1958 to 1981. He was laicized in 2004.

Most abuse happened in the 1960s. All known instances of abuse took place between 1951 and 1999. However, more than half of the victims were abused after church leaders knew of allegations

The latest report identified Father James Moreno as another Denver archdiocese priest who sexually abused a teen boy dozens of times from 1978 to 1980. In late 2019 he admitted to abusing the victim, whom he had met through Denver Catholic schools. Moreno retired 6 years ago, but currently faces a canonical process to be removed from the priesthood. The attorney general’s report erroneously said that Moreno retired 16 years ago.

Other Denver archdiocese priests named for the first time were Kenneth Funk, Daniel Kelleher, and Gregory Smith. There were 138 diocesan priests in the archdiocese in 1950. Their numbers peaked at 215 in 1976, and are at similar numbers today. No new allegations concerned priests of the Colorado Springs diocese, which was founded in 1983.

The newly named Pueblo diocesan priests are Marvin Kapushion, Duane Repola, Carlos Trujillo and Joseph Walsh. Kapushion and Walsh worked as counselors at the Sacred Heart and abused children there. The two known victims of Walsh were aged 4 and 7 when their abuse began. The number of diocesan priests in the Pueblo diocese peaked at 83 in 1966, and they currently number 52.

Among the newly reported incidents, only one was not reported to law enforcement as required by law in 2006, when the victim first came forward. At the same time, among the new incidents 16 of the 46 newly reported victims had been abused after the diocese had been informed that the priest was a sexual abuser.

Troyer, the author of the supplemental report, said that the incidents “provide further evidence that historically the dioceses enabled clergy child sexual abuse by transferring abusive priests to new parishes; taking no action to restrict their ministry or access to children; concealing the priests’ behavior with secrecy, euphemism and lack of documentation; silencing victims; and not reporting the abuse to law enforcement.”

The bishops took encouragement that there have been no known incidents of child abuse in over 20 years, with “over 90 percent of the known incidents occurring 40 to 60 years ago.”

However, many sexual abuse victims take decades before coming forward, leaving open the possibility that reports about more recent situations could come to light..

Troyer’s October 2019 report had said the dioceses’ poor records and flawed practices made it impossible to know whether there had been any abuse in recent years.

Weiser, the attorney general, said he was pleased that the Colorado dioceses implemented “every recommendation” of the first report, with reforms that are apparently “meaningful and sound.”

“But as the report points out, these improvements are untested at this point in time, and it will be up to the church to ensure it is creating an environment that is as safe as possible for children now and in the future,” he said.

The state’s Catholic bishops said that following the recommendations strengthened policies, adding “we believe Catholics and the general public can feel confident that the Church is an extremely safe environment for children.”

“We agree with the Attorney General that other youth-serving institutions could consider using a similar public review and reparations program to address this issue,” they said.

In a separate statement regarding Woodrich and other priests, the Denver archdiocese said: “for Catholics, learning about the past sins of former priests has been extremely difficult, especially when the priest was well-known and respected.”

“For any priest that has been named in the initial report or supplemental report, the archdiocese has removed that priest’s name from any honorary designation including buildings, facilities, and programs,” it continued.

“It is important to note that the ministerial work of the Church is the work of Jesus Christ, not the work of a specific priest. Any employee or volunteer who has participated in the work of Christ in serving others should not feel that their work has in any way been diminished.”

The archdiocese said it took part in the investigation “so that any survivor who had not previously come forward would be encouraged to do so in a safe and protected process “

“We are grateful for everyone who bravely shared their stories, and we pray this process provided survivors with a measure of justice and healing,” said its statement.

The first report, issued in October 2019, examined the archives and personnel files of Colorado’s dioceses dating back 70 years.

Father Lawrence St. Peter is among other priests credibly accused of abuse. He became apostolic administrator of the Denver archdiocese in 1986 after the death of Archbishop James Casey, before future cardinal James Stafford took office. In his role as apostolic administrator and his previous role as vicar for clergy, he had access to personnel files.

The Colorado attorney general’s 2019 report on diocesan clergy sexual abuse said there is “strong circumstantial evidence” to confirm rumors that he used his access to destroy incriminating documents. The report cited a lack of abuse allegations and an absence of records of psychological treatment. The archdiocesan file lacked discussions of his “alcohol problems” and “homosexuality problems,” even though these were known by others in close contact with him.

Another prominent priest, the late Father James Beno, was a politician-priest who served in the state Senate for two terms from 1978-1986 as a Democrat from Pueblo. The reports indicate he was accused of sexually abusing at least four female victims from 1961 to 1974. One victim was as young as five years old, while another victim was a high school junior when the priest allegedly raped her.

As of Oct. 19, the three dioceses’ reparations and reconciliation program announced that $6.68 million had been paid to 73 victims of clerical abuse who were minors at the time the abuse occurred.

Denver’s Archbishop Aquila has previously invited Catholics to offer prayers and fasting for victims of sexual abuse on the first Friday of Lent.

 

Debate continues over who should get new COVID vaccines first

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 2, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- A federal health advisory committee proposed on Tuesday that health care workers and long-term care facility residents should be the first to receive a COVID vaccine, as a Catholic ethicist warned that vulnerable people, like the elderly, cannot be pushed to the back of the line.  

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) met virtually on Tuesday to discuss and vote on the “allocation of initial supplies of COVID-19 vaccine,” or who should be the very first to receive the vaccine.

The meeting occurred after pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, and Moderna, submitted their vaccine candidates for emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); the FDA is expected to grant authorization in early December.

Once the vaccine is approved and distributed, the CDC committee said on Tuesday that health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities should be among the first to receive it.

According to CDC working group co-lead Kathleen Dooling, residents and staff of long-term care facilities accounted for six percent of the COVID cases in the U.S., but 40% of the deaths. Skilled nursing facilities alone accounted for more than 69,000 deaths so far.

Vaccination of these populations is important, she said, because of the ethical policy of “maximizing benefits” while “minimizing harm,” protecting health care personnel, preserving health care capacity, preventing the spread of the virus among high-risk populations and easing the burden on hospitals.

Dr. Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, tweeted on Tuesday that it was “so important” for the committee to prioritize not only health care workers, but nursing home residents and staff. Camosy has written before that the neglect of care of the elderly in nursing homes—manifested in a “wildfire of infection and death” during the pandemic—is an element of the “throwaway culture” condemned by Pope Francis.

The “real challenge,” Camosy said, is determining who would receive the vaccine after the initial administration phase. Under the CDC group’s proposed “Phase 1b,” which the committee briefly discussed on Tuesday, “essential workers” would receive it, with vulnerable adults—the elderly and those with high-risk medical conditions—being next in line after them.

Camosy argued that the “sick and the elderly” who are not in nursing homes should be prioritized for the vaccine over younger, healthier “essential” workers.

In August, CNA discussed who should get a COVID vaccine first with an ethicist from the  National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“All of those who come into contact with many different people through their ordinary line of work, they would be first in line,” bioethicist Edward Furton told CNA. People in this group might include first responders, physicians, nurses, and other health care workers, police officers, and public transit employees.

On Wednesday, the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL) issued a statement calling on governors to follow the ACIP proposal putting nursing home residents and staff among the first in line for the vaccine.

“More than 100,000 long term care residents have died from this virus in the U.S. and our nursing homes are now experiencing the worst outbreak of new cases since last spring with more than 2,000 residents succumbing to this virus each week,” stated Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of AHCA/NCAL. 

Under the ACIP proposals discussed and voted on Tuesday afternoon, the first phase of vaccine allocation (1a) would target health care personnel at hospitals, outpatient clinics, public health services, and long-term care facilities.

Residents of the long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, assisted living centers, and other residential care facilities, would also be prioritized for a vaccine.

The next vaccine phase would target “essential workers,” who cannot work remotely. After that, vulnerable adults would be prioritized for a vaccine, or adults with high-risk medical conditions or seniors age 65 and over.

Within the first bracket, ACIP members discussed who should get a vaccine first in long-term care settings, or if both residents and staff should receive vaccines simultaneously.

Executive secretary Dr. Amanda Cohn said that most facilities might conduct vaccinations simultaneously, but some jurisdictions might vaccinate the personnel first because of supply issues.

Liaison representative Dr. Robert Gluckman endorsed the policy of vaccinating long-term care residents and staff simultaneously.

“If elderly are to be vaccinated,” he added, they would need guidance on any adverse effects or side effects of the vaccine.

The board members also discussed “sub-prioritization,” or who among health care workers should receive the vaccine first. There would be enough doses to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of December, members said, and sub-prioritization would be necessary earlier in the month when doses are still limited.

Those with direct patient contact who are unable to telework, such as those providing services or handling infectious materials in inpatient or outpatient settings, should possibly be prioritized, Dr. Sarah Oliver said in her presentation.

Long-term care personnel, and personnel without a known infection in the previous 90 days, should also be prioritized, Oliver said.

Next Buffalo bishop promises 'truth' and 'transparency'

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 1, 2020 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- The newly-announced next Bishop of Buffalo has promised to be a pastor who will promote transparency in the scandal-ridden New York diocese.

“In all things, I pledge to be truthful and transparent in the decisions that we will need to make,” said Bishop Michael Fisher, currently auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C. Fisher was announced as Pope Francis’ choice to lead the Diocese of Buffalo on December 1. 

Speaking at a Tuesday press conference, he promised “collaboration and consultation” with local Catholics.  

“I come to you as your new bishop. I am first and foremost your brother in faith,” he said. “I hope you will call me Bishop Mike.”

Fisher will be installed as Buffalo’s bishop on Jan. 15, 2021. The oldest of five children, he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990 and has served on the archdiocese’s administrative board, clergy personnel board, priest council, and priest retirement board.

He will take over a diocese rocked by recent revelations of clergy sex abuse, allegations of a cover-up and mishandling of abuse by former Bishop Richard Malone and Edward Grosz, a lawsuit by New York state, and ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.

Last week, the office of New York’s Attorney General published a 216-page report documenting the years-long failure by the diocese to abide by the standards of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in handling cases of alleged clergy sex abuse of minors.

In December, 2019, Bishop Malone announced that the pope had accepted resignation. That announcement followed an apostolic visitation ordered the Vatican to investigate his handling of clergy sex abuse. Malone’s former secretary had leaked audio of the bishop appearing to acknowledge the credibility of claims of sexual harassment and violation of the seal of Confession made against a diocesan priest months before that priest was removed from active ministry.

Malone’s former executive assistant also leaked diocesan records in 2018 that appeared to show the diocese working with its lawyers to conceal the names of some diocesan priests with credible claims of sex abuse from the public.

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany was appointed as interim leader of the diocese after Malone’s resignation. In January, he told members of the media that he was “not given” the results of the 2019 Vatican-ordered investigation into the diocese. He also said that he “was not sent with a particular mission.”

On Tuesday, when asked by WKBW if he would seek Vatican permission to publish the conclusions of the 2019 investigation into the diocese, Fisher said he had not seen the report yet.

“That is something that I will need to look at. Again, I’ve just been named today, and have not been given the details of those things yet,” he said.

“But I will be certainly delving into those issues, and hopefully with proper collaboration and consultation, can be able hopefully to make those kinds of decisions later.

Fisher also said that the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, did not bring up the problems of the diocese when asking him if he would accept Pope Francis’ appointment to Buffalo.

“In terms of going into any of the problems,” Fisher recalled, “he [Pierre] didn’t get into that.”

When asked about the Attorney General’s lawsuit against the diocese, filed last week, Fisher said that it was “very serious” and that a “zero tolerance policy for any abuse of children, for the sexual harassment of adults, needs to be taken seriously and followed.”

He was also asked about concerns that diocesan staff who allegedly helped cover up clergy sex abuse might still hold their positions. Fisher responded that he would have to “meet people” first.

Fisher said that his first priority as bishop “will be to get to know the parishes and its people.”

His other priorities, he said, will be to “get to know the priests and pastors,” and to “continue the healing, and work of renewing the faith in ministries of the diocese that Bishop Scharfenberger and so many other devoted parish leaders have begun.”

“I am well aware of the challenges we face,” he said, noting the current coronavirus pandemic, the diocese’s ongoing bankruptcy process, and the revelations of clergy sex abuse in recent years.

'Mary on the Mantel'? Think 'Elf on the Shelf', but Catholic 

Denver Newsroom, Dec 1, 2020 / 02:55 pm (CNA).- For the past 16 years, Elf on the Shelf has become a tradition, both hated and loved, for families in the days leading up to Christmas.

Based on a book and accompanying doll, the elf is a scout for Santa Claus, who watches children’s behavior during the day and reports back to the North Pole every night. There are rules about how to interact with the elf and a myriad of ideas for the things he can do.

Whether Elf on the Shelf is a “footless creep” or a beloved tradition, the concept sparked the idea for Mary on the Mantel, a traveling doll that aims help children enter more deeply into Advent.

Erica Tighe Campbell, founder of the Catholic lifestyle products company Be A Heart, was pregnant with her first child last year when she came up with the idea of creating a Mary doll.

“I was doing my baby registry, and..I saw a closet for a doll, and I thought, ‘What doll needs outfits?’” Campbell told CNA.

“Then I started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, wait, Mary has so many outfits in all of her different apparitions. What if there was a really beautiful Mary doll that looked like other things that are selling?’”

The outfits could help teach children about Mary and her messages in the different apparitions she has made, Campbell added.

“On feast days, you could talk about the different apparitions with your children by getting out her Guadalupe dress or getting out her Fatima dress, and recognizing that she is the same person, but she appears to us differently,” Campbell said.

Campbell said she wanted the doll to help foster a deeper relationship with Mary for children.

“I wanted my daughter to have a doll to teach her about the comfort that Mary brings,” she said.

“In my own life, Mary’s motherly love and care is what has brought me through so many difficult times. As a child, going through things with my family in high school, I would always turn to the Hail Mary, that was my go-to,” she said. “And as I've grown as a woman, I really look to her yes...saying yes to God, even when things are uncertain.”

Campbell made her first Mary doll this year, with a simple blue veil and linen dress, available in three different skin tones.

The idea to use the Mary dolls for “Mary on the Mantel” first came from her web developer, who is the father of four children. He suggested that Mary somehow replaced Elf on the Shelf.

Campbell started thinking of ways to tweak the idea of the traveling elf to better suit Advent, and about the ways Christians can prepare their hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

“Elf on the Shelf reports back to Santa if girls and boys are good or bad, and really in my own spiritual life, I have had to kind of undo that theology of ‘I'm good when I do this and I'm bad when I do this, and God is watching,’” Campbell said.

God is not like Santa, she said, in that he’s not a “transactional God, where as long as I'm doing good, then I will reap the rewards of a gift under the Christmas tree. In my own parenting, I didn’t want to pass that message along to my children.”

“And so I started conceptualizing: what could Mary do instead of being this watchful tattletale? That's going to create a friendship with her? How do we teach children to be friends with Mary?”

“I started thinking about what Mary was doing, even before they got the census announcement? She was probably preparing her house, preparing all of these things. She went on a trip to see Elizabeth. There are so many ways that we can recognize the personhood of Mary, and talk about that with our children - that she was a girl, she had normal daily tasks that she needed to do.”

In late November, Campbell posted to social media, announcing the idea for Mary on the Mantel - a Mary doll that would show up in different places around the house every morning of Advent.

Instead of Elf on the Shelf’s brand of mischief, Mary would be caught doing things to prepare for the coming of baby Jesus, like washing baby clothes, or reading a pregnancy book, or planning her journey to Bethlehem for the census.

“I have this image of Mary taking our hands and leading us to her Son, a little bit like how I imagine for my own self, having the baby and wanting people to meet her,” Campbell said.

“We get to prepare ourselves for Christmas, and putting up our Advent wreath and our Christmas tree and cleaning the house and wrapping presents - that is similar to our preparation. We prepare homes just as a mother prepares her home to welcome her new baby.”

Instead of reporting on the children’s bad behavior, every morning Mary would be found with a message encouraging children to do a specific act of kindness each day. The notes can be left in Mary’s tote bag, which comes with each ‘Be A Heart Mary’ doll.

“How do we really become like the people who are prepared to meet the baby Jesus in the manger? We can do acts of kindness for others,” Campbell said. Because the parents can write whatever message they want and place it in Mary’s bag, they can choose acts of kindness that are tailored to their child’s development and what they are capable of accomplishing.

“There are simple things to do. You could read a book to your sibling, or you could do a chore without being asked, or you could write letters to your grandparents, or call a friend, little things like that,” she said.

“Children could go through their toys and find toys that they don't play with that are still good, that could be donated to another child who needs them. But the parents are in control, so it doesn't get overwhelming.” Mary’s linen dress has room for paper towel or tissue stuffing to make her belly “grow,” Campbell added, as Christmas nears and she prepares to give birth.

And for parents struggling to come up with new ideas, Campbell’s blog post on the idea includes long lists of ideas of activities that the Mary doll can do, and ideas for age-appropriate acts of kindness.

The Mary on the Mantel project can be done with any Mary doll or figurine, Campbell added. After her Mary on the Mantel post, the Be A Heart dolls sold out, though Campbell is hoping to have more in stock soon.

Campbell is also planning the first dress for Mary, which will be the Our Lady of Guadalupe dress. And she has plans for a St. Joseph doll, a baby Jesus doll, a donkey for them to ride on, and more.

The Mary on the Mantel tradition also differs from Elf on the Shelf in that parents do not have to put Mary away once Christmas arrives, Campbell said. In fact, the Mary doll is meant to be a companion all year long.

“We really just think that journeying with Mary is an important way for children to enter into the Advent season,” Campbell said.

“It allows for something fun, and something that parents can do that's not super complicated, hopefully, and that kids can wake up and be excited for, and be excited about doing things for other people every day,” she said. “I'm interested to see what comes of it as people use their own imaginations with it.”

 

Pro-life candidate elected to Congress by six votes

CNA Staff, Dec 1, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- In one of the last results in the 2020 election to be called, another pro-life female candidate won election to the House of Representatives in Iowa’s 2nd district race certified on Monday.

Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks eked out victory over Democratic candidate Rita Hart by the narrowest of margins in the state’s southeast district, winning by only six votes as the election results were certified on Monday: 196,964 to 196,958.

Miller-Meeks’ victory marked took the Republicans’ net gains in the House to ten seats, narrowing the Democratic majority and raising hopes of stalling a slate of pro-abortion legislative priorities. She is the 18th new woman backed by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List (SBA Lits) to be elected to the House this cycle.

“The exponential growth of pro-life women in the House is reflective of the fact that life has gone from being viewed as a political problem to a winning issue,” said SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser on Monday.

With 11 pro-life women incumbents returning, Dannenfelser noted that 29 women identifying as pro-life will serve in the House come January, and will be “a brick wall against the radical pro-abortion agenda” that includes repealing the Hyde Amendment.

In an election where Democrats won the White House and gained at least one seat in the Senate, the party lost ground in the House while still maintaining control of the chamber. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi had suggested House Democrats could see double-digit gains in the elections, the reverse has proven to be the case.

SBA List-endorsed women were responsible for ten of eleven seats lost by Democrats. Another race in upstate New York’s 22nd district has yet to be called; as of Tuesday morning, Republican candidate Claudia Tenney held only a 12-vote lead over Democratic incumbent Rep. Anthony Brindisi, with votes yet to be certified, according to WBNG.

Speaker Pelosi has said she plans to scrap the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal tax dollars from funding abortions, next year. With a reduced majority in the House, it remains to be seen if she will be able to follow through on that promise. Democrats have also talked about passing the Equality Act, which would recognize sexual orientation and so-called gender identity as protected legal classes, and could expand abortions.

However, Republicans currently hold 50 seats in the Senate with two races going to a January runoff. If they win just one of those seats, they will maintain control of the chamber and could possibly nullify attempts to repeal the Hyde Amendment or pass the Equality Act.

SBA List has already announced a $4.1 million effort to elect the two Republican candidates in Georgia, aiming to reach one million voters through door-knocking, phone calls, digital ads, and voter mail.

Father George Rutler accused of sexual assault, denies allegation

Denver Newsroom, Dec 1, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).-  

A well-known New York City priest is maintaining his innocence amid an investigation into an allegation that he sexually assaulted a female security guard earlier this month.

Father George Rutler, pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan, on Nov. 20 voluntarily stepped aside from his pastoral duties, while prosecutors are investigating the allegations, the Archdiocese of New York told CNA.

Ashley Gonzalez, a 22-year-old security guard with MG Security Services, went public Nov. 26 with an allegation that Rutler forcibly groped her, after she had allegedly seen the priest, late at night, watching homosexual pornography on an office computer in the church rectory.

Rutler is the author of over 30 books and is a well-known public speaker and television commentator on EWTN.  He has also been a frequent contributor to the National Catholic Register. The archdiocese told News12 there have been no other allegations raised against Rutler in the past.

Gonzalez hired Manuel Gomez, a private detective and founder of Black Ops Private Investigators, to help her file a police report following the alleged incident.

Gomez told CNA that the alleged victim's family was familiar with work he had done on a previous case, and that family members had recommended that Gonzalez contact him before contacting police.

The alleged incident happened around 1:20am Nov. 4, Gomez said. He said Gonzalez contacted him at 2:45am asking for help, and that he helped her to file a police report that morning.

The alleged incident took place during Gonzalez’s second night on the job, Gomez said.

According to Gonzalez, Rutler had offered that she could sit in his office when she was not actively doing her rounds. Gonzalez had finished her first set of rounds at around 1:15am and was sitting in the office texting her mother when Rutler entered the office and greeted Gonzalez.

He then sat down at the computer and checked the ongoing General Election results, Gonzalez alleges, before beginning to watch a homosexual pornographic video. Gonzalez said she filmed Rutler with her cellphone as he did so.

In the video obtained by CNA, a bald-headed man— fully clothed and wearing a grey or black sweater or long sleeve shirt— can be seen from behind sitting at a desk in an office decorated with religious photographs and holy cards, watching a video depicting lewd homosexual acts on a desktop computer. CNA could not verify the identity of the man, whom Gonzales claims is Rutler.

Gonzalez alleges that as she tried to exit the office, Rutler stood and slammed the door shut, breaking one of her fingernails. She alleges that he then grabbed her chest before she escaped the office.

Gonzalez sent a text message to her mother telling her that she felt unsafe and claiming that she had “almost” been raped.

In a Nov. 20 letter to his parish, Rutler denied that he “improperly touched” Gonzalez, but said he has offered to “step aside at this moment from my duties” while authorities conduct their investigation.

He urged his parishioners to “ignore any misleading accounts should they appear in the media” and asked for prayers.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the New York archdiocese, told CNA that Rutler’s case is in the hands of the district attorney, and that Cardinal Dolan does not plan to open an archdiocesan investigation while the DA’s investigation is ongoing.

Zwilling reiterated that Rutler had “voluntarily stepped away from his duties as pastor.”  He said the archdiocese is “fully cooperating” with the district attorney’s office in its investigation.

The priest has apparently curtailed all public activity.

A spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office told CNA that the office does not confirm whether investigations exist, and declined to comment.

Gomez said he hopes Rutler will soon be brought into the DA's office for questioning, and added that he has forwarded all the evidence he has collected on Rutler's alleged misconduct, including the video allegedly taken by Gonzalez, to the archdiocese.

CNA attempted to contact Father Rutler at the Church of St. Michael to discuss the allegations, but did not receive a response.

A convert from Anglicanism, Rutler was appointed a Missionary of Mercy by Pope Francis in 2016.

 

Diocese of Pittsburgh announces its third round of parish mergers

CNA Staff, Nov 30, 2020 / 06:08 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Pittsburgh has announced that it will initiate its third round of parish mergers early next year, reducing its current 107 parishes to 81.

The mergers will take effect January 4, creating 14 groupings of parishes from 40 current parishes. The merger is the most recent step in the diocese’s “On Mission for The Church Alive” initiative.

“This is a pivotal time for our diocese as we plan for the future of the Church of Pittsburgh,” Bishop David Zubik said in a Nov. 28 statement.

“Southwestern Pennsylvania is radically different than it was 100, 50, 20, even 10 years ago, yet the work of the Church and our call from God to bring His love to everyone continues as strong as ever,” the bishop said.

“As we address the challenges we face in the Church today, the witness of working and growing together reflects the unity of the Body of Christ that is essential to our mission.”

Among others, the new parishes will include Mary, Queen of Peace, which brings together the parishes of Saint Mary of the Mount and Prince of Peace; and the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which brings together the parishes of Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Joseph, and Saint Margaret Mary.

Each merger is taking place following consultation with parishioners, and a request by the priest-administrator of each grouping, which was approved by the diocesan Priest Council and Vicars General.

The merger is the latest step in the “On Mission for The Church Alive” initiative, which is reorganizing what began as 188 parishes into what ultimately will be fewer than 60 parish groupings.

The diocese's strategic planning initiative began in 2015 in part as a response to declining Mass attendance, the financial struggles of some parishes, and fewer priests.

The situation was exacerbated by the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report, which detailed sexual abuse allegations in six of Pennsylvania's eight Latin-rite dioceses, including Pittsburgh. CBS Pittsburgh reported earlier this year that since the report's release, Mass attendance had dropped 9% and offertory donations declined 11%.

In a letter to parishioners, Zubik stressed that the mergers, while difficult, are necessary to strengthen the local Church’s ministries and make them more effective for the future.

“This has not been a simple task. Jesus never promised that it would be easy to carry his message of love and mercy to others. He was clear that sacrifice would be necessary,” the bishop said.

“However, you are positioning your new parish for more effective ministry by addressing financial needs, sharing resources and allowing your clergy to focus on the spiritual work for which they were ordained,” he continued. “With your faith in Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit, I invite you to warmly welcome and serve each other as you become one parish family.”