Catholic bishops fault use of death penalty

Conference approves statement, hoping to take advantage of shift in public sentiment


WASHINGTON -- Sensing growing public ambivalence over capital punishment, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops renewed calls yesterday to end use of the death penalty, calling its application error-prone, biased and irreversible, and saying that state-sanctioned killing diminishes all Americans.

"This statement is a call to reject the tragic illusion that we can demonstrate respect for life by taking life," Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "That we can teach killing is wrong by killing those who kill others."

"A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death," the 18-page document approved by the bishops yesterday, comes 25 years after church leaders here first called for an end to the death penalty. It does not contain new teaching, its writers say, but rather seeks to "seize a new moment" for teaching and activism.

Opposition to capital punishment among Catholics and the general public has been building amid revelations of racial bias in its application and the growing number of convictions proved wrongful by DNA testing, according to several surveys in recent years.

Support for the death penalty among American Catholics fell from 68 percent in June 2001 to 48 percent in March 2005, according to independent poll results circulated by the bishops here this week for their fall general meeting. Opposition grew from 27 percent to 48 percent during the same period.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported this week declines in the numbers of death sentences and executions in 2004. The population on death row fell for the fourth straight year.

DiMarzio, who chaired the committee that produced the bishops' statement, said it will anchor a new campaign urging Catholics to learn more about church teaching on capital punishment, to share that teaching with others and to urge lawmakers to pass laws restricting the use of capital punishment.

DiMarzio also spoke of ministering to survivors.

"In each of our dioceses, there are families for whom violent crime and the death penalty are not just issues or causes, but sources of deep pain and heartache," he said. "We must reach out to them, support them, comfort them, stand with them. The death penalty offers a false hope to the path of healing and wholeness."

Amid references to scripture and church writings, the statement quotes Kirk Bloodsworth, the Eastern Shore man who was imprisoned for nearly nine years for the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Rosedale until he became the first death-row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA testing.

"Every bit of my story exemplifies the problems in the death penalty system," said Bloodsworth, a prison convert to Catholicism who now campaigns against capital punishment. "The same systemic flaws that led to my wrongful conviction, such as mistaken identification, inadequate representation, prosecutorial misconduct and basic human error, plague the cases of innocent people in prison and on death row."

Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer told the conference about ministering to a man sentenced to death in the 1997 kidnapping, rape and murder of a 9-year-old Texas girl, and then watching his execution two weeks ago. Pfeifer, the bishop of San Angelo, Texas, spoke of supporting both criminals and their victims.

Catholic teaching recognizes a right of the state to impose the death penalty for serious crimes if it is necessary to protect society. But the church says that right should not be exercised when there are other ways available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II said the development of penal systems had rendered cases in which the death penalty would be permissible "very rare, if not practically non-existent." The bishops' statement yesterday notes the several instances in which Pope John Paul pleaded for clemency in specific death-row cases in the United States.

Also yesterday, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore warned the conference of the use of video cell phones, iPods, PDAs and other wireless handheld devices to deliver pornography to users of all ages.

"There are no filtering or monitoring devices now available," said Keeler, who co-chairs the Religious Alliance Against Pornography. "This means that children and teens can access pornographic material with total anonymity, without parents or grandparents having any knowledge of it."

With the Christmas gift-giving season approaching, Keeler said, parents should be warned of the hazards of the technology.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans described the impact of Hurricane Katrina on his diocese. He said two priests had died in the evacuation and another was missing and presumed dead. He said half of the parishes in his diocese were "devastated," and estimated property losses at $200 million.

Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Houston criticized the response of Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying church officials who approached the agency in the aftermath of the disaster were given "the runaround."

As expected, the bishops approved guidelines for the more than 30,000 "lay ecclesial ministers" now serving American Catholic parishes as chancellors, parish associates, youth ministers, religious educators or chaplains.

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