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History > 2009 > USA > Faith (I)




Pastor Urges His Flock

to Bring Guns to Church


June 26, 2009
The New York Times


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ken Pagano, the pastor of the New Bethel Church here, is passionate about gun rights. He shoots regularly at the local firing range, and his sermon two weeks ago was on “God, Guns, Gospel and Geometry.” And on Saturday night, he is inviting his congregation of 150 and others to wear or carry their firearms into the sanctuary to “celebrate our rights as Americans!” as a promotional flier for the “open carry celebration” puts it.

“God and guns were part of the foundation of this country,” Mr. Pagano, 49, said Wednesday in the small brick Assembly of God church, where a large wooden cross hung over the altar and two American flags jutted from side walls. “I don’t see any contradiction in this. Not every Christian denomination is pacifist.”

The bring-your-gun-to-church day, which will include a $1 raffle of a handgun, firearms safety lessons and a picnic, is another sign that the gun culture in the United States is thriving despite, or perhaps because of, President Obama’s election in November.

Last year, the National Rifle Association ran a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign against Mr. Obama, stoking fears that he would be the most antigun president in history and that firearms would be confiscated. One worry was that a Democratic president and Congress would reinstitute the assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

But there is little support for the ban. Mr. Obama and his party have largely ignored gun-control issues, and the president even signed a measure that will allow firearms in national parks.

Still, the fear remains that Mr. Obama, and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., will crack down on guns sooner or later. That — along with the faltering economy, which gun sellers say has spurred purchases for self-defense — has fueled a record surge in gun sales.

“Every president wants to be re-elected, and gun bans are pretty much a nonstarter for getting re-elected,” said Win Underwood, owner of the Bluegrass Indoor Range here. “What I suspect is going to happen is, Obama’s going to cool his jets until he can get re-elected, and then he’ll start building his legacy in these hot-button areas.”

When Mr. Obama was elected in November, federal instant background checks, the best indicator of gun sales, jumped 42 percent over the previous November. Every month since then, the number of checks has been higher than the year before, although the postelection surge may be tapering off, as all surges eventually do. While the number of checks in April increased 30 percent from the year before, the number of checks in May (1,023,102) was only 15 percent higher than in May 2008.

The National Rifle Association says its membership is up 30 percent since November. And several states have recently passed laws allowing gun owners to carry firearms in more places — bars, restaurants, cars and parks.

“We have a very active agenda in all 50 states,” said Chris W. Cox, legislative director of the N.R.A., widely considered the country’s most powerful lobby. “We have right-to-carry laws in over 40 states; 20 years ago, it was in just six.”

Of the 40 states with right-to-carry laws, 20 allow guns in churches.

Public attitudes also seem to be turning more sympathetic to gun owners. In April, the Pew Research Center found for the first time that almost as many people said it was more important to protect the rights of gun owners (45 percent) than to control gun ownership (49 percent). Just a year ago, Pew said, 58 percent said gun control was more important than the rights of gun owners (37 percent).

Gun-control advocates say they feel increasingly ineffective, especially after a recent spate of high-profile shootings, including last month’s murder, inside a church in Kansas, of a doctor who performed late-term abortions.

“We’ve definitely been marginalized,” said Pam Gersh, a public relations consultant here who helped organize a rally in Louisville in 2000, to coincide with the Million Mom March against guns in Washington.

“The Brady Campaign and other similar organizations who advocate sensible gun responsibility laws don’t have the money and the political power — not even close,” she said. “This pastor is obviously crossing a line here and saying ‘I can even take my guns to church, and there is nothing you can do about it.’ ”

Ms. Gersh said she was not aware that a group of local churches and peace activists were staging a counterpicnic — called “Bring your peaceful heart, leave your gun at home” — at the same time as Mr. Pagano’s event.

But news media attention — some from overseas — has focused on Mr. Pagano, who has been planning the event for a year, in celebration of the Fourth of July. Cameras will not be allowed in the church, he said, to protect the congregation’s privacy.

The celebration will feature lessons in responsible gun ownership, Mr. Pagano said. Sheriff’s deputies will be at the doors to check that openly carried firearms are unloaded, but they will not check for concealed weapons.

“That’s the whole point of concealed,” Mr. Pagano said, adding that he was not worried because such owners require training.

Mr. Pagano said the church’s insurance company, which he would not identify, had canceled the church’s policy for the day on Saturday and told him that it would cancel the policy for good at the end of the year. If he cannot find insurance for Saturday, people will not be allowed in openly carrying their guns.

Arkansas and Georgia recently rejected efforts to allow people to carry concealed weapons in church. Watching the debate in Arkansas was John Phillips, pastor of the Central Church of Christ in Little Rock. In 1986, Mr. Phillips was preaching in a different church there when a gunman shot him and a parishioner. Both survived, but Mr. Phillips, 51, still has a bullet lodged in his spine.

In a telephone interview, he said he found the idea of “packing in the pew” abhorrent.

“There is a movement afoot across the nation, with the gun lobby pushing the envelope, trying to allow concealed weapons to be carried in places where they used to be prohibited — churches, schools, bars,” Mr. Phillips said.

“I don’t understand how any minister who is familiar with the teachings of the Bible can do this,” he added. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Go ahead, make my day.’ ”

Mr. Pagano takes such comments as a challenge to his faith and says they make him more determined.

“When someone from within the church tells me that being a Christian and having firearms are contradictions, that they’re incompatible with the Gospel — baloney,” he said. “As soon as you start saying that it’s not something that Christians do, well, guns are just the foil. The issue now is the Gospel. So in a sense, it does become a crusade. Now the Gospel is at stake.”

    Pastor Urges His Flock to Bring Guns to Church, NYT, 26.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/26/us/26guns.html?hp






Debate Erupts Over Muslim School in Virginia


June 11, 2009
The New York Times


FAIRFAX, Va. — For years, children’s voices rang out from the playground at the Islamic Saudi Academy in this heavily wooded community about 20 miles west of Washington. But for the last year the campus has been silent as academy officials seek county permission to erect a new classroom building and move hundreds of students from a sister campus on the other end of Fairfax County.

The proposal from the academy, which a school spokeswoman said was the only school financed by the Saudi government in the United States, has ignited a noisy debate and exposed anew the school’s uneasy relationship with its neighbors.

Many residents living near the 34-acre campus along Popes Head Road, a narrow byway connecting two busy thoroughfares, say they oppose it because they fear it will bring more cars, school buses and flooding of land that would be paved over for parking lots.

But others object to the academy’s curriculum, saying it espouses a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. A leaflet slipped into mailboxes in early spring called the school “a hate training academy.”

James Lafferty, chairman of a loose coalition of individuals and groups opposed to the school, said that its teachings sow intolerance, and that it should not be allowed to exist, let alone expand.

“We feel that it is in reality a madrassa, a training place for young impressionable Muslim students in some of the most extreme and most fanatical teachings of Islam,” Mr. Lafferty said. “That concerns us greatly.”

School officials and parents say they are bewildered and frustrated by such claims. The academy is no different from other religious schools, they say, and educates model students who go on to top schools, teaches Arabic to American soldiers, and no longer uses texts that drew criticism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Kamal S. Suliman, 46, a state traffic engineer with three daughters at the academy, called the accusations “fear tactics and stereotyping.”

“Ideological issues do not belong in this matter,” Mr. Suliman said. “I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail,” and that a decision about the expansion “will be made based on facts.”

The Fairfax County Planning Commission is to vote Thursday on the school’s request for a zoning exemption to allow construction of the classroom building. Regardless of the outcome, the request is voted on by the county Board of Supervisors.

Hazel Rathbun, who has lived near the Fairfax campus since 1971, said she worries about traffic safety and flooding on her winding road, and called criticism of the school’s Muslim focus “hate filled” and irrelevant. “It’s detracting from what we see as a very real issue for us,” Ms. Rathbun said.

The Saudi government bought the property, formerly the site of a Christian academy, in 1984. It also rents a county school building in Alexandria.

In the 1990s, the academy bought property in Loudoun County, about 25 miles northwest of Fairfax. Over the protest of local residents, they planned a campus for 3,500 students through grade 12, but they scrapped the plan in 2004. They decided to build instead on the Popes Head Road site, where classes were held for youngsters from pre-kindergarten through first grade.

In 2007, the academy notified the county of its building plans, and last year, transferred the young pupils to the rented building in Alexandria. Academy officials hope to consolidate both campuses into a “state-of-the-art” school in Fairfax, said Abdulrahman R. Alghofaili, the school’s director general.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, the academy drew minimal attention, but shortly after the terrorist attacks, Israel turned away two graduates over suspicions they were suicide bombers. One was charged with lying on his passport application, and received a four-month prison sentence.

In 2003, the academy’s 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was arrested in Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to study, and two years later was convicted in Federal District Court in Alexandria of conspiracy to commit terrorism, including a plot to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Mr. Abu Ali’s family called the accusations “lies,” and his lawyers say he was tortured when he was held in Saudi Arabia.

Besides, academy officials and parents contend, an entire school should not be condemned for the actions of one or two students. They point out that no one laid the blame for the massacre at Virginia Tech on the high school alma mater of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.

Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with promoting religious freedom in United States foreign policy, concluded that texts used at the school contained “exhortations to violence” and intolerance.

School officials rejected those findings, saying the commission misinterpreted and mistranslated outdated materials. The school now prints its own materials and no longer uses official Saudi curriculum, said Rahima Abdullah, the academy’s education director.

“We have hundreds of students and hundreds of parents who send their students to this place to get ideal education,” said Mr. Alghofaili, the director general. “It doesn’t make sense that their parents would send their kids to a place to learn how to hate or to kill others.”

The Fairfax Planning Commission chairman, Peter Murphy, said questions about religion, politics and diplomacy were “distractions” that did not belong in deliberations about whether the academy should be allowed to expand.

“Whatever happens, some people are going to be happy and some people are not going to be happy” with Thursday’s vote, Mr. Murphy said. “I’m not basing this on happiness. I’m basing it on land-use issues.”

    Debate Erupts Over Muslim School in Virginia, NYT, 11.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/us/11fairfax.html?hp






2 Entrepreneurs Help a Monastery Thrive


June 2, 2009
The New York Times


SPARTA, Wis. — At the ringing of a bowl-shaped bell, five monks at a remote monastery congregated in the chapel here for the fourth of their seven daily rounds of prayer, their voices murmuring a Gregorian chant in Latin.

At the same time, in a nearby house on the monastery’s property, the phone was ringing in a small office where two women and an office manager run a multimillion-dollar business that generates the money to run the monastery.

“Good morning, LaserMonks. Greetings and peace,” answered the office manager, Victoria Bench, a patient sort who often hears callers remark, “You don’t sound like a monk.”

Monks in Roman Catholic monasteries are expected to support themselves, balancing a life of prayer and work according to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict. Some monasteries make cheese, others make jam, chocolate or wine.

The monks here at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank make their money from the sale of ink and toner cartridges, and little of the labor is their own.

The Rev. Bernard McCoy, the monastery’s superior, had the idea for LaserMonks.com. But the enterprise really took off when the monks turned it over to two entrepreneurial laywomen who originally came from Colorado to give them advice and never left.

“We feel we’re stewards of their business, and we really put bread on the table,” said one of the women, Sarah Caniglia, sitting in their impeccably organized office amid lighted candles and CDs of Gregorian chants. “I feel like the head of a family, but the boys are grown up and they’re never going to get married.”

Father McCoy, who at 42 already has a monk’s bald pate and fringe of hair, said: “Our life as monks is not set up to sit around and answer phones. We’re supposed to be a little removed.”

“We are professional pray-ers,” said Father McCoy, who wears a white habit, a long black smock called a scapular cinched with a leather belt and, on his feet, knock-off Crocs. Some days he wears a T-shirt that says, “Ask me about my Vow of Silence.”

This is not the only monastery to employ laypeople, but the monks and the women here have a surprising symbiotic relationship. The monastery had tried various self-supporting enterprises before: moving and rehabilitating houses scheduled for demolition, growing shitake mushrooms, developing a golf course and corporate retreat center.

One day, the monks were in the midst of a big report on the golf project when the printer ran out of toner and Father McCoy went to order more. “I thought, that’s way too much for a bunch of black dust,” he said.

He discovered it was possible to buy new and recycled cartridges at a fraction of the cost charged by office supply companies. He started LaserMonks in 2002 with the idea of marketing to charitable groups, but the business expanded so fast that soon they were scrambling to keep up.

Meanwhile, Ms. Caniglia and Cindy Griffith were looking to sell their online ink and toner business, based in Loveland, Colo., and called Father McCoy to see if LaserMonks wanted to buy their database. They hit it off, and soon the women were driving to rural Wisconsin.

“I was scared to death,” said Ms. Griffith, 50, a Web designer and divorced grandmother who is not Catholic. “I’ve been to Catholic weddings, but I don’t know anything about monks. Do they talk? What do I do when they pray? Do I sing this stuff? I don’t know Latin.”

The women stayed in the monastery’s hermitage overlooking the Mississippi River. Two weeks became two months, then six. The women shared their skills at database management and Web design, but also ideas for the future of LaserMonks. The monks gave the women a taste of a life that was contemplative, balanced and simple.

“I was a yuppie, I wanted to make a lot of money, drive a nice car and belong to a tennis club,” said Ms. Caniglia, 41, who is Catholic. “I’ve just learned to simplify my life, and I get joy out of seeing the stars at night, walking the dogs.”

The women now live on the top two floors of a small house on the monastery’s property, above the office and overlooking fields of soy and corn. Ms. Caniglia and Father McCoy send e-mail messages to each other daily, but meet only every three weeks. The women and monks all come together on feast days and holidays.

Ever entrepreneurial, the women also sell products made by other monasteries, including chocolates, pralines and a barbeque sauce called “Burnt Sacrifice.” They sell Benevolent Biscuits, dog treats the monks here make on cookie trays in the monastery kitchen.

Their latest product is a laser printer cartridge made with soybean oil instead of petroleum. Holding up a newly printed page, Ms. Caniglia said, “It’s environmentally safe, the print is great,” and it produces more pages per cartridge than an oil-based cartridge at a lower price. “It’s a no-brainer.”

LaserMonks took in $4.5 million in revenue last year, she said. Expenses and the cost of products are 80 percent, leaving 10 percent for the monastery and 10 percent for charities. The two women made about $60,000 combined. (“It isn’t about the money,” Ms. Caniglia said.)

While LaserMonks hums along without monks, the monks are free to develop their talents and hobbies. The Rev. Robert Keffer paints and sculptures, Brother David Klecker sews vestments and takes photographs, Brother Joseph Watson does woodworking, Brother Adam Mathews tends the property and Brother Stephen Treat writes a blog.

Standing at his easel in a sunny studio, Father Keffer dabbled at a painting of St. Bernard, whose hair looked a bit too 1980s blow-dried.

“Professional artists come visit,” Father Keffer said, “and they say to me, ‘You’re in my idea of heaven.’ ”

    2 Entrepreneurs Help a Monastery Thrive, NYT, 2.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/02/us/02monks.html






Months to Live

Fighting for a Last Chance at Life


May 17, 2009
The New York Times


VIRGINIA BEACH — As Lou Gehrig’s disease sapped Joshua Thompson of his ability to move and speak last fall, he consistently summoned one question from within the prison of his own body. “Iplex,” he asked, in a whisper that pierced his mother’s heart. “When?”

Iplex had never been tested in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the formal name for the fatal disease that had struck Joshua, 34, in late 2006. Developed for a different condition and banished from the market by a patent dispute, it was not for sale to the public anywhere in the world.

But Kathy Thompson had vowed to get it for her son. On the Internet, she had found enthusiastic reviews from A.L.S. patients who had finagled a prescription for Iplex when it was available, along with speculation by leading researchers as to why it might slow the progressive paralysis that marks the disease. And for months, as she begged and bullied biotechnology companies, members of Congress, Italian doctors and federal drug regulators, she answered Joshua the same way:

“Soon,” she said. “Soon.”

At a time when terminally ill patients have more access to medical research than ever before, and perhaps a deeper conviction in its ability to cure them, many are campaigning for the chance to be treated with drugs whose safety and effectiveness is not yet known.

But even as advances in areas like stem cells and genetics generate greater hope for experimental therapies, there is little consensus on how and when to provide them to dying patients whose lives could be prolonged, or shortened, by trying them.

Insurance companies typically do not pay for drugs that are part of a not-quite-finished scientific process. But even affluent families like the Thompsons find themselves pleading simply for the right to buy a drug, with institutions and individuals that often seem to them to have no logic — and sometimes no heart.

Doctors worry about instilling false hope and doing unnecessary harm. Companies fear damaging a drug’s chance of winning approval from the Food and Drug Administration if a patient suffers a bad reaction. The F.D.A. itself does not want patients to bypass clinical trials, which require that some participants receive a placebo to determine reliably whether a drug works.

Some patient advocates are lobbying for laws and policies that would sanction what has become known as the “compassionate use” of experimental drugs by seriously ill patients who have run out of other options. But for now, each appeal to the guardians of untested drugs is an improvisation, in which success relies on connections, determination, mercy and luck, and the hope of prevailing can sometimes eclipse the hope held out for the drug itself.

The Search for a Treatment

Kathy discovered Iplex deep in the pages of her first Google search for “A.L.S. and treatment” late one night in spring 2007, shortly after Joshua’s diagnosis.

In the daylight, she still had trouble believing that her athletic, magnetic son had the devastating disease with an unknown cause, named for the 1930s New York Yankees star whose career was cut short by it. When Joshua’s racquetball racket flew out of his hand because he could not grip it, his mother’s diagnosis was tennis elbow. When the first neurologist mentioned A.L.S., she scheduled more tests, rooting for Lyme’s disease, multiple sclerosis or even cancer.

But an A.L.S. specialist at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Jeffrey D. Rothstein, had confirmed it. Like the 5,600 other people given the diagnosis each year in the United States, Dr. Rothstein said, Joshua would almost certainly die of the disease in two to five years.

The doctor prescribed the only drug approved for A.L.S., Rilutek, which typically prolongs life by a few months. Joshua, he said, would be eligible to participate in a clinical trial for another drug, Arimoclomol, that would start as soon as the F.D.A. gave the go-ahead. There was nothing else.

Except, maybe, Iplex.

Kathy clicked her way through online news releases, blogs and scientific journal articles. Iplex, she learned, is believed to protect the motor neurons whose death leads to paralysis in A.L.S. Some patients had persuaded their doctors to prescribe the drug when the F.D.A. approved it in late 2006 for children with growth deficiencies.

“I started on Tuesday,” Debbie Gattoni, an A.L.S. patient in New Jersey, had written on a Web discussion forum, “and on Sunday, I noticed that my right index finger, which was bent, was straightening and moving on its own.”

But almost immediately, the drug’s maker, Insmed, lost a patent infringement lawsuit to a biotechnology firm that was already selling a drug for short stature that had similar properties. Iplex , however, was thought to be more potent for treating A.L.S.

Insmed agreed to pull its drug off the market. Only the Italian Health Ministry, which had begun to distribute the drug to A.L.S. patients under a compassionate use program, could continue to buy it.

Kathy dashed off a letter to the F.D.A.

“Is there any way we can get Iplex,” she wrote, “before it is too late for my son and others like him?”

But the agency could not weigh in until Insmed agreed to make the drug available. And Insmed’s hands were tied by the settlement agreement.

Mounting Physical Needs

In late July, Joshua fell in the street near Times Square on a trip to New York with his wife, Joy, and could not get up. Joy could not lift him, and passers-by did not stop. Finally, a homeless person watching from the corner came to help.

The event was traumatic for Joshua, who was beginning to experience another symptom of the disease, too, a lack of control over his emotions. At the weekly poker game with his friends, he could no longer bluff.

As Joy helped Joshua with his mounting physical needs and cared for their son, Wyatt, who had been born two weeks after Joshua’s diagnosis, the couple pressed Kathy to explore Joshua’s medical options.

They decided he should try what seemed like the next best thing to Iplex — the drug that had triumphed over it in the patent dispute. But the first neurologist they visited refused to give him a prescription.

“This could cause hypoglycemia,” he told Joshua, warning that low blood sugar could result in seizures or brain damage.

“I’ll take my chances of hypoglycemia over laying in the gutter,” Joshua replied fiercely, but the doctor did not relent.

Kathy found another doctor to prescribe the drug, called Increlex. But she cried later when she read a blog entry by an A.L.S. patient who said he had experienced a “seismic” improvement on Iplex before it was withdrawn. The Increlex shots he was taking now felt like “trying to get drunk on cough syrup when there’s a case of bourbon locked in the closet,” he wrote.

At brunch with her long-term boyfriend, Richard Stravitz, soon after, Kathy told him she did not want to play golf that afternoon, as was their Sunday ritual. As always these days, she could think only about trying to help her son.

“I understand,” she said, “if you need to move on.”

Mr. Stravitz, a sculptor and retired chairman of the meat processing giant Boar’s Head Provisions, shook his head.

“I want to help,” he said.

Involuntary twitches known as fasciculations signaled which of Joshua’s muscles would be the next to go. His mother watched the disease spread from his right arm to his left arm to his left leg. A natural storyteller who had played toastmaster at friends’ weddings and charmed business associates with stories of his misadventures in surfing and snowboarding, Joshua began to slur his words in what is known as the “A.L.S. accent.”

Kathy, who had majored in biology before leaving college when she was pregnant with her son, ruled out traveling to Belize or China for stem cell infusions with no proven value. But she did pay $25,000 to send Joshua to a holistic health program in Arizona for a month. At the clinic, he had physical therapy and swallowed vitamin cocktails. He spent hours each day hooked to an intravenous tube to remove heavy metals from his body. But any improvement quickly dissipated on his return.

A few weeks later, the cancellation of the clinical trial that Joshua had been waiting to participate in came as a sharp blow. The F.D.A., the Thompsons were informed, wanted more animal research first.

“We have to get Iplex,” Kathy told Joshua’s father, Bruce Thompson. “I’m going to find a way.”

Divorced 20 years earlier, the Thompsons still sometimes shared holidays and vacations with Joshua and their younger son, Christopher, but they disagreed on how to approach A.L.S. Bruce had concluded there was little to be done medically. He proposed a trip to Europe, where Joshua had never been.

A hotel and restaurant developer who had been training his older son to someday take over his business empire, Bruce remodeled his guest house, where Joshua and his family had moved, to make it wheelchair accessible. And in December, tracing Joshua’s irritability and depression to the cycle of raised and dashed hopes, he admonished Kathy not to mention to their son what seemed like an impossible long shot.

“Let him live his life,” Bruce urged her in a heated conversation. “Don’t give him false hope.”

“This isn’t false hope,” Kathy retorted. “It’s real. And it’s all we have.”

Joshua did not go to Europe. But in February, he and Joy told their inner circle and that Joy was pregnant with their second child. Wyatt, the couple had decided, should have a sibling.

On hearing the unexpected news, one family friend gave Joshua a fist-bump.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” he said.

Joshua laughed.

“It seems to be the only thing that’s still working,” he replied.

‘Our Rights to Live’

Adopting the online moniker “FightingMom,” Kathy haunted Web forums devoted to the disease. At night, after working full days at her own business, which manufactures filling for quilts, she exchanged messages with several dozen patients and caregivers who came to call themselves “Team Iplex.”

“Fighting Mom,” wrote Andrea Reimers, a nurse who was pursuing Iplex for her husband, Jim. “It seems to me that there haven’t been enough cries from the A.L.S. community to demand our rights to live.”

Mrs. Reimers thought a demonstration by dying people in wheelchairs might shake up the companies holding Iplex under wraps.

Her militancy emboldened Kathy, whose letters and calls to public officials took on a more insistent tone. But everyone told her it was a corporate matter.

She also turned her attention to Italy, where the government was still spending several million dollars a year to buy Iplex for A.L.S. patients. A doctor there wrote to Kathy that she had seen “very good results in almost 50 percent” of the A.L.S. patients she had treated with Iplex over two years. Joshua and Joy were ready to move there, but the answer came back: only Italian citizens could receive Iplex through the program.

“Josh’s sadness is unbearable,” his mother wrote one night in her journal, nearly a year after her son’s diagnosis.

Unexpected encouragement came in a Mother’s Day note from her ex-husband. “You have given me some peace of mind that all potential options for Josh are being researched and acted upon,” Bruce wrote. “Thank you.”

Kathy’s boyfriend accompanied her to Insmed’s headquarters in Richmond, Va., offering to raise several million dollars to underwrite a compassionate use program for Iplex in the United States with A.L.S. patients. But the couple came away with a new understanding: F.D.A. regulations, they were told, prohibit any company from profiting on compassionate use. Even if Insmed could wriggle free of restrictions in the patent agreement, there was little financial incentive for it to invest in making the drug solely for compassionate use by A.L.S. patients.

Kathy was not surprised when weeks passed without hearing back.

Seizing an Opening

By July, Joshua could no longer lift his arms. Feeding him one evening, Kathy stifled a cry when she saw his tongue twitching as if it had large worms crawling inside it. Worse for her was the knowledge that he had felt the fasciculations, and known what they signaled: the end of swallowing, saliva control and speech.

“I can’t believe I may never hear him speak again,” she wrote in her journal.

The best hope for regenerating the long nerves that control muscle movement, Kathy knew, were stem cell therapies still in very early stages of development. But if Iplex worked as hoped, it would slow the death of those nerves, perhaps sustaining Joshua’s life long enough for a cure to come along.

That fall, a major study at the Mayo Clinic concluded that a hormone that is the active agent in Increlex and Iplex had no effect on people with A.L.S. But a leading researcher suggested that a drug like Iplex, which combined the hormone with a protein that could deliver it to cells more effectively, could have better results.

Kathy saw an opening. Genentech, the company that held the patent for Increlex, would now most likely have no market for its own drug among A.L.S. patients. Perhaps it would release Iplex from the restrictions of the patent settlement.

Aggie Wilson, the assistant who answered Kathy’s call to Genentech’s chief executive, listened to her story.

“His son keeps sitting on his lap saying ‘Hello, Dada,’ waiting for Josh to say hello,” Kathy said of Wyatt.

Ms. Wilson told Kathy that if she wrote a letter, she would personally deliver it to her boss.

Kathy did not wait for his response. The members of Team Iplex set a date for the protest: Veterans Day, at the Capitol in Washington. They let the drug companies know that dozens of news media outlets had been alerted.

Joy gave birth to a boy, Jordan, a few weeks later. And at the urging of his mother and his wife, Joshua assented to using a machine that enabled him to communicate with a speech synthesizer. A camera picks up small movements of his head as he “types” letters on a screen, tracking a reflective patch on his forehead.

Kathy and Joy watched him laboriously peck out his first words, anticipating an expression of gratitude or affection. Instead, the machine pronounced a playfully vulgar directive. Gleeful, Joshua hit the “repeat” button over and over.

The Saturday evening before the protest, Kathy found a letter in her e-mail. The competing companies had agreed to make Iplex available to A.L.S. patients worldwide on a compassionate use basis, pending the approval of the regulatory agencies.

On a crisp fall day, on the lawn outside the Capitol, Team Iplex handed out information about the disease, and celebrated. All they needed now was for their doctors to file a formal request for the drug with the F.D.A.

Safety Concerns

Joshua’s doctor at Johns Hopkins, Jeffrey Rothstein, believed there was a rational logic for why Iplex might work. But the review procedure at Hopkins, he told Kathy, could delay getting the request to the drug agency. Instead, Kathy took the stack of paperwork to her son’s local family practitioner, Dr. David L. Werwath, only to burst out crying in his office when he demurred.

He had never treated anyone with A.L.S., much less with an experimental drug.

But that evening, he called Kathy on her cellphone to tell her he had had a change of heart.

“Look, I’m a father,” he said “If it were my son or daughter, I’d be doing the same thing.”

The F.D.A. had a month to respond from the date it received Joshua’s application on Dec. 16. When Joshua asked about Iplex now, Kathy told him, “It should be any day.”

On Jan. 16, when Dr. Werwath called to tell her the application had been rejected, she stood up in disbelief.

“How could that be?” she asked, dazed.

Kathy’s friend Mrs. Reimers had received a call with the same news.

“He said they had safety concerns,” Mrs. Reimers said. “This for a drug that was approved for children!”

“Safety,” Kathy repeated. “And what, exactly, is safe about A.L.S.?”

Appealing an F.D.A. Denial

Before the F.D.A.’s decision, Kathy had spared little thought for any broader meaning of her quest for Joshua. But when she met with Richard A. Samp, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Foundation a week later, her outrage went beyond her son, and beyond Iplex.

“The F.D.A. is supposed to protect American citizens,” Kathy fumed over an iced tea in Williamsburg, Va. “How does denying dying patients access to this drug serve the common good?”

Mr. Samp had handled a lawsuit by a patient advocacy group, the Abigail Alliance, that had sought to establish a constitutional right for terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs. In the case, which the group had lost on appeal in 2007, the F.D.A. claimed that it granted “nearly all” requests for compassionate use.

They would first make an administrative appeal, Mr. Samp told Kathy, asserting that the F.D.A. had violated its own guidelines. If that failed, they could pursue litigation that might allow them to raise the constitutional question again in a federal court in Virginia.

“But,” he said carefully, “that might continue for a number of years.”

Because a lawsuit cannot continue if the plaintiff dies, Mr. Samp explained that it might require forming an organization to carry it forward.

Kathy stirred her iced tea.

“I’d like to do that,” she said finally. “This case could be important to lots of patients, even if Josh is no longer involved.”

In its follow-up letter, the F.D.A. had indicated that its chief concern was that “adequately controlled trials would become virtually impossible” if it granted requests like Joshua’s. In the appeal, Mr. Samp argued that Joshua and other A.L.S. patients, whose life expectancy was measured in months, would never have an opportunity to participate in such a trial.

Kathy had avoided telling her son that the drug agency had turned them down. His swallowing had deteriorated to the point that he choked after just two sips of an Orange Crush soda he asked his mother to bring him one night. When he finally agreed to have a feeding tube inserted in mid-February, his family viewed it as a statement that he wanted to live. But the tube also represented a new frontier in the heartbreak of A.L.S., which took away small pleasures every day, and sometimes big ones.

“How cruel can you be?” Bruce barked at his younger son, Christopher, when he unwrapped a hoagie in front of Joshua.

Mr. Samp’s foundation, a conservative public interest law firm, had agreed to work on the appeal pro bono for members of Team Iplex. Kathy tried to interest Andrea Reimers in joining her appeal. But after learning of the drug agency’s decision, Mrs. Reimers said, her husband went into respiratory distress and now could barely breathe.

He died on Valentine’s Day.

Winning a Reversal

Kathy was pouring milk for her cereal on the morning of March 10 when Dr. Werwath’s number flashed on her phone. The F.D.A. had just reversed itself, he said.

Before she could take a breath, Senator Mark Warner’s office called. E-mail bleeped in as the news seeped out.

In the weeks after the appeal, Kathy learned, the F.D.A. had reached out to Insmed. The agency had persuaded the company to run a clinical trial for Iplex with several dozen A.L.S. patients, and permitted it to recoup the hefty costs directly from participants. In the trial, some of the participants would get a placebo. That way, the F.D.A. wrote on its Web site, the next wave of A.L.S. patients would learn whether the drug was in fact beneficial or harmful.

But for now, the agency had ruled, Joshua and 12 other patients would be given Iplex outside of the trial, on a compassionate use basis, if they agreed to read all the data about the risks.

Who would pay for the drug, which Insmed said could cost $100,000 a year, was unclear.

Kathy called her daughter-in-law Joy and asked her to turn the speakerphone on. She reported the news, and smiled to hear Joy tell her that Joshua had raised his eyebrows, his sign of approval. Then she sat down at her kitchen table and gazed out at the ocean.

“Oh my gosh,” she thought for the first time. “What if it doesn’t help him?”

Dr. Werwath arrived with Joshua’s first vial of Iplex at 9:10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 25.

The doctor slipped on his gloves and showed Kathy and Joy how to extract the medicine with a needle. Then the women followed the doctor into Joshua’s bedroom and watched him give the injection, which one of them would do daily.

Joshua slept most of the day.

But when Kathy visited a few days later, her son was sitting in a reclining chair in the living room, in good spirits. They watched the end of a college basketball game together. Around 11:30 the original “Airplane” movie came on.

Joshua smiled a lot. It made her smile too.

EPILOGUE: In April, Joshua signaled that he felt he was swallowing better, and to Joy and Kathy he seemed to be regaining tone in his voice. But on Easter Sunday, he was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia and is still on a ventilator. He continues to take Iplex every day.

    Fighting for a Last Chance at Life, NYT, 17.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/health/policy/17untested.html






Ex-Archbishop Speaks About Catholic Church and Homosexuality


May 15, 2009
The New York Times


In spring 2002, as the scandal over sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests was escalating, the long career of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, one of the church’s most venerable voices for change, went up in flames one May morning.

On the ABC program “Good Morning America,” the archbishop watched a man he had fallen in love with 23 years earlier say in an interview that the Milwaukee archdiocese had paid him $450,000 years before to keep quiet about his affair with the archbishop — an affair the man was now calling date rape.

The next day, the Vatican accepted Archbishop Weakland’s retirement.

Archbishop Weakland, who had been the intellectual touchstone for church reformers, has said little publicly since then. But now, in an interview and in a memoir scheduled for release next month, he is speaking out about how internal church politics affected his response to the fallout from his affair; how bishops and the Vatican cared more about the rights of abusive priests than about their victims; and why Catholic teaching on homosexuality is wrong.

“If we say our God is an all-loving god,” he said, “how do you explain that at any given time probably 400 million living on the planet at one time would be gay? Are the religions of the world, as does Catholicism, saying to those hundreds of millions of people, you have to pass your whole life without any physical, genital expression of that love?”

He said he had been aware of his homosexual orientation since he was a teenager and suppressed it until he became archbishop, when he had relationships with several men because of “loneliness that became very strong.”

Archbishop Weakland, 82, said he was probably the first bishop to come out of the closet voluntarily. He said he was doing so not to excuse his actions but to give an honest account of why it happened and to raise questions about the church’s teaching that homosexuality is “objectively disordered.”

“Those are bad words because they are pejorative,” he said.

Archbishop Weakland’s autobiography, “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), covers his hardscrabble youth in Pennsylvania, his election as the worldwide leader of the Benedictine Order and his appointment by Pope Paul VI to the archbishop’s seat in Milwaukee, where he served for 25 years.

“He was one of the most gifted leaders in the post-Vatican II church in America,” said the Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of America, a Catholic magazine, “and certainly beloved by the left, and sadly that gave his critics more ammunition.”

In an interview at the Archbishop Weakland Center, which houses the archdiocesan cathedral offices in downtown Milwaukee, Archbishop Weakland said the church opened itself to change in the 1960s and ’70s after the Second Vatican Council but became increasingly centralized and doctrinally rigid under Pope John Paul II.

Archbishop Weakland was among those who publicly questioned the need for a male-only celibate priesthood. He also led American bishops in a two-year process of writing a pastoral letter on economic justice, holding hearings on the subject across the country.

A later effort by the American bishops to issue a pastoral letter on women was quashed by the Vatican, he said, because the Vatican did not want to give the national bishops conferences the authority to issue sweeping teaching documents.

The archbishop said it was partly because of his strained relations with Pope John Paul II that he did not tell Vatican officials in 1997 when he was threatened with a lawsuit by Paul J. Marcoux, the man with whom he had a relationship nearly 20 years before and who had appeared on “Good Morning America.”

Mr. Marcoux said then that he had been deprived of income from marketing a project he called “Christodrama” because of Archbishop Weakland’s interference. Archbishop Weakland said he probably should have gone to Rome and explained that he had had a relationship with Mr. Marcoux, that he had ended it by writing an emotional letter that Mr. Marcoux still had and that the archbishop’s lawyers regarded Mr. Marcoux’s threats as blackmail.

But, the archbishop said, a highly placed friend in Rome advised him that church officials preferred that such things be hushed up, which is “the Roman way.”

“I suppose, also, being frank, I wouldn’t have wanted to be labeled in Rome at that point as gay,” Archbishop Weakland said. “Rome is a little village.”

Asked if he had regrets about the $450,000 payment to Mr. Marcoux, he said, “I certainly worry about the sum.”

The morning in 2002 that Mr. Marcoux surfaced on national television, Archbishop Weakland said he phoned the pope’s representative, or apostolic nuncio, in Washington — Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo — who, he said, told him, “Of course you are going to deny it.”

Archbishop Weakland said he told the nuncio that while he could deny emphatically that it was date rape, “I can’t deny that something happened between us.” (Archbishop Montalvo died in 2006.)

Archbishop Weakland is still pained that his scandal, involving a man in his 30s, became intertwined with the larger church scandal over child sexual abuse.

But at the time, many Catholics in Milwaukee said they were angrier about the secret settlement with Mr. Marcoux than with the sexual liaison.

Archbishop Weakland and the Milwaukee archdiocese are also the target of several lawsuits accusing them of failing to remove abusive priests, allowing more minors to be victimized.

In the interview, he blamed psychologists for advising bishops that perpetrators could be treated and returned to work, and he blamed the Vatican’s tribunals for spending years debating whether to remove abusers from the priesthood. In one case, he said, the Vatican courts took so long deciding whether to defrock a priest who had abused dozens of deaf students that the priest died before a decision was reached.

“The concern was more about the priests than about the victims,” Archbishop Weakland said.

In Milwaukee, Peter Isely, the Midwest director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Archbishop Weakland ultimately failed his people.

Mr. Isely pointed out that while Archbishop Weakland was waiting for the Vatican courts to defrock abusive priests, he allowed them to continue working in ministry without informing parishioners of their past. And he said the $450,000 payment was particularly galling to victims because many received “no compensation whatsoever.”

In June, Archbishop Weakland, who has been living in a Catholic retirement community since his resignation, is moving to St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, N.J., where he said he would be closer to his family in Pennsylvania and grow old in the care of a community of Benedictine monks.

    Ex-Archbishop Speaks About Catholic Church and Homosexuality, NYT, 15.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/us/15weakland.html?hpw






More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops


April 27, 2009
The New York Times


CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two months after the local atheist organization here put up a billboard saying “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone,” the group’s 13 board members met in Laura and Alex Kasman’s living room to grapple with the fallout.

The problem was not that the group, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, had attracted an outpouring of hostility. It was the opposite. An overflow audience of more than 100 had showed up for their most recent public symposium, and the board members discussed whether it was time to find a larger place.

And now parents were coming out of the woodwork asking for family-oriented programs where they could meet like-minded nonbelievers.

“Is everyone in favor of sponsoring a picnic for humanists with families?” asked the board president, Jonathan Lamb, a 27-year-old meteorologist, eliciting a chorus of “ayes.”

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.

“It’s not about carrying banners or protesting,” said Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which has about 150 members on the coast of the Carolinas. “The most important thing is coming out of the closet.”

Polls show that the ranks of atheists are growing. The American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released last month, found that those who claimed “no religion” were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years.

Nationally, the “nones” in the population nearly doubled, to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990. In South Carolina, they more than tripled, to 10 percent from 3 percent. Not all the “nones” are necessarily committed atheists or agnostics, but they make up a pool of potential supporters.

Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration’s embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.

Ten national organizations that variously identify themselves as atheists, humanists, freethinkers and others who go without God have recently united to form the Secular Coalition for America, of which Mr. Silverman is president. These groups, once rivals, are now pooling resources to lobby in Washington for separation of church and state.

A wave of donations, some in the millions of dollars, has enabled the hiring of more paid professional organizers, said Fred Edwords, a longtime atheist leader who just started his own umbrella group, the United Coalition of Reason, which plans to spawn 20 local groups around the country in the next year.

Despite changing attitudes, polls continue to show that atheists are ranked lower than any other minority or religious group when Americans are asked whether they would vote for or approve of their child marrying a member of that group.

Over lunch with some new atheist joiners at a downtown Charleston restaurant serving shrimp and grits, one young mother said that her husband was afraid to allow her to go public as an atheist because employers would refuse to hire him.

But another member, Beverly Long, a retired school administrator who now teaches education at the Citadel, said that when she first moved to Charleston from Toronto in 2001, “the first question people asked me was, What church do you belong to?” Ms. Long attended Wednesday dinners at a Methodist church, for the social interaction, but never felt at home. Since her youth, she had doubted the existence of God but did not discuss her views with others.

Ms. Long found the secular humanists through a newspaper advertisement and attended a meeting. Now, she is ready to go public, she said, especially after doing some genealogical research recently. “I had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution so I could speak my mind,” she said.

Until recent years, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry were local pariahs. Mr. Silverman — whose specialty license plate, one of many offered by the state, says “In Reason We Trust” — was invited to give the invocation at the Charleston City Council once, but half the council members walked out. The local chapter of Habitat for Humanity would not let the Secular Humanists volunteer to build houses wearing T-shirts that said “Non Prophet Organization,” he said.

When their billboard went up in January, with their Web site address displayed prominently, they expected hate mail.

“But most of the e-mails were grateful,” said Laura Kasman, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The board members meeting in the Kasmans’ living room were an unlikely mix that included a gift store owner, a builder, a grandmother, a retired nursing professor, a retired Navy officer, an administrator at a primate sanctuary and a church musician. They are also diverse in their attitudes toward religion.

Loretta Haskell, the church musician, said: “I did struggle at one point as to whether or not I should be making music in churches, given my position on things. But at the same time I like using my music to move people, to give them comfort. And what I’ve found is, I am not one of the humanists who feels that religion is a bad thing.”

The group has had mixed reactions to President Obama, who acknowledged nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. “I sent him a thank-you note,” Ms. Kasman said. But Sharon Fratepietro, who is married to Mr. Silverman, said, “It seemed like one long religious ceremony, with a moment of lip service.”

Part of what is giving the movement momentum is the proliferation of groups on college campuses. The Secular Student Alliance now has 146 chapters, up from 42 in 2003.

At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, 19 students showed up for a recent evening meeting of the “Pastafarians,” named for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a popular spoof on religion dreamed up by an opponent of intelligent design, the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them.

Andrew Cederdahl, the group’s co-founder, asked for volunteers for the local food bank and for a coming debate with a nearby Christian college. Then Mr. Cederdahl opened the floor to members to tell their “coming out stories.”

Andrew Morency, who attended a Christian high school, said that when he got to college and studied evolutionary biology he decided that “creationists lie.”

Josh Streetman, who once attended the very Christian college that the Pastafarians were about to debate, said he knew the Bible too well to be sure that Scripture is true. Like Mr. Streetman, many of the other students at the meeting were highly literate in the Bible and religious history.

In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public’s stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering “Free Hugs” from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”

    More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops, NYT, 27.4.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/us/27atheist.html






Milwaukee Archbishop Chosen to Succeed Egan


February 24, 2009
The New York Times


Pope Benedict XVI on Monday named Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who has led the archdiocese of Milwaukee for the last seven years, to succeed Cardinal Edward M. Egan as the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York.

Archbishop Dolan, who has a towering frame and a gregarious presence, is orthodox in his theology but more likely to use persuasion than punishment on Catholics who do not share his views. In choosing him, the pope passed over other candidates equally conservative but more confrontational with Catholic priests, parishioners and politicians who question church teaching.

The appointment marks the first time in the 200-year history of the archdiocese that power will be transferred from a living prelate to his successor, in a post that Pope John Paul II once called “archbishop of the capital of the world.”

Cardinal Egan, who is 76 and served for nine years, focused on the business and financial duties of his office. He excelled at fund-raising, closed many parishes and schools and says he erased a $48 million budget gap left by his predecessor, Cardinal John J. O’Connor. But his leadership style had its critics, including many priests and parishioners who felt the cardinal was removed and imperious.

Archbishop Dolan, by contrast, has earned a reputation for being convivial with parishioners, accessible to the news media and not above smoking cigars with his seminarians. Yet behind the scenes, he has quietly reeled in theologians and priests who question church doctrine. And he has disappointed advocates for victims of sexual abuse, who accuse him of failing to find and remove all offenders from the ministry — though they acknowledge that he was one of few bishops to make public a list of abusive priests.

He turned 59 this month, making him relatively young for such a high position and for such a prominent seat — one that has historically led to a promotion to cardinal. If he serves until age 75, when bishops are required to send the pope a letter offering to retire, he will have ample opportunity to make a mark in one of the nation’s most visible pulpits.

“He’s the type of man that the pope is looking for as a bishop,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar and close observer of American bishops. “He’s intelligent, he’s scholarly, he is pastoral and people like him.

“One of the major things in support of him is the fact that he hasn’t made any major mistakes,” added Father Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. “Most bishops make the headlines when they mess up. And he has not done that. He hasn’t said anything stupid, hasn’t gotten any group either on the right or the left really mad at him.”

Archbishop Dolan has never studied or lived in New York, and does not speak Spanish, the mother tongue of one-third of the roughly 2.5 million Catholics in the New York archdiocese. That number is growing rapidly as new immigrants from Latin America fill the pews being vacated by other groups.

But in Milwaukee, where Latinos make up 14 percent of all Catholics, he was attentive to his Latino parishes and priests.

The New York archdiocese, while ethnically diverse, is still dominated in many ways by Catholics of Irish ancestry. As an Irish-American, Archbishop Dolan takes the helm from a long chain of cardinals whose roots were almost exclusively in Ireland.

His formal installation is scheduled for April 15 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. He was to celebrate mass there on Monday morning with Cardinal Egan. In a statement, Archbishop Dolan addressed New York’s Catholics, saying, “I pledge to you my love, my life, my heart, and I can tell you already that I love you.”

The archdiocese, the nation’s second largest after Los Angeles, encompasses three New York City boroughs — Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — as well as seven counties stretching as far north as the Catskills.

It has undergone huge shifts in recent decades: Ethnic Catholics who once lived in cities have emigrated to the suburbs. The pews in some Manhattan parishes now are nearly empty, while some in Rockland are overflowing. And though New York is better off than most dioceses in its ratio of priests to parishioners, priests are aging and retiring far more quickly than new seminarians are signing up to take their place.

The Rev. John E. Hurley, executive director of the National Pastoral Life Center, a church training and advocacy group based in New York City, said that among the challenges facing a new archbishop are “the shortage of clergy and a need for increased participation of the laity in leadership roles in the life of the local parish and community.

“When you go west of the Mississippi, you have one pastor serving three parishes, and that’s going to hit here in the next 10 years,” he said.

When Archbishop Dolan was sent to Milwaukee seven years ago, Catholics there were still reeling from the sudden and spectacular downfall of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, an intellectual who was beloved by the church’s liberal wing. Archbishop Weakland admitted that he secretly paid $450,000 to buy the silence of a man who claimed that the archbishop had sexually assaulted him.

Archbishop Dolan, who had served as an auxiliary bishop in St. Louis but was never before in charge of a diocese, had to restore confidence and clean up the mess. He encouraged active participation by lay people, and allowed a lay woman appointed by his predecessor to stay on as chancellor.

He grappled with financial problems arising in part from settlements with victims of sexual abuse by priests — a sum the archdiocese says has totaled $26 million. Last year, Archbishop Dolan laid off nearly one-fifth of the 150 workers in the archdiocese. Before closing a $3 million budget deficit this past year, he openly discussed the option of declaring bankruptcy, as some other dioceses have done.

Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a group of Catholic clergy and laity, nevertheless said she was pleased at the prospect of Archbishop Dolan’s leading New York because he has supported financial transparency and good business ethics.

“His track record in Milwaukee bodes very well for New York,” Ms. Robinson said. “New York will be very well served.”

In his second week in Milwaukee, where the Green Bay Packers are themselves a religion, Archbishop Dolan began his homily at an outdoor Mass by donning one of the “cheese-head” hats worn by Packers fans. It produced laughter, and a photograph that led to some criticism from church traditionalists who accused him of defiling the Mass.

Unlike most bishops, whose degrees are in moral theology, philosophy or (like Cardinal Egan) canon law, Archbishop Dolan is a church historian, and has studied how American archbishops in earlier eras helped shape the church. At Catholic University of America in Washington, he studied under Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, a liberal-leaning church historian who was also close to Cardinal O’Connor, said Michael Sean Winters, a Catholic writer who also studied with Monsignor Ellis.

Archbishop Dolan was born and grew up in St. Louis, and served in parish ministry there for five years. He was groomed early for the hierarchy, and chosen to study at the prestigious Pontifical North American College, a seminary in Rome where many of the top American students are sent to prepare for the priesthood.

He returned to the college as rector from 1994 to 2001, where he was known to join in cigar-smoking sessions with students and visitors, with gusto.

Mr. Winters, who writes a blog at America magazine, a Jesuit weekly, and was among those who predicted Archbishop Dolan’s appointment, said, “He took on the task of reworking the seminary there, and working on the formation of priests.

“There was a sense that priests coming back were a little too clerical and didn’t know how to treat people,” he said, and Archbishop Dolan helped change that.

In New York, the new prelate will encounter many priests and members of religious orders who confide that they are desperate for a new leader. Three years ago, Cardinal Egan lashed out at priests he suspected had been involved in writing an anonymous letter that accused him of being autocratic.

The letter, published in a blog and picked up by the press, declared that the relationship between Cardinal Egan and his priests was “fractured and seemingly hopeless.” Some priests say the relationship deteriorated further after that.

Against this backdrop, the congenial Archbishop Dolan is likely to be greeted as an emergency rescue worker.

“In New York, there’s clearly a morale problem among the clergy,” Mr. Winters said. “He is somebody who’s worked in the seminaries, who’s really got a sense of how you encourage priests. He will be great for morale.”

    Milwaukee Archbishop Chosen to Succeed Egan, NYT, 24.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/nyregion/24bishop.html?hp






Muslim TV Exec Accused of Beheading Wife in NY


February 18, 2009
Filed at 2:06 a.m. ET
The New York Times


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -- The crime drips with brutal irony: a woman decapitated, allegedly by her estranged husband, in the offices of the television network the couple founded with the hope of countering Muslim stereotypes.

Muzzammil ''Mo'' Hassan is accused of beheading his wife last week, days after she filed for divorce. Authorities have not discussed the role religion or culture might have played, but the slaying gave rise to speculation that it was the sort of ''honor killing'' more common in countries half a world away, including the couple's native Pakistan.

Funeral services for Aasiya Hassan, 37, were Tuesday. Her 44-year-old husband is scheduled to appear for a felony hearing Wednesday.

The Hassans lived in Orchard Park -- a well-off Buffalo suburb that hadn't seen a homicide since 1986 -- and started Bridges TV there in 2004 with the message of developing understanding between North America and the Middle East and South Asia. The network, available across the U.S. and Canada, was believed to be the first English-language cable station aimed at the rapidly growing Muslim demographic.

Orchard Park Police Chief Andrew Benz said his officers had responded to domestic incidents involving the couple, most recently Feb. 6, the day Mo Hassan was served with the divorce papers and an order of protection.

''I've never heard him raise his voice,'' said Paul Moskal, who became friendly with the couple while he was chief counsel for the FBI in Buffalo. Moskal would answer questions in forums aired on Bridges TV that were intended to improve understanding between Muslim-Americans and law enforcement.

''His personal life kind of betrayed what he tried to portray publicly,'' Moskal said.

On Feb. 12, Hassan went to a police station and told officers his wife was dead at the TV studio.

''We found her laying in the hallway the offices were off of,'' Benz said. Aasiya Hassan's head was near her body.

''I don't know if (the method of death) does mean anything,'' said the chief, who would not discuss what weapon may have been used. ''We certainly want to investigate anything that has any kind of merit. It's not a normal thing you would see.''

Hassan was not represented by an attorney at an initial appearance on a charge of second-degree murder. Neither police nor the Erie County district attorney's office knew if he had hired a lawyer.

The New York president of the National Organization for Women, Marcia Pappas, condemned prosecutors for referring to the death as an apparent case of domestic violence.

''This was, apparently, a terroristic version of 'honor killing,''' a statement from NOW said.

Nadia Shahram, who teaches family law and Islam at the University at Buffalo Law School, explained honor killing as a practice still accepted among fanatical Muslim men who feel betrayed by their wives.

''If a woman breaks the law which the husband or father has placed for the wife or daughter, honor killing has been justified,'' said Shahram, who was a regular panelist on a law show produced by Bridges TV. ''It happens all the time. It's been practiced in countries such as Pakistan and in India.''

Acquaintances said Mo Hassan was not overtly religious -- co-workers did not see him pray, for instance. But he seemed to adhere to many traditional practices.

Nancy Sanders, the television station's news director for 2 1/2 years, remembers him asking her to move her feet during her job interview so he would not see her legs. She was wearing a skirt and stockings.

He also would not let women enter his office unless his wife was there, and he blocked the station from airing a story about the first Muslim woman to win the title of Miss England in 2005, Sanders said.

Acquaintances said Aasiya Hassan was trained as an architect. Sanders described her as obedient to her husband, and that she wore a traditional hijab for a time but later stopped without explanation.

''She was beautiful, small, delicately built,'' she said, ''while Mo would fill up a door frame. I always thought of him as a gentle giant.''

Sanders, who left Bridges TV a year ago, said co-workers traded stories about Hassan's apparent violent streak, including one which had him running his wife's car off the road while the couple's two young children were inside. Aasiya herself never spoke of it, she said.

''I just do not feel it was an honor killing,'' Sanders added. ''I think it was domestic abuse that got out of control.''

Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita did not immediately respond to The Associated Press' request for a copy of the order of protection issued against Mo Hassan. Divorce records are sealed in New York state. Aasiya Hassan's lawyer would not reveal the reasons for the divorce filing.

Hassan graduated with an MBA from the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester in 1996, according to the TV station's Web site. Bridges broadcasts all over the United States and in Canada on various cable providers and Verizon FiOS. As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, the network was not broadcasting in the Buffalo area.

There was no answer at the network on Tuesday and it's Web site has a message saying Bridges is shocked and saddened and requests privacy.


On the Net:

Bridges: http://www.bridgestv.com

    Muslim TV Exec Accused of Beheading Wife in NY, NYT, 18.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/02/18/us/AP-Wife-Beheaded.html






Religion News in Brief


February 11, 2009
Filed at 12:27 p.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW YORK (AP) -- Four Roman Catholic schools in Brooklyn that are in danger of closing due to declining enrollment might instead be converted into publicly funded charter schools under an unusual church-state partnership.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city and the Diocese of Brooklyn are exploring a pilot program that would keep the schools open with taxpayer dollars, but also bring management and curriculum changes, including an end to religious instruction.

The idea is modeled on a similar conversion of seven Washington area parochial schools last year.

The plan faces obstacles. Most notably, state law currently prohibits conversions of religious schools into charter schools, so the program would require legislative action before being put in place, Bloomberg said.

But the mayor said the partnership might be a good fit. City schools are short of space and looking for ways to expand, and Catholic schools have unused space, a dwindling number of students and a need for new funding.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said Feb. 7 that the mayor was effectively throwing a ''life preserver'' to drowning schools -- one he was inclined to grab even though it would mean an end to the schools' Catholic identity.

------ Kentucky bishops join condemnation of schismatic bishop who denied


FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- The state's Roman Catholic bishops affirmed their commitment to strong Catholic-Jewish ties after the Vatican rehabilitated a bishop who denied the Holocaust.

The Vatican caused an uproar last month when it lifted the excommunication of four bishops from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist group opposed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of the bishops, British-born Richard Williamson, had said in a TV interview that he did not believe any Jews were gassed during the Holocaust.

In a Feb. 6 statement released by the Kentucky Catholic Conference, the bishops said that ''we have enjoyed groundbreaking, interreligious relationships'' in the state.

The bishops also said that they shared the ''gravity'' of Pope Benedict XVI's ''concern about any expression of anti-Semitism or any statements -- written or spoken -- that attempt to deny or diminish the Holocaust.''

Several U.S. bishops, including Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have made similar statements condemning Williamson for denying the Holocaust. The Vatican, bowing to the growing furor, last week demanded that Williamson recant his views.


Austria: Cardinal defends `Katrina' bishop

VIENNA (AP) -- Austria's top Roman Catholic official is defending a newly appointed bishop who touched off criticism for suggesting that God used Hurricane Katrina to punish New Orleans.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn says he thinks the Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner has done an ''outstanding'' job leading his flock in the western Austrian city of Linz.

Pope Benedict XVI promoted Wagner to the post of auxiliary bishop in Linz. But church groups and fellow priests have criticized that decision and taken issue with Wagner's belief that sin in New Orleans brought on the 2005 killer storm.

Schoenborn wrote in his weekly newspaper column Feb. 6 that 54-year-old Wagner ''may be a little sharp-edged'' but he's a good pastor.


New Jonah leaves Nineveh in Iraq to preach Gospel in Michigan

BAY CITY, Mich. (AP) -- The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Jonah, who receives God's call to travel to Nineveh and warn its people to give up their evil ways. Now a new Jonah from Nineveh has come to Michigan to preach the Christian Gospel.

The Rev. Jonah Salim is a 33-year-old political refugee from Iraq. Nineveh province in northern Iraq includes the city of Mosul, also known as Nineveh.

Presbyterian leaders from around the area came to Saginaw to be on hand as he became a minister this month in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

''Today, your action confirms that we are all equals in God's eyes,'' Salim told more than 100 representatives from the Presbytery of Lake Huron, gathered to decide whether to accept a transfer of record of Salim's ordination from an Egyptian seminary.

The Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Church has 2.3 million members, about 14,000 ordained ministers and about 10,000 congregations nationwide.

Over the past year, Salim took five ordination exams and had to show his knowledge of the Bible and understanding of faith issues, said the Rev. Doug Tracy.

''He wrote a biblical exegesis demonstrating his knowledge of biblical languages, and part of the fun for those of us who got to read it was we saw interpretations of the text presented in English, in Hebrew and in Aramaic,'' Tracy said.

Salim fled to the U.S. two years ago, citing fear of persecution from Muslim extremists. He arrived in Bay City in 2007 and received asylum to stay in the U.S. in June.


Fire destroys landmark Mormon church in rural Nevada farming town

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- A pre-dawn fire reduced a landmark Mormon church to rubble, destroying one of the oldest buildings in the Moapa Valley.

No one was injured in the Feb. 4 blaze that destroyed Logandale's Mormon church in the small southern Nevada farming town about 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Clark County fire spokesman Scott Allison said FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents joined county fire investigators probing the cause of the fire, but said there was no immediate evidence of foul play.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake President Asahel Robison said nothing was reported amiss when a women's group left the church after a meeting the night before. But he noted that electric fans were running overnight to help dry carpets after a cleaning.

The building had opened in 1951.

''Some older folks who helped build that building watched, helpless, as a large piece of their lives went up in flames,'' Robison said of the worship center for almost 350 families and more than 1,000 members.

Allison called the cement block and wood building a total loss, but no damage estimate was available.

    Religion News in Brief, NYT, 11.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/02/11/us/AP-REL-Religion-Briefs.html






For Catholics, Heaven Moves a Step Closer


February 10, 2009
The New York Times


The announcement in church bulletins and on Web sites has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and wariness by others. But mainly, it has gone over the heads of a vast generation of Roman Catholics who have no idea what it means: “Bishop Announces Plenary Indulgences.”

In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.

The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (where Martin Luther denounces the selling of them in 1517 and ignites the Protestant Reformation) simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world.

“Why are we bringing it back?” asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. “Because there is sin in the world.”

Like the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the indulgence was one of the traditions decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops that set a new tone of simplicity and informality for the church. Its revival has been viewed as part of a conservative resurgence that has brought some quiet changes and some highly controversial ones, like Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic bishops who reject the council’s reforms.

The indulgence is among the less-noticed, less-disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.

According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it. You can get one for yourself, or for someone else, living or dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1857 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.

It has no currency in the bad place.

“It’s what?” asked Marta de Alvarado, 34, a bank cashier in Manhattan, when told that indulgences were available this year at several churches in New York City. “I just don’t know anything about it,” she said, leaving St. Patrick’s Cathedral at lunchtime. “I’m going to look into it, though.”

The return of indulgences began with Pope John Paul II, who authorized bishops to offer them in 2000 as part of the celebration of the church’s third millennium. But the offers have increased markedly under his successor, Pope Benedict, who has made plenary indulgences part of church anniversary celebrations nine times in the last three years. The current offer is tied to the yearlong celebration of St. Paul, which continues through June.

Dioceses in the United States have responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This year’s offer has been energetically promoted in places like Washington, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., and Tulsa, Okla. It appeared prominently on the Web site of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which announced that any Catholic could receive an indulgence at any of six churches on any day, or at dozens more on specific days, by fulfilling the basic requirements: going to confession, receiving holy communion, saying a prayer for the pope and achieving “complete detachment from any inclination to sin.”

But just a few miles west, in the Archdiocese of New York, indulgences are available at only one church, and the archdiocesan Web site makes no mention of them. (Cardinal Edward M. Egan “encourages all people to receive the blessings of indulgences,” said his spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, who added that he was unaware that the offer was missing from the Web site, but would soon have it posted.)

The indulgences, experts said, tend to be advertised more openly in dioceses where the bishop is more traditionalist, or in places with fewer tensions between liberal and conservative Catholics.

“In our diocese, folks are just glad for any opportunity to do something Catholic,” said Mary Woodward, director of evangelization for the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., where only 3 percent of the population is Catholic. At church recently, she said, parishioners flocked to her for information about indulgences. “What all do I have to do again to get one of those?” she said they asked.

Even some priests admit that the rules are hard to grasp.

“It’s not that easy to explain to people who have never heard of it,” said the Rev. Gilbert Martinez, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan, the designated site in the New York archdiocese for obtaining indulgences. “But it was interesting: I had a number of people come in and say, ‘Father, I haven’t been to confession in 20 years, but this’ ” — the availability of an indulgence — “ ‘made me think maybe it wasn’t too late.’ ”

Getting Catholics back into the confession booth, in fact, was one of the underlying motivations for reintroducing the indulgence. In a 2001 speech, Pope John Paul II described the newly reborn tradition as “a happy incentive” for confession.

“Confessions have been down for years and the church is very worried about it,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a Jesuit and former editor of the weekly Catholic magazine America. In a secularized culture of pop psychology and self-help, he said, “the church wants the idea of ‘personal sin’ back in the equation. Indulgences are a way of reminding people of the importance of penance.

“The good news is we’re not selling them anymore,” he added.

To remain in good standing, Catholics are required to confess their sins at least once a year. But in a survey last year by a research group at Georgetown University, three-quarters of Catholics said they went to confession less often or not at all.

Under the rules in the “Manual of Indulgences,” published by the Vatican, confession is a prerequisite for getting an indulgence.

Among liberal Catholic theologians, the return of the indulgence seems to be more of a curiosity than a cause for alarm. “Personally, I think we’re beyond the time when indulgences mean very much,” said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame who supports the ordination of women and the right of priests to marry. “It’s like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube of original thought. Most Catholics in this country, if you tell them they can get a plenary indulgence, will shrug their shoulders.”

One recent afternoon outside Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills, Queens, two church volunteers disagreed on the relevance of indulgences for modern Catholics.

Octavia Andrade, 64, a retired secretary, laughed as she recalled a time when children would race through the rosary repeatedly to get as many indulgences as they could — usually in increments of 5 or 10 years — “as if we needed them, then.”

Still, she supports their reintroduction. “Anything old coming back, I’m in favor of it,” she said. “More fervor is a good thing.”

Karen Nassauer, 61, a retired hospital social worker who meets Mrs. Andrade almost daily for Mass, said she was baffled by the return to a practice she never quite understood to begin with.

“I mean, I’m not saying it is necessarily wrong,” she said. “But I had always figured they were going to let this fade into the background, to be honest. What does it mean to get ‘time off’ in Purgatory? What is ‘five years’ in terms of eternity?”

The latest indulgence offers de-emphasize the years-in-Purgatory formulations of old in favor of a less specific accounting, with more focus on ways in which people can help themselves — and one another — come to terms with sin.

“It’s more about praying for the benefit of others, doing good deeds, acts of charity,” said the Rev. Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese.

After Catholics, the people most expert on the topic are probably Lutherans, whose church was born from the schism over indulgences and whose leaders have met regularly with Vatican officials since the 1960s in an effort to mend their differences.

“It has been something of a mystery to us as to why now,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael Root, dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., who has participated in those meetings. The renewal of indulgences, he said, has “not advanced” the dialogue.

“Our main problem has always been the question of quantifying God’s blessing,” Dr. Root said. Lutherans believe that divine forgiveness is a given, but not something people can influence.

But for Catholic leaders, most prominently the pope, the focus in recent years has been less on what Catholics have in common with other religious groups than on what sets them apart — including the half-forgotten mystery of the indulgence.

“It faded away with a lot of things in the church,” said Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn. “But it was never given up. It was always there. We just want to people to return to the ideas they used to know.”

    For Catholics, Heaven Moves a Step Closer, NYT, 10.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/nyregion/10indulgence.html?hp






For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis


January 18, 2009
The New York Times


It is a familiar drill in nearly all of the nation’s Roman Catholic school systems: a new alarm every few years over falling enrollment; church leaders huddling over what to do; parents rallying to save their schools. And then the bad news.

When the Diocese of Brooklyn last week proposed closing 14 more elementary schools, it was not the deepest but only the latest of a thousand cuts suffered, one tearful closing announcement at a time, as enrollment in the nation’s Catholic schools has steadily dropped by more than half from its peak of five million 40 years ago.

But recently, after years of what frustrated parents describe as inertia in the church hierarchy, a sense of urgency seems to be gripping many Catholics who suddenly see in the shrinking enrollment a once unimaginable prospect: a country without Catholic schools.

From the ranks of national church leaders to the faithful in the pews, there are dozens of local efforts to forge a new future for parochial education by rescuing the remaining schools or, if need be, reinventing them. The efforts are all being driven, in one way or another, by a question in a University of Notre Dame task force report in 2006: “Will it be said of our generation that we presided over the demise” of Catholic schools?

The Archdiocese of Chicago and dioceses in Memphis and Wichita, Kan., have begun or expanded radical experiments in recruiting new students and financing their educations. Administrators in a dozen dioceses, including Brooklyn’s, are rethinking the century-old norms of parish-run schools, where overworked priests have until recently been the single-handed bosses. These dioceses are now recruiting parents and alumni to play a bigger decision-making role.

A series of major studies in the past few years, including one by the White House Domestic Policy Council, have described the dwindling presence of parochial schools as a crisis not just for Catholics but for society.

The losses have already been deeply felt in impoverished urban neighborhoods, where parochial schools have attracted poor and minority students — including non-Catholics — seeking havens of safety and order from troubled public schools. Roughly 20 percent of parochial school students are not Catholic, according to experts.

The Archdiocese of Washington was so desperate to save seven struggling parochial schools last year that it opted for a solution that shook Catholic educators to the core. It took down the crucifixes, hauled away the statues of the Virgin Mary, and — in its own word — “converted” the schools in the nation’s capital into city charter schools.

The Washington choice seemed to limn in its most extreme form the predicament facing Catholic education: How to maintain a Catholic school tradition of no-frills educational rigor, religious teaching and character-building — a system that has helped shape generations of America’s striving classes since the turn of the last century — when Catholics are no longer signing up their children.

“It was taken for granted for a long time that Catholic schools would always be there,” said Dr. Karen M. Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, a lobbying group. “People are beginning to realize that this is a false assumption.”

The Rev. Timothy R. Scully, who led the Notre Dame task force study widely credited with igniting the current self-examination, was more blunt.

“There is a window open, and we may have a chance to reverse the trend of decline,” he said. “But I’m not sure how long it will remain open.”

Why this matters deeply to committed Catholics has been articulated repeatedly by parents, students and alumni of the nation’s roughly 2,000 parochial schools shuttered since 1990, a majority in just the last eight years.

Parents in Brooklyn last week, echoing those before them, said it was about bonds of faith, place and time.

“My grandmother and grandfather, my aunts and uncles, both my parents, my wife and I and now our kids have gone to Holy Name,” said Martin J. Cottingham, 38, a member of the class of 1984 of Holy Name of Jesus elementary school in Brooklyn, which would merge with a neighboring school under the Brooklyn Diocese’s reorganization plan. “The world can change, but if you got your school, your church, your sports all within a couple of blocks, you’re safe.”

At its peak in 1965, the church’s network of parochial schools numbered more than 12,000 in the United States. The bulk of those were built starting at the turn of the century, when Catholic bishops commanded every parish to build one, largely from concern that waves of Catholic immigrants then arriving from Ireland and Italy would be lost in a public school system that was openly hostile to their beliefs.

The goal set by the bishops in 1884 — “every Catholic child in a Catholic school” — was never quite met. But by 1965, roughly half of all Catholic children in America attended Catholic elementary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

The number today is about 15 percent. Among Latinos, the fastest-growing church group — soon to comprise a majority of Catholics in the United States — it is only 3 percent.

The church has blamed a stew of confluent trends, including the shortage of nuns and priests who once ran the schools at no extra cost and have been replaced by lay staff with pension benefits; the post-Vatican II relaxation of religious obligations, which once included sending one’s children to the parish school; and the demographic shifts by which relatively well-paid working-class parishioners of a generation ago were replaced in the pews by Latinos and other immigrants who are part of the working poor.

Disappointed parents, as well as education professionals, cite rising tuition as another factor. But they also say the church hierarchy has been slow to react to societal change and unwilling to admit to problems, and is not especially well trained to run businesses — schools — in environments like New York, where charter schools and a generally improving public school system offer parents, Catholic or otherwise, options they have not always had.

“There is not a single seminary in the United States offering courses in finance, marketing, business management or long-term planning,” said Richard J. Burke, president of Catholic School Management, a consultancy firm in Connecticut that has provided those services to hundreds of parochial schools — most still open, he said — over the past 35 years. “Parish schools today simply cannot be operated by individual pastors.”

Recently, many Catholic leaders have come to agree.

In Brooklyn, the centerpiece of the five-year plan unveiled last week by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio is a two-tiered school management structure, with parish priests left in charge of religious matters. A board of laypeople, selected by priests and diocesan officials, would handle just about everything else: marketing, recruitment, managing the finances, even hiring principals.

While reserving the parish priest’s right to veto his board’s decisions, the plan clearly sets a premium on collaboration and on what Bishop DiMarzio called a “communion” of schools and dedicated people. That communion would cut across parish lines, as well as the line of authority that once separated clergy and laity.

“This is a paradigm shift, a whole new way of thinking about our schools,” said Auxiliary Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of the Brooklyn Diocese, who spearheaded the six-month assessment behind the new plan.

In the Archdiocese of New York, which lost 5,000 parochial school pupils last year alone, plans are under way to adopt a similar approach, tapping into the administrative and business talents of parents, alumni and wealthy donors. “Supporting Catholic schools is the obligation of the entire Catholic community,” said Timothy J. McNiff, the archdiocesan schools superintendent, adding that no decision had been made about further school closings. The diocese has closed 15 since the 2006-7 school year.

In Wichita and Memphis, where two of the earliest experiments in reinventing traditional parochial schools were started, Catholic educators see cause for optimism. The Wichita Diocese has mounted a campaign since 1985, asking its 120,000 Catholics to tithe as much as 8 percent of household income to its ministries, which include 39 schools.

The money was not earmarked solely for the schools, but it has allowed all of them to eliminate tuition starting in 2002, with enrollment approaching a 40-year high of 11,000.

In Memphis, with a small Catholic population, the diocese turned to private donors and philanthropic foundations to help support its 30 schools, particularly eight urban schools where only 10 percent of the pupils are Catholic. The diocese has since reopened those eight schools, which had closed because of budget problems, and added 1,500 students systemwide.

In the last few years, research papers published at Catholic universities like Notre Dame and Fordham and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles have explored alternatives like dedicating church resources to educating only the poor, only the affluent or only children with disabilities.

What most proposals have in common is broadening the base of financial support. Some call for including all Catholics in the diocese; others focus on wealthy philanthropists; some use marketing campaigns aimed at filling empty seats with children, Catholic or not.

“The strength of parochial schools has always been the parish community,” Bishop Caggiano said. “But with the mobility of individuals today, that strength can also be a weakness, keeping people from looking beyond to the larger community.”

But it is that small community of family and friends that Catholics cite as the heart of the parochial school experience: looking around in church on Sunday and seeing one’s classmates, or knowing the names of the solemn young altar servers at the funeral Mass of one’s parent. It is the parochial in the parochial school.

Debbie DaGiau, mother of a seventh grader at Blessed Sacrament School in Queens, which is marked for closing this year, said that for the sake of that experience, some parents work two jobs to pay the $3,600 tuition.

“I send Matthew to this particular Catholic school because the school and church and parish are together,” she said. Since the announcement of the school’s proposed closing, Ms. DaGiau said, parents have mobilized to fight, raising funds and marshaling alumni.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” she said.

    For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis, NYT, 18.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/education/18catholic.html?hp






In a Quiet Rebellion, Parishioners Keep the Faith


January 6, 2009
The New York Times


SCITUATE, Mass. — There are sleeping bags in the sacristy at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church and reclining chairs in the vestibule, but no one here gets too relaxed. “Please be ever vigilant!” a sign by the door warns, and the parishioners who have occupied the church since it closed more than four years ago take it as seriously as a commandment.

St. Frances was among dozens of churches that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston decided to close and sell in 2004, not least because of financial turmoil made worse by the abuse scandal in the clergy. But while most churches closed without a fight, parishioners at St. Frances, a brick A-frame on a wooded hill, and at four other churches rebelled.

For 1,533 days, the group at St. Frances has taken turns guarding the building around the clock so that the archdiocese cannot lock them out and put it up for sale. They call it a vigil, but by now it is more of a lifestyle.

“It’s much more of a living 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week faith,” said Margy O’Brien, 78, a parishioner since St. Frances opened in 1960. “My generation of Catholics have paid, prayed and obeyed, but you get to a point where you’ve had it.”

The archdiocese will not provide priests to most of the vigil churches, and it has removed most statues, altar cloths and sacred objects. It changed the locks at St. Frances in October 2004 but unwittingly left a fire door open, an error the parishioners call a miracle.

The archdiocese has not tried to evict the parishioners or shut off the heat and electricity. Three of the five vigil groups have appeals pending with the Vatican, but if the appeals fail, as is likely, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, may run out of patience.

“They can’t go on for infinity,” said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “These have to end at some point, but how, I don’t know.”

In the meantime, some 100 parishioners at St. Frances take turns sitting in the church for hours at a time, including overnight shifts in the sacristy, where the priest once dressed, and the reconciliation room, where confession was heard.

The vestibule serves as their living room, and the sanctuary, with houseplants on the altar and finished jigsaw puzzles on a back pew, as a place to meditate or even walk laps. Bobbie Sullivan, 57, who determined that 19 times around the sanctuary is a mile, said she planned her weeks around a sign-up sheet by the door. Her husband died in 2006, and sleeping alone in the reconciliation room, under an electric blanket, does not bother her.

“It’s warm, it’s pretty, it’s quiet, it’s peaceful,” Ms. Sullivan said of the church, where she passes the time writing cards, quilting and paying bills. “It’s a great place to get your work done.”

The closing of parishes in Boston in 2004 was the leading edge of a wave of closings around the country. In announcing the closings, Archbishop O’Malley said they were brought on by a shortage of priests, dwindling attendance and money problems.

There are now 292 parishes in the archdiocese, down from 357 in 2004, Mr. Donilon said. But the archdiocese is spending $880,000 a year to maintain the five vigil parishes and nine others that it cannot sell yet because of civil suits or appeals to the Vatican.The Council of Parishes, a group that formed to advise the vigil parishes, has helped similar efforts in New York and New Orleans, where two churches have been occupied since October. It also helped parishioners at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Adams, Mass., start a vigil last month. Peter Borré, the group’s leader, said the Boston vigils were “the longest-duration, broadest-based passive resistance movement” ever by American Catholics.

Much of the St. Frances parishioners’ anger comes from the sense that their church was unfairly singled out. Unlike others, it was in good physical condition and financially solvent, said Jon Rogers, 49, a vigil organizer. He and others say they believe the church’s location doomed it. When it closed, the property had an assessed value of $4.4 million.

“We have 30.3 acres of prime coastal realty here,” Mr. Rogers said. “It’s a land grab; they need the money.”

The archdiocese, which in 2005 announced an $85 million settlement with victims of abuse by priests, originally hoped to make some $200 million from the sale of closed parishes. So far, proceeds have fallen well short of that.

St. Frances has stayed in good condition since the vigil started, but other churches are not as lucky. In Everett, an industrial city north of Boston, St. Therese Parish has gone without water or heat since its boiler broke in October and the archdiocese refused to repair it.

The parishioners keeping vigil there — a group of about 35, according to the leaders — sit in pews wrapped in blankets, use a rented portable toilet and collect rainwater for their plants.

“I just don’t want to give in to it,” said Mary Tumasz, 83, who spends several hours a day at St. Therese after attending Mass at another church. “I’m praying and hoping, but it doesn’t look good.”

The other churches with vigils are Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston; St. Jeremiah in Framingham; and St. James the Great in Wellesley.

Many of the St. Frances holdouts describe being transformed from passive Catholics to passionate, deeply involved members of a spiritual community that they say could be a model for the future of the troubled Catholic Church.

“You would think because there are fewer and fewer priests that the various archdioceses would welcome a new configuration,” Mrs. O’Brien said. “Let the lay people do everything but the sacramental.”

Since St. Frances has no priest, parishioners lead services that include everything but consecration of the host. On the Sunday before Christmas, about 50 parishioners attended a service conducted entirely by women, including two who distributed communion. The hosts had been consecrated elsewhere by a priest described by Mr. Rogers’s wife, Maryellen, as “sympathetic.”

Parishioners also hold suppers in the vestibule and meet Tuesdays to say the rosary. They raise money as a nonprofit group, donate to charities and open the church to outsiders seeking comfort or repose.

“Lots of troubled people have come through, and all they need, really simply, is someone to connect to,” said Karen Virginia Shockley, 43, who participates in the vigil with her two teenage sons. “Usually there’s an older person here who will sit down and just listen to you.”

The Rev. Thomas Foley, the archdiocese’s cabinet secretary for parish life and leadership, expressed regret in an interview about the timing and abruptness of the closings. Boston Catholics were already reeling from the abuse scandal, Father Foley said, and the closings were “too much, too soon.”

In an open letter in 2004, Cardinal O’Malley called the closings “the hardest thing I have ever had to do in 40 years of religious life.”

Father Foley said the vigil keepers should “peacefully let go” and “consider that there are welcoming parishes around them that will benefit” from their presence. But members of the St. Frances group said they hoped to meet with Cardinal O’Malley this month and would propose buying the church with donations.

Some parishioners have grown so disenchanted with the Catholic Church hierarchy and so fond of the vigil routine that they cannot imagine returning to the old way.

“I cannot go back to the priest and the vestments and that, I always felt, prince-of-the-church approach,” said Mary Dean, 61, who keeps vigil at St. Frances at least four hours a week. “I’ll always be a Catholic, but I may not be able to worship in the mainstream Catholic Church.”

    In a Quiet Rebellion, Parishioners Keep the Faith, NYT, 6.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/06/us/06vigil.html?hp