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La. diocese: priest cannot break seal of confession

Catholic News Agency—After the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a priest may have to testify about an alleged confession, the Diocese of Baton Rouge said that this demand “assaults” church teaching and is unconstitutional.

“The issue before the District Court, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and the Louisiana Supreme Court assaults the heart of a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic faith as relating to the absolute seal of sacred communications (Confession/Sacrament of Reconciliation),” said a July 7 statement from the diocese.

In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that the priest in question, Father Jeff Bayhi, may be subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding sexual abuse, and cannot invoke the privilege of confidentiality regarding an alleged confession made to him about sexual abuse by a young girl.

The diocese explained that a priest is under the gravest of obligations not to reveal the contents of a confession or if the confession even took place. He cannot do so even under threat of imprisonment or civil penalty and incurs automatic excommunication if he breaks the “seal of confession.”

“A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable,” the diocese stressed.

“Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal. Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him. If necessary, the priest would have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty and violate the seal of confession and his duty to the penitent.”

A state appeals court initially ruled that the alleged confession was “confidential” and thus Father Bayhi did not have to testify in court as to its alleged contents or whether it even took place.

However, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying that the seal of confession did not shield Father Bayhi from mandatory reporting laws.

Louisiana law states that a “member of the clergy” must report allegations of sexual abuse, except in the case of “confidential” conversations made in private “and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.” In addition, a priest “is presumed to have the authority to claim the privilege” of confidentiality “on behalf of the person or deceased person.”

The high court ruled that Father Bayhi can only invoke confidentiality if the girl refuses to disclose their conversation, and since she waived her confidentiality privilege, he is subject to the mandatory sexual abuse reporting laws.

By saying that a civil court can determine whether or not a confession took place, the court is in “clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States,” argued the diocese.

“This matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”

Hobby Lobby wins at Supreme Court

In an important ruling touching on religious liberty issues, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, which was challenging part of the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The court ruled 5-4 that the company cannot be forced to pay for employees' contraceptives.

Coverage of the ruling can be found at Catholic News Agency >>

Statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops >>

Statement from the Minnesota Catholic Conference >>

Supreme Court strikes down ‘buffer zones’ at abortion clinics

By Carol Zimmermann/Catholic News Service—In a June 26 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics — meant to keep demonstrators away — violates First Amendment rights.

The decision, a victory for pro-life groups, reversed an appellate court decision upholding a 2007 Massachusetts law that made it a crime for anyone other than clinic workers to stand within the yellow semicircular lines painted 35 feet from entrances of Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

Eleanor McCullen, lead plaintiff in the case, McCullen v. Coakley, said she should be able to speak and offer advice to women going to these clinics. McCullen, a 77-year-old who attends Mass at St. Ignatius Church at Boston College, said when the case was brought to the Supreme Court that she had helped many women decide against abortion.

The Supreme Court, in its opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the state law blocked public sidewalks that have been traditionally viewed as open for free speech. It also said the government’s ability to limit speech in those places is “very limited.”

The law in question was put in place in an attempt to prevent violent demonstrations or protests outside clinic entrances. It replaced a 2000 state law that kept protesters from approaching within 6 feet of a person who was within 18 feet of an abortion clinic — similar to a 2000 law in Colorado that the Supreme Court upheld that year.

The Supreme Court’s opinion distinguished protesters from those who “seek not merely to express their opposition to abortion, but to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.”

The court’s decision “has affirmed the American tradition of basic constitutional rights for all,” said Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

He said in a June 26 statement that the now-overturned legislation “reflects an ominous trend in our society” because it reveals how abortion supporters seek to deny Americans who “seek to protect the unborn” their right to freedom of speech and association as well as the “right to participate in the public square and serve the vulnerable in accord with our moral convictions.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had joined with other religious groups in filing an amicus, or friend of the court, brief for this case.

Tom Brejcha, president of the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm, used the words “fantastic, wonderful” and “great achievement” to describe the court’s decision.

Brejcha is familiar with the notion of buffer zones because his firm has defended pro-life advocates accused of violating Chicago’s “bubble-zone” law, which forbids picketers, protesters or counselors within 50 feet of the clinic entrance to approach clients within 8 feet to talk or give literature.

He said some of the passages of the court’s decision are “almost lyrical,” particularly when it describes how the plaintiff was “trying to communicate a peaceful message.”

He said the court’s opinion that sidewalk counselors are not necessarily protesters — but people who want to engage in one-on-one conversations — confirms the work they do, which he described as “conversations at the edge of an abyss.”

A group that was praying outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 26, also was pleased with the court’s decision.

“I’m very excited,” said Nancy Clark of Worcester, one of the plaintiffs in the case, “The Holy Spirit is slowly guiding us in the right direction.”

Mark Bashour, another plaintiff, has been doing sidewalk counseling in Worcester for 30 years. “Obviously I am very pleased,” he said. “Now we can get closer and they can hear us much better.

“It was a long, time-consuming three-year process taking the issue to the Supreme Court,” he said, “but by winning, now no other states will try to pass a law like this. It is very important.”

In a concurrence with the main opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia discusses what he sees as the court’s “onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence.” He was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Scalia observed that the court’s majority opinion “carries forward this court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents.”

He said that the opinion “has something for everyone,” and invalidating the law in question because it is inadequately tailored to circumstances is “certainly attractive to those of us who oppose an abortion-speech edition of the First Amendment.”

But the main part of the opinion moves toward creating a version of the First Amendment that applies only to speech about abortion, he said. By concluding that a statute like the one overturned is not content-based and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny under the law, “the court reaches out to decide that question unnecessarily,” Scalia wrote.

Scalia cited ways in which he says the main opinion singled out abortion-only speech in reaching its conclusion that the law was unconstitutional. And he concluded that although he agrees with what the court decided, he thinks it unnecessarily addressed the issue of whether the law was sufficiently narrowly tailored.

“The obvious purpose of the challenged portion of the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is to ‘protect’ prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks,” he said.

“The provision is thus unconstitutional root and branch and cannot be saved, as the majority suggests, by limiting its application to the single facility that has experienced the safety and access problems to which it is quite obviously not addressed,” he concluded.

Justice Samuel Alito also had a separate concurrence. In it he faulted the majority for concluding that the Massachusetts law is viewpoint neutral, but he nevertheless agreed that it is unconstitutional because it burdens free speech more than necessary to accommodate state interests.

Contributing to this report were Patricia Zapor in Washington and William T. Clew and Margaret M. Russell in Worcester.

IRS ordered to pay $50,000 to marriage defense group

Catholic News Agency/EWTN News—A federal court has ordered the IRS to pay $50,000 to the National Organization for Marriage due to the leak of confidential tax documents, but the organization has called for further investigation to determine the extent of the wrongdoing.

“Thanks to a lot of hard work, we’ve forced the IRS to admit that they in fact were the ones to break the law and wrongfully released this confidential information,” National Organization for Marriage chairman John Eastman said June 24.

National Organization for Marriage rally against same-sex marriage July 28, 2010, in St. Paul.
Credit: Fibonacci Blue via (CC BY 2.0)
National Organization for Marriage rally against same-sex marriage July 28, 2010, in St. Paul.

“While we are very pleased that the IRS has been exposed as being responsible for this leak of our confidential information to our political opponents, we believe the IRS may still be hiding information from the American people,” he added.

On June 23, a consent judgment issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sided with the pro-marriage organization’s lawsuit that sought to uncover suspected wrongdoing at the IRS.

The lawsuit concerned the disclosure of confidential documents in early 2012.

Around that time, Matthew Meisel, an activist in Boston, received the National Organization for Marriage’s 2008 tax return and a list of its major donors from a “conduit,” his e-mails showed. Some of the documents were labeled for official government use only.

Meisel then gave these records to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group at the time headed by Joe Solmonese, a co-chair of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential re-election campaign. The advocacy group published some of the documents, as did the Huffington Post.

The National Organization for Marriage, which supports marriage as a union of one man and one woman, qualifies as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. It is obliged to make public its tax returns, though not explicitly confidential portions such as donor lists.

The organization filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service in May 2013 saying that the Department of the Treasury’s inspector general, the Department of Justice and the IRS had been uncooperative in the investigation of how the documents became public.

In May 2013, Eastman said that the Human Rights Campaign had sought the National Organization for Marriage’s donor list “for a long time” so that others could “start harassing our donors and boycotting their businesses.”

At a legal deposition, Meisel invoked Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination and refused to say how he obtained the documents.

The National Organization for Marriage is now calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to grant immunity to Meisel in order to “force him to disclose the identity of his conduit.” The organization has also urged Congress to examine the case.

“It’s imperative that all those who have engaged in corrupt practices and illegal acts in the IRS be identified and held accountable,” Eastman said.

The National Organization for Marriage is also seeking an award of attorney fees to help defray the costs of litigation.

Community says farewell to murdered priest; suspect in attack arrested

By Joyce Coronel/Catholic News Service—Clergy, religious and laity jammed into St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Phoenix for a standing-room-only funeral Mass for Father Kenneth Walker June 16.

The 28-year-old priest was fatally injured June 11 in an attack at a different church, one that stands in the shadows of the state Capitol buildings. A second priest, Father Joseph Terra, 56, was critically injured.

Father Eric Flood, superior of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter religious order in North America, reads over the casket of Father Kenneth Walker during his funeral Mass June 16 at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Phoenix.
CNS photo/Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun
Father Eric Flood, superior of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter religious order in North America, reads over the casket of Father Kenneth Walker during his funeral Mass June 16 at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Phoenix.

Father Walker died at the hospital, and Father Terra was hospitalized in critical but stable condition. He has since been released from intensive care.

Phoenix police announced hours before the funeral Mass that they had a suspect in custody for the slaying and assault.

Gary Michael Moran, 54, a transient who was released from prison in April, was arrested June 15 at 9 p.m. at a psychiatric treatment center some four miles northwest of Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission, where the two priests served.

Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia said the attack on the two priests was a “horrific crime” and that the department felt an urgency to find the perpetrator.

Father Walker, a priest since 2012, was parochial vicar at Mater Misericordiae. Father Terra, a priest since 1989, was the pastor. Both were ordained for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

Garcia, along with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and other city officials, attended the funeral Mass prior to a noon news conference at police headquarters. Garcia noted that the Catholic community had “come together as a family to support each other” in the aftermath of the attack.

“I’m very pleased we were able to make this arrest,” Garcia said. “We wanted to bring closure as quickly as possible in this case.”

Moran has a long history of criminal activity, police say, including arrests for assault, burglary, prohibited possession of a weapon, theft of a vehicle and illegal drugs. He was released from jail in April after serving more than 85 percent of his sentence for burglary and aggravated assault.

The judge set Moran’s bail at $1 million in cash only.

At the time of his arrest, Moran was in a wheelchair, but police do not believe he is wheelchair-bound. According to police, Father Terra and Father Walker did not know Moran.

Garcia said there was no warrant out for Moran’s arrest, but that members of the community came forward via the Silent Witness program and offered information that led to the arrest.

Moran made admissions about the attack on the priests during his interrogation by detectives but ultimately invoked his right to an attorney.

“We believe this was a crime of opportunity,” Garcia said.

Father Terra, police said, heard a noise outside the rectory and opened the door to investigate, only to be attacked. Father Walker heard the melee and came from his room. That’s when the suspect allegedly shot him.

Police say that Father Terra was beaten with an angled iron during the assault and that the gun used in the murder belonged to Father Terra. Moran was able to overpower Father Terra and take the weapon from him.

At the funeral Mass, Father Eric Flood, the North American superior of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, spoke about Father Walker’s love of celebrating Mass.

“If someone were to ask him if he would still want to be priest if he knew he would someday be killed, he would probably say yes,” Father Flood said, “even to say Mass just once.”

He also offered what he said would be Father Walker’s advice to the killer.

“His advice would probably be that he should grow in his friendship with God. Father Walker would say that there was a thief crucified alongside Christ, and our Lord turned to him and said, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise,’” Father Flood said.

Father Terra, despite his severe injuries, was able to attend the Mass where he sat in a wheelchair near the altar. His arms were bandaged and he kept his head lowered throughout the service that was celebrated in Latin. Mass at Mater Misericordiae is celebrated in the extraordinary form, commonly known as the Tridentine rite.

Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted offered his condolences to the community over the loss of Father Walker.

“His two years of being a priest were a blessing to all of us,” Bishop Olmsted said.

He also spoke to the many priests in the congregation.

“We feel a great fraternal love and great closeness to one another as we work together to serve Christ and his church,” Bishop Olmsted said. “We’ve lost a beloved brother.”

Despite the tragic loss, Bishop Olmsted offered words of hope. Jesus, by his resurrection, overcame death, the bishop said. Christ is not only the perfect high priest, he also is the innocent victim, just as Father Walker was an innocent victim of a violent crime.

“He fell asleep in Christ and awaked into the loving arms of his Savior, and with that hope we go forward honoring him and seeking ourselves to be faithful followers of Christ,” Bishop Olmsted said.

At the news conference held at police headquarters, Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski said he believed Father Walker would want the community to come up with a plan to help those recently released from prison to reintegrate into society. Moran was splitting the time since his arrest between living on the streets and in shelters.

Coronel is interim managing editor at The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Phoenix Diocese.

Sudanese woman sentenced to death re-arrested

Elise Harris/Catholic News Agency—After having her death sentence for refusing to renounce her Christian faith revoked by the Sudanese court yesterday, Meriam Ibrahim has been re-arrested along with her husband at an airport.

According to BBC, about 40 security officers detained Ibrahim along with her husband, Daniel Wani, and their two children Tuesday at an airport in Sudan’s capitol while attempting to leave the country.

Meriam Ibrahim is pictured in this undated image with her husband Daniel Wani.

Catholic News AgencyMeriam Ibrahim is pictured in this undated image
with her husband Daniel Wani.

Further details regarding the reasons why the couple were arrested have not been made available.

The arrest follows Ibrahim’s release from prison Monday after an appeals court dismissed her death sentence.

In May, the 27-year-old woman had been charged with abandoning Islam under Sudanese law. Because her father was a Muslim, Ibrahim was legally considered a Muslim even though her mother raised her as a Christian after her father left the family when she was 6 years old.

Despite pressure and multiple death threats, Ibrahim refused to renounce her Christian faith while in prison.

Her husband, Daniel Wani, told the BBC Monday that he was looking forward to seeing his wife and wanted his family to leave Sudan as soon as possible.

The couple’s young son Martin has lived in prison with his mother since February. Ibrahim gave birth to their second child, a baby girl, while in prison in May.

Besides the crime of apostasy — or the abandoning of the Islamic faith — Ibrahim was also charged with adultery. Her marriage to her Christian husband was not considered valid since she was considered a Muslim.

She was to receive 100 lashes for the adultery charge and was sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy.

Fortnight for Freedom

Fortnight Graphic

For the third year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is hosting the Fortnight for Freedom, this year focusing on the Freedom to Serve — for the right of Christians to help those in need in accord with their consciences. More resources are available from the USCCB. Read more >>

Vatican theologians acknowledge Archbishop Sheen miracle

Catholic News Agency/EWTN News—Beloved media personality Archbishop Fulton Sheen is one step closer to beatification after a panel of Vatican theologians unanimously recognized the miraculous recovery of a stillborn baby attributed to Sheen’s intercession.

The Diocese of Peoria said June 17 that its bishop, Daniel Jenky, was informed of the decision by the seven-member theological commission that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

A medical panel advising the congregation had in March unanimously ruled that there is no medical explanation for the baby’s recovery.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen
Catholic News Agency
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who died in 1979 and whose cause for beatification is open.

The congregation’s cardinals and bishops will now review the case. If they and Pope Francis approve, Archbishop Sheen could then be beatified.

The miracle involves the unexplained recovery of James Fulton Engstrom, a boy apparently stillborn in September 2010 to Bonnie and Travis Engstrom of the Peoria-area town of Goodfield. Engstrom showed no signs of life as medical professionals tried to revive him. The child’s mother and father prayed to Archbishop Sheen to heal their son.

Although the baby showed no pulse for an hour after his birth, his heart started beating again, and he escaped serious medical problems.

Archbishop Sheen became a popular radio personality in the 1930s, teaching about the Catholic faith. He went on to host the Emmy-award winning television show “Life is Worth Living” and several other television shows, reaching millions of television viewers in the 1950s and 1960s.

He authored many books, whose profits he dedicated to serving foreign missions, health clinics, orphanages and schools.

Archbishop Sheen has roots in the Peoria Diocese: he was born in El Paso, 32 miles east of the cathedral city, in 1895.

His family moved to Peoria, and he grew up in the parish of the Cathedral of St. Mary, where he was an altar boy. He was ordained a priest at the cathedral in 1919.

He served as a professor at the Catholic University of America and headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the United States. He was an auxiliary bishop of New York, and Bishop of Rochester.

He was a leading figure in U.S. Catholicism until his death in 1979 at the age of 84.

Bishop Jenky opened Archbishop Sheen’s cause for sainthood in 2002. In June 2012 Pope Benedict XVI recognized Archbishop Sheen as having heroic virtues, giving him the title “Servant of God.”

The Diocese of Peoria said it is not known when further action on Archbishop Sheen’s cause will be taken.

If Pope Francis approves of his cause, the beatification ceremony for Archbishop Sheen could be celebrated in Peoria.

Another recognized miracle attributed to Sheen would lead to his canonization.

Statement regarding Father Timothy Backous, OSB

June 11, 2014

Statement of Father James Bissonette, vicar general, Diocese of Duluth:

“We’ve just become aware of the allegations concerning Father Timothy Backous, OSB, a priest of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, and an incident with a minor that is alleged to have occurred in 1990. To our knowledge, Father Backous has carried out his duties here — assisting at St. Michael’s parish, Duluth, on weekends — in an exemplary manner and consistent with his vows and responsibilities. Nonetheless, we take such matters extremely seriously and have asked Father Backous to suspend his weekend work at the parish until a fuller examination of the facts can be completed.”

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Sacred Heart devotion

Sacred HeartThe month of June traditionally includes devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the month in which the devotion is celebrated in the liturgy (June 27). Devotion to the Sacred Heart also takes place in the first Friday of each month.

You can find more information on the Sacred Heart devotion in the June issue of The Northern Cross. Here is another resource, a devotional page provided by the Eternal Word Television Network.