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Justice Department weighs in on Kentucky religious freedom case

Washington D.C., Feb 28, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- The Department of Justice on Thursday registered its support for the religious freedom case of a Kentucky photographer in a lawsuit over a city anti-discrimination ordinance.

“The central question presented in this case is whether the government can compel a wedding photographer to photograph, provide photography editing services for, and blog about weddings of which she does not approve, and does not wish to photograph or to promote,” the Justice Department (DOJ) said in a statement of interest in the case filed on Thursday. 

“The answer is no,” the Justice Department concluded.

The case of photographer Chelsey Nelson is currently before a federal district court in Kentucky. Nelson, a photographer with her own business, sued the city government of Louisville over an ordinance she says would compel her to violate her religious beliefs and serve certain types of weddings, including same-sex weddings.

“Ms. Nelson has a practice of ‘declin[ing] requests for wedding celebration and boutique editing services if the request required [her] to use [her] artistic talents to promote or positively portray anything immoral, dishonorable to God, or contrary to [her] religious beliefs’,” the DOJ stated.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Nelson, applauded the DOJ’s statement on Friday.

“Chelsey serves all people. But the Louisville government is trying to compel Chelsey’s speech, force her participation in ceremonies she objects to, and eliminate her editorial control over her photographs and blogs,” ADF senior counsel Jonathan Scruggs stated Feb. 28.

The “Metro Ordinance” in question, of Louisville city and Jefferson County, Kentucky, is an anti-discrimination ordinance for businesses and other places of “public accommodation, resort, or amusement.” Two of the protected categories under the law are “sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Under the law, businesses cannot deny goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as other classes, nor can they post notices saying they could do so.

Nelson filed a complaint over the ordinance, saying that the city “is using the threat of limitless damages, compliance reports, posting of notices, and court orders” to compel business owners like her to “participate in solemn ceremonies she disagrees with—same-sex wedding ceremonies.”

The Metro Ordinance is an unconstitutional violation of free expression, DOJ argued.

“Photography,” the DOJ said, “is an expressive art form,” including at a wedding where the “photographer makes numerous artistic and viewpoint-based judgments” through which “to convey meaning and ideas through photography and editing.”

To compel a photographer “to create expression for and to participate in a ceremony that violates her sincerely held religious beliefs invades her First Amendment rights in a manner akin to the governmental intrusion in Hurley,” the DOJ said, referencing the 1995 case of Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc.

Scruggs said that he hopes the Supreme Court will take up the similar case of Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman in Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington as a companion to the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which concerns the city’s decision to sever ties with Catholic Social Services over access to foster placement for same-sex couples.

Stutzman has appealed to the Supreme Court for a second time after the Washington state supreme court again ruled against her early in 2019. She had been sued by the ACLU and the state for declining to serve a same-sex wedding.

“Without the Supreme Court’s intervention in Barronelle’s case,” Scruggs said, “state and local government officials will continue to threaten sincere people of faith like Barronelle and Chelsey with severe penalties for living out their beliefs in the public square.”

Last year, the Kentucky state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Christian business owner who declined to serve an LGBT pride festival, and who was punished by a local government for discrimination.

Some Kansas nuns urge Medicaid expansion despite risk of taxpayer-funded abortions

Topeka, Kansas, Feb 28, 2020 / 02:41 pm (CNA).- Despite cautioning from the Kansas Catholic Conference that Medicaid expansion in the state could lead to more state-funded abortions, a group of 76 nuns in the state have signed a petition urging lawmakers to go ahead with the expansion as soon as possible.

“Expanding KanCare [Medicaid in Kansas] is a lifesaving measure,” the nuns wrote Feb. 25.

“Expansion increases access to high-quality care for those who would otherwise go without healthcare. We implore you to approve Medicaid expansion, because we cannot wait any longer to give Kansans the care they so desperately need.”

The nuns insisted that the Kansas legislature “listen to the will of the voters and pass Medicaid expansion without any strings attached.”

“It is morally unconscionable to play political games with the lives of Kansans, especially children, seniors, and people with disabilities,” the nuns wrote.

NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, a national group and longtime supporter of Medicaid expansion, coordinated the letter.

There are currently an estimated 400,000 people enrolled in Medicaid in Kansas. The Medicaid expansion bill currently under consideration would extend eligibility to an additional 130,000 low-income adults and children, the Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

Then-governor Sam Brownback vetoed Medicaid expansion in 2017, citing the budget crisis the state was experiencing at the time. The state’s new governor, Democrat Laura Kelly, made Medicaid expansion a key issue in her 2018 campaign.

The Kansas Catholic Conference, while supporting Medicaid expansion in the state, has expressly supported a constitutional amendment stating that abortion is not a “natural” constitutional right in Kansas – known as the “Value Them Both” amendment – as a precondition.

Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, told CNA in an interview that she believes Kansas already has adequate protection against state funding for abortion without the proposed constitutional amendment. The letter makes no mention of abortion.

The impetus for the amendment is an April 2019 ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court blocking a law that would have banned dilation and evacuation abortions, which found that the state consitution protects a women’s right to have an abortion.

In light of the ruling, Republican lawmakers in the state are pushing for a constitutional amendment to ensure Medicaid funds do not go to elective abortions. The amendment has so far failed to garner the two-thirds majority support necessary in the state House.

The proposed amendment would condify that “the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion.” Should the amendment gain support from two-thirds of the Kansas House, the subsequent referendum would take place during the state primaries in August.

Campbell pointed out that there is currently a Kansas statute on the books prohibiting state dollars being used for abortions.

While other states, such as California and Illinois, have chosen to use state dollars to fund abortions, "the state of Kansas hasn't chosen to do it."

"I'm not sure why they're so worried about this," she said.

"I think there's adequate protection already. Let's get Kansans the healthcare they need and stop the political posturing...Let's get people healthcare, and then let's see if there's even this risk that [the KCC] is afraid of.”

For his part, Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, remains adamant that the idea that Kansas could soon use state money to pay for elective abortions is not as far-fetched as Campell would have people believe.

The federal Hyde Amendment bars federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

At least 16 states,  not including Kansas, currently use their own funds to pay for additional abortions outside of those conditions.

According to records from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Medicaid in Kansas covered one abortion in 2014 and three in 2018, KCUR reported.

Despite this, pro-life advocates have noted that limits on publicly funded abortion through state Medicaid programs have been struck down by the state supreme courts of Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey, and overall, nine state Medicaid programs now cover elective abortions as the result of judicial rulings, according to National Review.

“It is disingenuous to put on political blinders and ignore the other elephant in the room so closely connected to this issue,” Weber said in an email to CNA.

“If Kansas passes Medicaid Expansion without the protection of the state constitutional amendment … then we are virtually assuring that taxpayer-funded abortion will become a reality in Kansas.”

The Special Committee on Medicaid Expansion, a joint House and Senate panel, held two days of hearings discussing an expansion of KanCare during November 2019.

Weber said in his Nov. 12 testimony that the conference cannot support Medicaid expansion unless it explicitly excludes the expansion of abortion coverage, includes conscience protections for healthcare organizations and individuals, and the state constitutional amendment is enacted to clarify that abortion is not a natural right.

Weber told CNA on Thursday that the KCC has contacted NETWORK to ask: “Why not help legislators to pass Value Them Both, which will then open the logjam to Medicaid Expansion in Kansas?”

“This is the authentically Catholic position, a classic win-win that helps save babies, protect women and provide healthcare to families,” Weber said.

For her part, Campbell reiterated to CNA that she sees the risk of Kansas taxpayer-funded abortions as small, and that for her “the urgency now is getting people healthcare."

"For me, what I see the Kansas [Catholic] Conference doing is stopping care for everybody else because they have a fear of what the Supreme Court might do. And this is anguish in my heart. We gotta care for the born, also. So let's deal with the born. Let's get 'em healthcare.”

Sr. Campbell has led the “Nuns on the Bus” advocacy campaign that has the support of the group Faith in Public Life and U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. She also delivered a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

NETWORK has, in the past, disagreed with the USCCB on support for various legislative efforts, including the extent to which the Affordable Care Act adequately forbade federal funding for abortion.

NETWORK also found itself at odds with the USCCB when it came out in support of the 2019 Equality Act, which has passed in the House, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the definition of "sex" in federal civil rights laws.

South Sudan security concerns remain high as peace process takes a step forward

Juba, South Sudan, Feb 28, 2020 / 02:17 pm (CNA).- After a newly formed unity government for South Sudan was sworn in last week, security concerns in the world’s newest country remain high, posing challenges for Pope Francis’ desired papal trip.

“Even with the national-level conflict right now under a ceasefire, there’s a lot of violence around the country,” a senior State Department official stationed in Juba said Feb. 26.

“It’s still a dangerous place, but it’s better than it had been during the open conflict,” he said.

South Sudan remains among the 14 countries on the US State Department’s Do Not Travel Level 4 advisory due to violent crime – including shootings, ambushes, assaults, robberies and kidnappings. The country continues to be one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian aid workers during the fragile peace process.

A UN report published Feb. 20 documented widespread and pervasive sexual violence, a remaining problem in South Sudan following conflict-related sexual violence during the civil war.

Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to visit South Sudan, along with Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Chalmers, the former moderator of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. A prior trip to the war torn country with Welby was cancelled in 2017 due to security concerns.

On. Feb 22, former rebel leader Riek Machar was sworn in as South Sudan’s vice president, along with three other lower ranking vice-presidents, to lead alongside President Salva Kiir in the formation of a coalition government under the peace plan.

“We appreciate the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for his prayers and his request for peace for South Sudan. With this important ceremony today, we certainly listened to him and we are proud to be able to announce that we have reconciled,” Kiir said Feb. 22.

The president also thanked the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio for bringing opposition leadership to Rome in January for dialogue to further the peace process.

A photo of Pope Francis kissing the feet of Kiir and Machar at the Vatican last year was presented at the ceremony for the formation of the unity government.

It was the third time opposition leader Machar was sworn in as South Sudan’s vice president in South Sudan’s short history as a country.

Bishops in South Sudan are now calling on this new coalition government to maintain peace.

“The priority should be to maintain peace and not to seek positions of power out of greed for material gain. The government needs to look towards the needs of the people who are fed up with war,” Bishop Erkolano Lodu Tombe of Yei told ACI Africa Feb. 26.

The State Department official in Juba commented, “Everyone’s looking to see: Will this new unity government work? Will it remain an inclusive and unified government?”

People in South Sudan continue to face serious humanitarian concerns, exacerbated by government corruption, locust swarms, and floods in October that destroyed crops and livestock.

The report by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated “deliberate starvation” and corruption have been a “hallmarks” of the South Sudan conflict. It found that 55% of the population face acute food insecurity “due to the deliberate policy of preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians by different parties to the conflict.”

“Deliberate starvation is clearly occurring along ethnic and political lines, in an effort to marginalize dissident communities as well as those too disenfranchised to challenge the status quo because their day-to-day lives revolve around basic survival,” Commissioner Andrew Clapham said.

South Sudan’s five-year civil war began shortly after the South Sudan gained independence in 2011 with fighting primarily between forces loyal to Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar.

The war killed hundreds of thousands of people and left 2.1 million people internally displaced, with another 2.5 refugees, according to the United Nations.

“Everybody, even children are crying for peace. We are fed up with war and now all we want is peace. Please don’t return us to war,” Bishop Tombe said Feb. 26.

Klobuchar open to pro-life votes, not pro-life laws

Raleigh, N.C., Feb 28, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar would not say when she believes life begins when asked during a townhall event on Thursday evening. While repeating her openness to pro-life support, the senator explained that she is against proposed restrictions on abortion.

Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.), appearing at a townhall hosted by Fox News in Raleigh, North Carolina, was asked by moderator Martha MacCallum “At what point do you believe that life begins?” The senator had just explained her opposition to a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, proposed in the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act which failed in the Senate this week.

“Again, I follow Roe v. Wade,” Klobuchar responded to the question on when life begins. “And what Roe v. Wade allows for is the protection of a woman’s decision to make a decision about her own life, and then of course by the third trimester there’s some limits on it.”

The Thursday evening event was held ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic Primary, and next week’s “Super Tuesday” polls, in which more than a dozen states around the country will vote for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Klobuchar has a pro-abortion record in the U.S. Senate, and supports taxpayer-funded abortion and the codification of Roe v. Wade in federal law. Despite these positions, earlier this month the senator attempted to distance herself from other Democratic candidates and said there was a place in the Democratic party for pro-life voters. Klobuchar offered to collaborate with other pro-life supporters to reduce the number of abortions.

On Thursday, she reiterated that she would welcome pro-life Democrat support but emphasized that “I am strongly pro-choice” and “I always have been.” She also affirmed her support for taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

In 2019, the Trump administration finalized a rule clarifying that recipients of federal Title X family planning funds could not co-locate with abortion clinics, nor could they refer for abortions. Rather than comply with the new regulations, Planned Parenthood—the nation’s largest abortion provider—announced its withdrawal from the program.

The initial question to Klobuchar during the townhall came from Suzanne Balik, a computer science professor at N.C. State University speaking in her personal capacity as a “Democrat who cares about all life, including the unborn.”

“There are 21 million Democratic voters like me who believe in protection for unborn children,” she said to Klobuchar. “Do you think the Democratic Party should allow pro-life candidates to run for office, and if so, what steps would you take to include pro-life Democrats in the party?”

Klobuchar answered that “there’s a place in our party for a pro-life Democrat, there’s also a place in my support for pro-choice Republicans.”

However, she clarified, “I [would] be a pro-choice president.”

MacCallum brought up the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks based on when the unborn child can feel pain. The bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) fell seven votes short of the 60-vote threshold to be considered for passage this week.

Klobuchar, who was not in Washington, D.C. for this week’s vote, said that she would have joined the Democrats in stopping the bill. Only two Democratic senators voted to allow the bill to progress: Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

“Roe v Wade is now the law of the land, and a lot of these bills are attempts to change that,” Klobuchar said. “If I was president, I would work with Congress to actually try to codify Roe v. Wade into law.”

The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List criticized Klobuchar’s answer, in a series of tweets on Friday.

“You can’t have it both ways, AmyKlobuchar,” the group’s Twitter account stated. “You claim there *is* room in the Democratic Party for ProLife Americans. But you can’t/won’t say when life begins. You voted NO on medical care for living, breathing babies. Why would any ProLife American vote for you?”

The senator voted against legislation in 2019 that would require that babies who survive botched abortion attempts be given the same standard of care as any other infants born at the same gestational age, and be admitted to a hospital. The bill would also have levied penalties on a doctor or health care worker who failed to provide that care. The Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act would not punish the mother. 

SBA List said Klobuchar “hid behind the smokescreen of Roe v. Wade” in “claiming that it restricts abortion in the 3rd trimester.”

“It does nothing of the sort, and she knows it,” the group said.

While the Supreme Court’s Roe ruling allowed for restrictions on abortions past the point of fetal “viability,” the court’s “companion” ruling to Roe, the 1973 Supreme Court decision Doe v. Bolton, said that psychological and emotional health exceptions for the mother must be part of any post-viability restriction on abortion.

“This huge loophole ensures that in reality there are no real enforceable bans on even 3rd trimester abortions allowed under Roe & subsequent cases,” the group stated.

“Here’s the bottom line on Klobuchar: she is no moderate. She supports abortion-on-demand, all the way to birth, paid for by the taxpayer. Unless she flip-flops again, she doesn’t think there’s any room for pro-life Dems in the Party,” SBA List stated.

Pontifical Academy for Life, tech companies, call for ethical use of AI technology

Vatican City, Feb 28, 2020 / 12:19 pm (CNA).- The Pontifical Academy for Life signed Friday, alongside presidents of IBM and Microsoft, a call for ethical and responsible use of artificial intelligence technologies.

According to the document, “the sponsors of the call express their desire to work together, in this context and at a national and international level, to promote ‘algor-ethics.’”

“Algor-ethics,” according to the text, is the ethical use of artificial intelligence according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

The signing of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics” took place as part of the 2020 assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was held Feb. 26-28 on the theme of artificial intelligence.

One part of the assembly was dedicated to private meetings of the academics of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The second was a workshop on AI and ethics that drew 356 participants from 41 countries.

On the morning of Feb. 28, a public event took place called “renAIssance. For a Humanistic Artificial Intelligence” and included the signing of the AI document by Microsoft President Brad Smith, and IBM Executive Vice-president John Kelly III.

The Director General of FAO, Dongyu Qu, and politician Paola Pisano, representing the Italian government, also signed.

The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, was also present Feb. 28.

Pope Francis canceled his scheduled appearance at the event due to feeling unwell. His prepared remarks were read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Academy for Life.

In his remarks, the pope said the aim of the ethical development of algorithms is to ensure a review of “the processes by which we integrate relationships between human beings and today’s technology.”

The Church’s social teaching on the dignity of the person, justice, subsidiarity, and solidarity is a critical contribution in the pursuit of these goals, he said.

Training is not enough, Francis argued, adding that new technologies are not “neutral” as instruments or tools.

According to the pope, “the complexity of the technological world demands of us an increasingly clear ethical framework, so as to make this commitment truly effective.”

The “Rome Call” on ethical AI use classified itself as “a step forward” in finding common understanding, language, and solutions.

The text quotes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in pointing to the equal dignity and rights of all humans, which AI must protect and guarantee, it says, while calling equally for the “benefit of humanity and the environment.”

It states there are three requirements for “technological advancement to align with true progress for the human race and respect for the planet” – it must be inclusive, have the good of humankind at its core, and care for the planet with a highly sustainable approach.

The paper made several concrete recommendations: That people should be aware if they are interacting with a machine, that AI-based technology should be used for empowerment not exploitation, and that AI should be employed in protection of the planet.

It also advised that “new forms of regulation must be encouraged to promote transparency and compliance with ethical principles,” especially in the case of facial recognition, and said AI development “must go hand in hand with robust digital security measures.”

The document also spoke about inclusive education and urged an “overhaul” to school curricula “in order to make the educational motto ‘no one left behind’ a reality.”

The social and ethical impact of artificial intelligence should also be at the core of AI education, the document added.

This week, the Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital in Rome, which belongs to the Holy See, announced a collaboration with IBM to develop, using AI, a database of clinical, laboratory, and anonymized imaging information to improve research in pediatric medicine, especially brain tumors and rare diseases.

One participant in the AI workshop Feb. 26 was Sandra Alexander, a Catholic and an ethics professor at the American University in Dubai. She gave a talk in which she proposed that ethics in the age of artificial intelligence needs to prioritize the goods of human dignity, the bonds of community, and the role of truth.

She called this proposal for AI ethics education an educatio vitae, which she said can easily be applied to multi-cultural contexts.

In her experience teaching mostly Muslim students over the last 11 years in the United Arab Emirates, she said there is a lot of common ground in belief in the principles of human dignity and community.

“In my teaching I come at these from a Catholic perspective, but this is, I believe, a common moral vocabulary among many faith traditions and we have to affirm that and repeat that,” she told CNA.

She advised Catholics to approach AI with caution, but also hope. “In defense of the human person we should be cautious about these technologies,” she said.

There are technologies which offer life-saving help to people in need; “we should be open to those,” Alexander added, but emphasized that it is good to be sceptical and wait for research to show whether new technologies do not have unintended negative consequences which outweigh the problems they were designed to ease.

The response she urged was education and looking for opportunities to uphold human dignity.

“If this technology can do that, great, but we should be very cautious and be research-based and be thoughtful and prayerful about these technologies certainly.”

Brownback points to Nigeria, China and global spread of religious persecution

Washington D.C., Feb 28, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has warned that religious persecution is spreading worldwide, and highlighted the examples of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria and a growing religious surveillance state in China.

Speaking to CNA on Thursday, Feb. 27, Ambassador Brownback highlighted the ongoing violence in Nigeria, where local Christians have been the victims of violent attacks and abductions.

Brownback said he is concerned the situation in Nigeria will spread to nearby countries if nothing is done to crack down on religious persecution. 

“There's a lot of people getting killed in Nigeria, and we're afraid it is going to spread a great deal in that region,” he told CNA. “It is one that's really popped up on my radar screens -- in the last couple of years, but particularly this past year.” 

In January, a Nigerian seminarian was abducted and murdered by militants, and several priests and seminarians have been abducted in the country. Brownback expressed frustration that the Nigerian government was not doing enough to protect religious groups. 

“I think we’ve got to prod the [Nigerian President Muhammadu] Buhari government more. They can do more,” he said. “They’re not bringing these people to justice that are killing religious adherents. They don’t seem to have the sense of urgency to act.” 

While he acknowledged that there had been “some pretty good meetings recently,” he predicted that religious persecution in Nigeria will continue to worsen unless the government takes concerted action. 

“We really think that they’ve got to act more,” he said, calling for dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the country, “really try to get them working together instead of killing each other.” 

“We need to engage the religious leaders more, to see if we can really start to tamp that down,” he said. 

Later in the day, Brownback spoke during a panel event titled “Without Religious Freedom, What’s Left?”  The event took place at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. 

“The problem is that [religious persecution] still grows and grows,” said Brownback during the event. “Eighty percent of the world's population is in a country that has religious persecution,” he said. 

“It's the most deadly time in the history of Christendom for you to be a Christian. There's more Christian persecution than any time in the history of mankind.”

“The future of oppression isn't going to look like what it looks like now,” said Brownback, highlighting the crackdown on religious practice in China. 

“The past, you'd see people locked up, killed for being a minority faith or this or that. The future of oppression is you're going to be marginalized in the society, that people are going to have your face, and they're going to know your DNA and they're gonna know who you are and you're not going to be able to participate [in society].” 

He cited China’s development of a “social credit” system over the last 10 years; the system has been used to track and punish religious minorities. If a person has a low social credit score, said Brownback, they could be prohibited from obtaining an education or living in a certain area. 

“And it won’t just be you. It will be your friends with you, if anyone pings your cell phone, that will be tracked and they’ll get the same low social credit score that you get. And these are the systems being modeled and worked on and done now today in China,” he said. 

The ambassador said that Congressional action against China had established limits on what kind of technology can be sent from the United States to China, and that the Trump administration is “very concerned about the use of technology” in the country. 

“The technology is amoral; it’s neither good nor bad, it’s technology,” said Brownback. “But what you do with it has a big moral component to it. And these are things--this is why, on my radar screen, that area of oppression and that growth of oppression and that nature is one of the most fearful things I see coming in this space.”

“And we've got to be active and we are active. We just got to do more,” said Brownback. 

China, he said, is “best in the world” at religious persecution and surveillance of religious groups, and has been engaged in a “war with faith.”

In responde, he said, the Trump administration is defending religious freedom “more than any administration has previously.” 

“And we consider [religious freedom] a God-given human right, not one that’s given by governments,” he said. Brownback applauded the Trump administration for organizing two ministerials on religious freedom, held in 2018 and 2019, calling them the largest human rights events ever held at the State Department. The 2020 ministerial on religious freedom will be held in Poland.

Diocese of Buffalo files for bankruptcy

Buffalo, N.Y., Feb 28, 2020 / 10:10 am (CNA).- The Diocese of Buffalo announced on Friday that it is declaring bankruptcy as hundreds of abuse lawsuits have been filed against it in the last several months.

The diocese said it was formally filing for Chapter 11 reorganization under the U.S. bankruptcy code to provide the most compensation for victims of clergy sex abuse while continuing the day-to-day work of its Catholic mission.

"Our decision to pursue Chapter 11 reorganization - arrived at after much prayer, discernment and consultation with the College of Consultors and our Diocesan Finance Council - is based on our belief that this approach will enable the most number of victim-survivors of past sexual abuse in achieving fairness and a sense of restorative justice for the harm they have experienced,” Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, the diocese’s apostolic administrator, said on Friday.

“It will also allow the vital, mission-driven work of faith that is so essential to the residents of Western New York to continue uninterrupted,” Scharfenberger said.

The announcement follows a year in which allegations of a cover-up of clergy sex abuse were made against the diocese. Following the opening of a window in the state statute of limitation last summer, hundreds of abuse lawsuits filed against the diocese in New York courts. Bishop Joseph Malone, who led the diocese from 2012 until last year, resigned in December, following a Vatican-ordered investigation of the diocese by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

Not included in the bankruptcy filing are diocesan parishes and parochial elementary and secondary schools, as well as Catholic Charities of Buffalo, the diocese said, since these are separate legal entities.

One whistleblower in the diocese said the filing is not enough for clergy abuse victims, who want more than just financial compensation.

After the diocese in 2018 released a list of 42 priests accused of “criminal, abusive or inappropriate behavior,” Bishop Malone’s former executive assistant Siobahn O’Connor published documents apparently showing the number of accused priests was actually more than 100.

Speaking to CNA on Friday, O’Conner said “For me, this is a bankruptcy failing.”

“This is yet another way in which the Diocese of Buffalo has failed survivors. For decades, survivors have been silenced while abusive priests were shuffled as statutes of limitation ran out. Survivors were denied the chance for criminal prosecution and the justice that process would have allowed,” O’Conner said.

“Now the Child Victims Act has granted survivors the opportunity for civil prosecution against the Diocese - the institution that protected their abusers, but that institution is still focused on protecting itself. While I can’t say I’m surprised at today’s announcement given all that has occurred up to this point, I am still deeply disappointed in my diocese.”

New York’s 2019 Child Victims Act created a one-year “lookback” window where abuse victims could file lawsuits long after their statute of limitations had ended. The window opened in August, and more than 200 lawsuits have since been filed against the diocese.

Buffalo is the latest in a series of American dioceses to file for bankruptcy. 

In September, 2019, the diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy after lawsuits were filed under the Child Victims Act. Four dioceses in Minnesota have also filed for bankruptcy after a state law there lifted the statute of limitations on old abuse cases for a three-year window. The bankruptcy filings would enable the dioceses to compensate victims while continuing their ministries, the dioceses said.

Friday’s news is the latest in an ongoing series of stories concerning the Buffalo diocese.

Before his resignation in December, Bishop Malone faced accusations that he kept priests in active ministry who had been credibly accused of abuse, and shielded abuse allegations from the public eye.

In August, Malone’s secretary Fr. Ryszard Biernat leaked audio of a confidential conversation where Malone appeared to believe accusations made against a diocesan priest concerning the grooming of a seminarian. Months later, the accused priest was still in active ministry and Malone was recorded expressing fear that, if allegations of a “love triangle” between the accused priest, the seminarian, and Fr. Biernat were made public, “this could be the end for me as bishop.”

A Vatican investigation into the diocese was conducted in October by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. Following Malone’s resignation, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany was appointed by Pope Francis to oversee the diocese until a replacement was named. Earlier this month, Scharfenberger announced the decision to close Buffalo’s Christ the King Seminary. The seminary was reportedly facing an annual $500,000 average deficit over a period of a decade.

In its bankruptcy filing documents, reported by WKBW, the diocese estimated its assets to total between $10 and 50 million, with its liabilities exceeding $50 million.

Correction: This post originally misreported the annual average deficit of the Buffalo seminary. It has been updated.

Pope Francis works from home for second day

Vatican City, Feb 28, 2020 / 08:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis postponed his official audiences for Friday, but maintained his private meeting schedule at his residence in Vatican City. The decision comes after the pope was reported to have a “slight” illness by a Vatican spokesman.

Holy See Press Office Director Matteo Bruni told journalists Feb. 28 that Pope Francis offered Mass in Santa Marta and “greeted participants at the end, as usual,” before deciding to cancel his audiences and remain in his residence.

It is the second day that the pope has canceled appearances. Pope Francis did not attend a scheduled liturgy for the priests of the Diocese of Rome in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on Thursday after feeling unwell.

“Due to a slight indisposition,” Pope Francis “preferred to remain in the rooms close to Santa Marta,” Bruni said Feb. 27.

Pope Francis, who is 83 years old, is generally healthy, though he suffers from sciatica and had eye surgery for cataracts last year. When he was young he had a portion of one lung removed because of an infection.

The pope was scheduled to meet Feb. 28 with executives from technology companies, including Microsoft and IBM, who are in Rome for a meeting organized by the Pontifical Academy of Life on ethics in artificial intelligence.

While the Vatican has postponed some events and conferences due to the coronavirus, the pontifical academy’s ethics of AI meetings took place as planned. Pope Francis’ prepared remarks to the conference were read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Italian authorities have reported 650 cases of the coronavirus in the country, with 17 deaths and 45 recoveries as of Feb. 28. Nearly all of the reported cases are in northern Italy. In response to the outbreak, Italian officials have also imposed quarantine restrictions on several towns in the Lombardy and Veneto regions, where most of the infections have occurred.

In Rome’s region of Lazio there have been just three confirmed cases: an Italian and two Chinese tourists, all of whom have recovered.

The Vatican has implemented special health measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed in Vatican City offices, and there is a nurse and a doctor on call at a Vatican clinic to give immediate assistance, Holy See Press Office Director Matteo Bruni told Vatican News. 

As of Feb. 28, Pope Francis is still scheduled to give his Sunday Angelus address on March 1 before leaving for his Lenten retreat March 1-6.

Vatican launches task force to implement 'Vos estis' and 2011 abuse guidelines

Vatican City, Feb 28, 2020 / 06:36 am (CNA).- The Vatican has created a task force to help under-resourced bishops’ conferences enact guidelines on the protection of minors and the pope’s 2019 norms on abuse allegations against bishops.

The task force was one of the promised follow-ups to last year’s Vatican summit on child protection and sexual abuse in the Church.

According to a press release Feb. 28, the working group will assist bishops’ conferences and religious institutes and societies of apostolic life with implementing and updating child protection guidelines and putting in place the requirements of Pope Francis’ 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.

Vos estis lux mundi, promulgated last May, enacted policy on the Church’s response to sexual abuse allegations made against bishops.

The world’s bishops’ conferences were first asked in 2011, in a letter sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to adopt stringent guidelines to fight sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Fr. Federico Lombardi told journalists Feb. 28 that there is “a minority” of bishops’ conferences which have not yet implemented child protection guidelines, calling the task force a “small step” in initiating “a process of help.”

Lombardi was the moderator of the February 2019 Vatican abuse summit. He said Friday, “there are very few exceptions that do not have [guidelines]” and they are typically in countries which have limited resources and which may be affected by war or poverty.

Lombardi guessed there are “around a dozen” bishops’ conferences in this situation but said he did not know the exact number.

The task force, which has a two-year commission starting this month, is made up of canon lawyers of different nationalities and has a fund, maintained by “benefactors” at its disposal, according to Friday’s press release.

The group is coordinated by Andrew Azzopardi, a social worker and abuse expert in charge of the safeguarding commission of the Church in Malta.

Azzopardi said Feb. 28 there are now on the task force about 10 or so members, mostly canon lawyers, but they would like to expand this to include other experts.

Azzopardi said members of the working group will primarily be sent to work on the ground in the local Churches and religious institutes, advising on the writing and enforcing of guidelines, keeping in mind the local culture and laws.

As coordinator, Azzopardi will report quarterly to the substitute for general affairs of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, on the task force’s activity.

The activities of the task force will also be overseen by the 2019 abuse summit organizers: Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, and Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ.

The task force will, at the request of bishops’ conferences, “assist the local Church to make the Church safer for children and vulnerable adults and more accessible for victims and survivors,” Azzopardi said.

He said one of the challenges will be to make sure Vos estis lux mundi “is implemented, understood, and that it’s a real document and that we can build on that.”

“I think that is a challenge, not an insurmountable challenge.”

 

Bishops propose Arab World Youth Day for Middle East Catholics

Rome, Italy, Feb 28, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Bishops from the Middle East have proposed a regional youth gathering similar to World Youth Day for young Catholics from Syria to Somalia.

The proposed “World Day of Youth of the Arab Regions” would take place in Jordan as the first host country with the goal of encouraging “mass participation” from the region, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Bishops representing Catholics in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Somalia, and countries of the Arabian Peninsula met in Rome Feb. 17-20 and discussed the proposed Arab World Youth Day gathering at the meeting of the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Regions (CELRA).

During their plenary meeting in Rome, the 14 bishops met with Pope Francis following a daily Mass in Santa Marta, and attended meetings with several members of the curia.

Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke to the bishops about the “revolutionary character” of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed by Pope Francis and Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi last year.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri gave a talk on “Synodality in the praxis of the Church,” encouraging the bishops to work collaboratively, and Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, led a discussion on the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Querida Amazonia.”

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem did not release more details on the proposed World Day of Youth of the Arab Regions, but said that the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Regions will meet again in Lebanon in February 2021.

World Youth Day is a massive gathering of Catholic youth, which takes place every two or three years, with the goal of giving young people the chance to make a pilgrimage and encounter the worldwide Catholic community. Pope St. John Paul II first established World Youth Day in 1985.

Regional youth day celebrations have taken place since the late 1990s. The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences organizes Asian Youth Day every three to five years. However, the 2021 Asian Youth Day was canceled earlier this year after bishops in India said they would be unable to host the Catholic youth gathering.

The Jesuit province of the Middle East has also organized smaller-scale “Regional Youth Days” since 2006. The last Regional Youth Days brought together 350 young Catholics in Jamhour, Lebanon in August 2019.

The next World Youth Day is scheduled to take place in Lisbon, Portugal in 2022 with the theme: “Mary arose and went with haste.”