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Harrisburg bishop bows out of anti-death penalty event featuring Sr. Helen Prejean

NCR Staff

Opponents of capital punishment in central Pennsylvania were thrilled to snare Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, as speaker for a recent program in Harrisburg.

Her name all but a household word since Susan Sarandon got an Oscar last year for dramatizing her ministry, Prejean has touched millions with her crusade against state-sponsored executions.

Catholics on the program committee viewed the event not only as a great boost to their abolitionist cause, but also as an opportunity for Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo of Harrisburg to underscore the church's anti-death penalty stance.

Datillo thought otherwise.

According to Donald Mayhew, a Catholic who invited Prejean to speak, Datillo said through his vicar general, Msgr. James M. Lyons, that he was unwilling to participate. Lyons said the bishop had based his decision on his reading of an article about Prejean that was published in Our Sunday Visitor last April. Datillo had two concerns, Lyons said: that Prejean might be soft on abortion and might depart from official church teaching in a book she is writing about women in the church. Lyons told Mayhew that the bishop would therefore be "uncomfortable" appearing with the famous nun.

Datillo's secretary for communications, Fr. T. Ronald Haney, told NCR that the problem wasn't so much that the bishop thought Prejean was "soft on abortion" as it was that he just couldn't tell from the article where she stood. As for her writing on women's roles, "We're not quite sure where she's going to come down in that book," Haney said.

Haney said the bishop had made no effort to clarify the issues with Prejean before making the decision to decline.

"It's a case where the bishop felt it would be more prudent not to be there than to be there, in case something came up that would be embarrassing for sister and the bishop at the same time," Haney said. He noted that the main concern was over a question and answer period scheduled to follow her talk.

"If something about abortion came up, or whatever she is writing, it could be embarrassing for either one of them," Haney said. "I don't think it's any reflection on the bishop's commitment to the issue. I just think it's a decision based on trying to weigh whether there's any concern about anything else, and not wanting to detract from what she was here to talk about. The bishop has no problem with Sister Helen's stand on capital punishment. He is 100 percent behind her on that."

Mayhew said Catholics in his organization were stunned by Datillo's stance. Mayhew, who lives in Carlisle, Pa., is a member of the Capital Area Chapter of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the interfaith group that invited Prejean to speak.

"It's almost incomprehensible to me," Mayhew said. "The shepherds are supposed to enfold the people rather than exclude them. It's so very sad."

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's Catholic bishops, was asked to cosponsor the program and also declined, giving as their reason that it was a local, not a statewide event.

As a result, sponsors of Prejean's talk were the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and two Protestant counterparts to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference: the United Methodist Witness and Lutheran Advocacy Ministry. Catholic sponsorship was limited to four individual parishes in the area, supporters said.

Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, was introduced by St. Joseph Sr. Mary Elizabeth Clark of the Harrisburg area.

The event was successful beyond organizers' dreams, Mayhew said, drawing several hundred more people than the hoped-for 500. The organization added some 500 new names to its mailing list, he said. He said the diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Witness, had given good coverage to Prejean's talk.

Mayhew, who was converted to the abolitionist cause about three years ago when a friend gave him Prejean's book, said he wants to move on and remain focused on his organization's goal. Judy Robinson, spokeswoman for the anti-death penalty group that sponsored Prejean's talk, said that Datillo's decision "doesn't mean we don't have the support of the diocese. I think we clearly do." The group issued a statement to NCR saying that it "recognizes ... clear solidarity with Bishop Datillo in our common goal to abolish the death penalty."

Carolyn Perpetua, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said Datillo had joined 16 other Catholic bishops in Pennsylvania in signing a statement that labels capital punishment "unnecessary and inappropriate" in the United States today.

St. Joseph Sr. Margaret Maggio, Prejean's assistant in New Orleans, said Prejean, who has speaking engagements booked through the end of the year, had no comment on events in Harrisburg. "She is for life across the board, the seamless garment," Maggio said. "She doesn't want to keep debating and defending herself on these issues. She will write her book about the struggle for equality for women in the church, and then she'll debate it. That's her response."

The article about Prejean in Our Sunday Visitor was written by Robert Holton, a senior correspondent, based on an interview with her. Holton led off with Prejean's views on abortion.

"Sister Prejean indicated that while she is adamant about not taking human life when it comes to executing prisoners, she has an at best strained appreciation for the church's teachings on the sanctity of unborn life, on birth control, and thinks the church is 'appallingly' unfair to women," Holton wrote. The subhead on the article read, "Why the nun behind Dead Man Walking has a hard time seeing abortion clinics as another kind of death row."

Prejean told Holton that she regards abortion as "much more complex than a mere choice."

According to Holton, she said, "I think for us really to answer the abortion question so that women don't have them, we really have to look seriously at the whole thing of birth control, family planning and not having unwanted pregnancies."

She also said, "If Jesus Christ were here today, he'd be embracing and comforting women who had abortions. ... Jesus would be on the side of gays. He would be with all the marginalized people, who other people are condemning, to show his compassion for them."

In a sidebar, Holton reported that Prejean is writing a book that "she hopes will shore up the growing demands of women" for a larger role in the church. "Of course women aren't getting a fair shake in the church today," Holton quoted her as saying. "When you have a theology that says men only can represent Christ, we have something seriously wrong."

In an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Prejean emphasized that she is "for life," including "life in its most vulnerable forms ... life on the way, children trying to get born." She added that her support for life also puts her "on the side of women" making difficult choices "for life."

Despite the rebuff in Harrisburg, Prejean has received considerable support from Catholic universities and organizations. For example, the University of Notre Dame gave her its Laetare Medal, Catholic Charities gave her its Vision 2000 Award and Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace organization, honored her.

Last September when she spoke in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Va., she was introduced by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan.

Haney, the bishop's communications secretary, said diocesan officials in Harrisburg attended the event. "We had at least five diocesan officials present" at Prejean's talk "as participants, not as censors or anything like that," he said. He added that he has personally protested capital punishment by attending a prayer service in front of the home of Gov. Thomas Ridge.

Since Ridge took office in 1995, executions have been reinstated, ending a 33-year hiatus in Pennsylvania. Ridge has signed 70 death warrants, and two men have been executed, according to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Still, Mayhew said he worries that the Catholic clergy in the Harrisburg diocese are generally soft on capital punishment. Datillo opposes the death penalty "on paper," Mayhew said, but doesn't push the issue. "There's not much emphasis on it," he said. "Hardly ever do we hear anything about capital punishment from the pulpit."

"What hurts is that our bishop missed this wonderful opportunity to affirm what the Holy Father has said against the death penalty, what the U.S. bishops have said, and the Pennsylvania bishops have said -- that it's wrong, immoral."

In her interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Prejean said the issue definitely needs stronger emphasis from the church's hierarchy, starting with the pope.

Although Pope John Paul II has often spoken against the death penalty, and pressed for reprieves in individual cases, Prejean said she was deeply disappointed with his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, where he wrote that the death penalty should be used only "in cases of absolute necessity." The pope went on to say that such cases should be very rare, but Prejean thinks he was wrong to leave a loophole.

Another staunch opponent of the death penalty, Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo of Queens, N.Y., said Prejean's treatment by the Harrisburg bishop "is the clearest sign that she is a prophet. With her storytelling, her recounting of her own experience, of her position, arrived at through faith, she is fulfilling a function that nobody is doing as well. Her voice should not be silenced, it should be affirmed."

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1997