Signs of the Times

U.S. Bishops Support Condemnation of Torture

Policies that are unclear about the torture of prisoners damage U.S. international interests and credibility and are an offense against human rights, said panelists, who included a retired Army general, a former adviser to the Departments of State and Defense and representatives of Jewish and Catholic organizations. As the House prepared to take up an amendment to the Defense Department appropriations bill banning cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners and spelling out what that means, supporters of the McCain amendment on torture and abuse rallied backers from diverse backgrounds. Steve Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops support the amendment, because the church teaches respect for fundamental human rights and dignity. The many reports of prisoner abuse by members of the U.S. armed forces tarnish the reputation of our country, Colecchi said at a media briefing on Dec. 7 sponsored by Human Rights First. But, he said, they also make it less likely that other countries and people will collaborate with us in the struggle against terrorism, and they compromise the moral standing of our nation as we seek to win the hearts and minds of others.

Patriarch Protests Looming Separation Wall

Only the Bandak and Anastas families and elderly Gloria Hizaine remain in their homes on the edge of Rachel’s Tomb Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare in Bethlehem. The families, who are Catholic, live on opposite sides of the street, just a few yards away from what once was the quaint Turkish-period building of Rachel’s Tomb. Now the tomb is concealed behind a stone, fortress-like structure, strewn with camouflage nets and barbed wire and guarded by armed Israeli soldiers. The area is being assaulted by the creeping Israeli separation barrierlooming cement slabs that, having slashed through the surrounding hillsides, separate the west side of the road, where the Bandaks and Hizaine live, from the east side, where the Anastas family lives.


The Israelis plan to expand the barrier to create a protective corridor where Jewish worshipers can come to pray at Rachel’s Tomb, which in the past has been the site of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Israelis say the barrier is needed to keep out Palestinian terrorists. On Sunday, Dec. 11, during a peaceful demonstration with 1,000 people, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, again called for the dismantling of the wall, which, he said, serves no useful purpose and does not protect the security of either Israelis or Palestinians.

Catholic Women Remain Deeply Committed

"Despite what she called a limited opportunity structure for women in the Catholic Church and widespread disagreement by both sexes with some church teachings, Catholic women remain deeply committed to the church," said Michele Dillon, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. She spoke on Dec. 7 at The Catholic University of America on Catholic Women in a Changing Church.

Citing studies over the past several decades, Dillon said Americans continue to value religion, and a majority of U.S. Catholics consistently say that their Catholicism is very important to their identity, in spite of huge changes in society. This contradicts the theory that religion will wither away, she said. And it is at odds with data showing that Catholics are disaffected and at odds with church teachings. But Dillon said polls show many Catholics disagree with church teachings on birth control, divorce, abortion, the ordination of women to the priesthood and priestly celibacy.

Children Raise $1 Million for Hurricane Victims

Children in Catholic schools and religious education programs across the country raised more than $1 million to assist students affected by the Gulf Coast hurricanes. The money was raised through the program Child to Child: A Catholic Campaign to Aid Education, sponsored by the National Catholic Educational Association. The campaign collected dollar contributions from students to help children in areas ravaged by the storms and areas affected by large numbers of evacuee students. A news release dated Dec. 7 said that by Dec. 2 the contributions totaled $1.04 million from 1,254 schools and religious education programs.

Catholic Minority Mocked in Ukraine

A Ukrainian bishop has written to the pope and world leaders urging them to help resolve his church’s worsening problems. The bishop, who said local authorities refused to return Catholic properties seized under Communist rule, asked for help to create an international commission of experts that could travel to Ukraine and check out, on site, the facts of the violation of the rights and freedoms of the Roman Catholic minority in this region.

Representatives of our government on all levels declare an open position, but I must unfortunately confirm that we Catholics consider [that] the situation has recently worsened, said Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol.

In Izmail, the neighbors built part of their home directly under the walls of the church and blocked our windows. In another city, cars drive over the churchyard. Under the walls of the cathedral in Odessa, strangers wash their cars and walk their dogs. This is all open mockery and degradation of the Catholic Church, he said in a letter to Pope Benedict XVI and heads of government of the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain.

Pope Plans Bavarian Homecoming

Pope Benedict XVI will visit his home state of Bavaria in September, said a statement from the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The statement said the visit would probably occur between Sept. 10 and 15 and would include stops in Munich, Regensburg, Altötting and Markl am Inn, the pope’s hometown, and might include stops in Freising and Pending. The statement added that the final details of the visit would be released by the Vatican a few weeks before the trip. It will be Pope Benedict’s first visit to his home state since he was elected pope in April.

Costs of Sexual Abuse Settlements in 2005

During 2005, several U.S. dioceses reached major settlements with victims in sexual abuse cases totaling more than $260 million, while two dioceses that declared bankruptcy in order to cope with abuse claims became entangled in a legal web over ownership of church property. The third U.S. diocese that declared bankruptcy, the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., however, settled its cases by establishing a $22.2 million trust fund for victims, and the agreement was approved by a bankruptcy judge.

In Philadelphia, a grand jury report accused the archdiocese’s previous leaders of covering up sexual abuse of children by clergy, but no charges were filed because of the statute of limitations. Archdiocesan attorneys said that the report was neither fair nor accurate. Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali issued a pastoral letter urging archdiocesan Catholics to pray for reparation and renewal.

Airline Crash in Nigeria Brings Mourning

Pope Benedict XVI lamented the great loss of life after a Nigerian airliner crashed, killing almost all passengers on board, many of them school-children heading home for the Christmas holidays. In a telegram, the pope expressed his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and wished strength and peace upon all those who mourn and upon all engaged in rescue and relief operations. The Vatican released a copy of the telegram on Dec. 12. At least 107 of the 110 passengers and crew members died after a passenger jet crashed and burst into flames on Dec. 10 as it was trying to land at the southern oil town of Port Harcourt during an electrical storm. Seventy-one of the 110 people on board were students at Loyola Jesuit College boarding school near the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

Nun’s Murderers Sentenced in Brazil

Two men accused of the killing in February of a U.S. nun were convicted and sentenced by a Brazilian court. Rayfran das Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista received prison terms of 27 years and 17 years, respectively, on Dec. 10 for killing Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and an outspoken advocate for Brazilian peasants. The convicted killers, however, did not receive the maximum sentence allowed by law. The public defender’s office said it would appeal the decision. Sister Dorothy’s brother, David Stang, and her sister, Marguerithe Stang Holm, were present in Belém, Brazil, for the trial. Three other suspects, accused of having given the orders to kill the nun, remain in jail awaiting trial.

Freedom of Religion Report Criticized

A Russian Orthodox leader has criticized a U.S. government report that discussed religious freedom in his country, rejecting claims that his church sought official status and was hostile to Catholics. The Russian Orthodox Church is completely separate from the state apparatus, and our clergy does not participate in the work of the state organs or political parties and movements, said Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of external and ecumenical relations for the Russian Orthodox Church. The report devotes much attention to relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church. I am convinced the difficulties which, alas, sometimes arise in our relations are a clear testimony to the genuine freedom enjoyed by religious associations in Russiaeach is free to act as it sees fit, he said.

Metropolitan Kirill was reacting to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 annual report on international religious freedom, which said the Orthodox Church gained state privileges at the cost of minority faiths.

World Day of Peace Message

Even in the midst of war, basic human rights must be respected and all parties involved must work to end hostilities, Pope Benedict XVI said in his message for World Peace Day 2006. International humanitarian law is binding on all peoples even in times of war, he said in his message for the annual day of prayer on Jan. 1. Pope Benedict’s message, InTruth, Peace, was released on Dec. 13 at the Vatican. The pope began his message, which is distributed to heads of state around the world, by offering his best wishes to all people of good will, especially those who are suffering as a result of violence and armed conflict. Pope Benedict wrote, My greeting is one filled with hope for a more serene world, a world in which more and more individuals and communities are committed to the paths of justice and peace.

New: Papal Theologian and Vatican Radio Director

Pope Benedict XVI has chosen a 54-year-old, British-born Polish Dominican to serve as theologian of the papal household. The Vatican announced the appointment of Wojciech Giertych, O.P., on Dec. 1. He succeeds 83 year-old Cardinal Georges Cottier, a Swiss Dominican who held the position since 1989. The theologian of the papal household serves as a private theological consultant to the pope and lives in an apartment in the Apostolic Palace. He also serves as a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Saints’ Causes and the International Theological Commission.

At the time of his nomination, Father Giertych was serving as assistant to the master general of the Dominicans, with special responsibility for Dominican schools, universities and the intellectual life of the order’s members. He is a member of the Dominican general council in Rome and a professor of moral theology at Dominican-run Angelicum University in Rome.

Born in London on Sept. 27, 1951, he was educated at St. Ignatius College, then conducted by the Jesuits in Stamford Hill, North London. He made his profession as a Dominican in 1976, was ordained to the priesthood in 1981 and is a member of the Dominicans’ Polish province.

He earned a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in theology at Angelicum University. The theologian speaks Polish, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian, the Vatican said.

According to the Vatican yearbook, the first theologian of the papal household may have been St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. In 1217 he served as master of the sacred palace, or papal theologian, under Pope Honorius III. The yearbook said that for a time the master of the sacred palace was in charge of a school of theology directly under the pope’s authority.

Pope Benedict XVI named Father Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit who has served as Vatican Radio’s program director for the past 15 years, as the radio’s new general director. In a statement released by the Vatican on Nov. 5, the pope announced the appointment and thanked the radio’s former director, Pasquale Borgomeo, S.J., for his long and generous service to the station.

Father Lombardi, 63, was born in northern Italy near Turin. After he became a Jesuit priest in 1972, he worked for the influential Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica and served as superior of the Italian Province of the Jesuits. He was named program director of Vatican Radio in 1991 and general director of the Vatican television station, CTV, in 2001.

Father Lombardi replaces the 72-year-old Italian Father Borgomeo, who worked at the radio for the past 35 years.

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