Signs of the Times

Milwaukee School Choice Program to Expand

With just days left before a rationing plan was to begin for students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Wisconsin’s Gov. Jim Doyle and Assembly Speaker John Gard announced on Feb. 17 that the enrollment cap will increase next fall by 7,500 students. The announcement was made in the basement of the C.E.O. Leadership Academy, one of Milwaukee’s choice schools. Doyle and Gard were joined there by other legislators, community leaders and students from other schools in the program, including Messmer Catholic High School. Of the 125 schools participating in the choice program this year, 34 are Catholic schools. This agreement is the result of a lot of hard work and compromise on both sides, Doyle told the audience. And as with every negotiation, no one got everything that they wanted. But I believe that the end result is a good, solid agreement and is a clear victory for the children of the choice schools and the public schools in Milwaukeeand for the taxpayers of this state. By that measure, this agreement is a tremendous success.

Australia Approves Pill and Counseling Plan

Just days after Australia’s Parliament voted to allow the so-called abortion pill to be introduced into the nation’s health system, the cabinet endorsed a multimillion-dollar plan for pregnancy counseling and support. On Feb. 17, Health Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic and staunch opponent of abortion, lost control over use of the drug RU-486. By a two-thirds majority, control of the drug was turned over to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the regulatory body that manages prescription drugs. The body is expected to make its recommendations about the pill within coming months. On Feb. 21, however, Abbott won backing for a $60 million (US $44.2 million) counseling package to offer a 24-hour advice hotline for pregnant women and a Medicare rebate for counseling if women are considering an abortion. Abbott maintains that more than 100,000 abortions are performed each year in Australia, and national polls show that 87 percent of Australians believe the abortion rate is excessive.


Courts Dismiss Abuse Lawsuits; Claims Settled

Judges in New York and Alaska have dismissed lawsuits over sexual abuse by members of the clergy because they were filed too late, and two Iowa dioceses have reached financial settlements with abuse victims. The New York and Alaska court decisions were setbacks for victims and victim advocacy groups. But they could serve as further spurs to ongoing efforts by victim groups and plaintiffs’ attorneys in several states to seek suspension of the statute of limitations, allowing victims of clerical abuse that occurred decades ago to sue church authorities.

In Kentucky a prominent Catholic media executive and a judge were named to oversee distribution of $85 million set aside for victims of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Covington.

All Iraq in Danger as Killings Increase

As killings increased in retribution for the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Iraq, the Rome-based representative of Baghdad’s Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate said all of Iraq is in danger. It’s not just about Sunni and Shiite, because they started three weeks ago on Christians, said the Rev. Philip Najim, referring to the near-simultaneous attacks on church properties in late January in Baghdad and Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city, launched just as some Sunday services had ended. Father Najim said he believed the people behind the mid-February attacks came from outside Iraq, and they [coalition forces] are doing nothing about it. He said that as an Iraqi, he could assure people 100 percent that no Iraqi man would ever do this. Not a Sunni, not a Shiite. The people behind the mid-February attacks want to create division and chaos. They want to stop the process of a new political situation of democracy and peace, Father Najim said, adding that he did not understand what U.S. and British forces were doing to help keep order. Before we can talk about a constitution and democracy, we have to bring stability and unity, he said. Instead, there is Iraq being divided and creating different camps. Each group is like a country in itself with its own leader, people and army.

South Dakota Legislature Bans Most Abortions

By adopting legislation that would prohibit all intentional abortions except those to save a mother’s life, the South Dakota Legislature moved toward a direct challenge of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973. If signed into law, it would become the most sweeping ban on abortion adopted in any state since 1973. The South Dakota House of Representatives passed the bill on Feb. 24 by a vote of 50 to 18. The Senate had approved it on Feb. 22, by a vote of 23 to 12, after slightly amending an earlier version adopted by the House. The amendment, an addition to the introductory legislative findings of the bill, said the Legislature finds that the guarantee of due process of law under the constitution of South Dakota applies equally to born and unborn human beings and that the mother and her unborn child each possess a natural and inalienable right to life. The House vote on Feb. 24 incorporated the Senate’s amendment.

The bill, called the Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act, specifically exempts women from any criminal conviction or penalty for obtaining an abortion. But it says that anyone who performs an abortion except to save a mother’s life commits a Class 5 felony, which is punishable by a fine up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison.

Protesters Burn Church and Convent in Libya

A Catholic church and convent in Benghazi, Libya, were plundered and burned just days after anti-Italian protests in Libya turned violent. The attacks on Feb. 20 against the two religious properties forced the apostolic vicar of Benghazi, the rest of his Franciscan community, and the religious men and women who lived and worked in the diocese to be evacuated to Tripoli, the Libyan capital. Bishop Sylvester Magro, O.F.M., of Benghazi told Vatican Radio on Feb. 23 that everything has gone up in smoke. Everything inside the church and friary was destroyed; everything that could be set on fire was set on fire, he said. The blaze came just a few days after protests on Feb. 17 targeting the Italian Consulate in Benghazi left at least 11 people dead. Demonstrators were condemning a recent incident in which an Italian government minister had unbuttoned his shirt on Italian television to display a T-shirt bearing an image of one of the Danish cartoons that have sparked condemnations and demonstrations in many Muslim communities.

Racketeering Laws Not for Protests at Clinics

The Supreme Court’s 8-to-0 decision rejecting attempts to use racketeering laws against abortion clinic protesters was hailed by one of the successful petitioners as a victory for free speech. It was the third time the high court had ruled in the case, which dates back to 1986, when the National Organization for Women attempted to use racketeering laws in class-action lawsuits against abortion clinic protesters. The ruling on Feb. 28 reversed the interpretation by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit of the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in the case. The lower court had found that the Supreme Court’s decision for Joseph Scheidler and Operation Rescue neglected to deal with four out of 121 instances in which a jury had found abortion protesters violated laws that prohibit acts or threats of violence to person or property. Scheidler, who heads the Pro-Life Action League, said in a statement that he is mystified that I had to go to the trouble and expense of appearing before the Supreme Court three times. The court was right when they ruled in 2003, but the National Organization for Women refused to acknowledge defeat. In the latest decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that to violate the Hobbs Acta 55-year-old law prohibiting extortionphysical violence or threats of violence must be related to extortion.

Study Shows Decline in Polish Mass Attendance

A church statistician downplayed the results of a recent study showing a continued decline in Mass attendance in Poland. Mass attendance is only one way of measuring a society’s religiousness, said Witold Zdaniewicz, a Pallotine priest who is a professor and the director of the Warsaw-based Catholic Church Statistics Institute. The data clearly show a persistent drop in numbers going to church, but the causes and explanations vary considerably. The results of a Sunday Mass head count taken in November are to be announced before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit on May 25-28. In mid-February the Polish Press Agency reported that Catholic Church Statistics Institute figures showed 43 percent of Catholics attended Sunday Mass regularly in 2004, compared with 47.5 percent in 2000. Under Communist rule in the 1980’s, church attendance was 60 percent; in 1991 it was 50 percent. Father Zdaniewicz said the data had to be looked at holisticallywe can’t just consider bare numbers and percentages.

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