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Lawsuit says West Virginia diocese knowingly hired sex abusers as teachers

Charleston, W.Va., Mar 19, 2019 / 03:58 pm (CNA).- The attorney general of West Virginia has filed a lawsuit charging that the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its former bishop knowingly employed sex abusers in roles that worked with children and failed to disclose their backgrounds to parents.

The lawsuit alleges that the diocese advertised a safe learning environment in its schools while employing personnel who had been convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse.

It says the diocese and retired Bishop Michael Bransfield covered up potentially criminal behavior, failing to be transparent with parents while allowing abusers to work around children.

In a March 19 statement, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said that it “strongly and unconditionally rejects” the assertion that it “is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous Safe Environment Program, the foundation of which is a zero tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse.”

“The Program employs mandatory screening, background checks and training for all employees and volunteers who work with children,” it said.

The complaint draws attention to the case of Fr. Victor Forbas, saying the diocese knew of a credible abuse allegation against the priest but still placed him in charge of a children’s camp, and later assigned him as a high school chaplain after undergoing treatment for further accusations. The priest eventually pled guilty to sexual abuse of children in Missouri and went to prison.

It also highlights claims that Fr. Patrick Condron admitted to sexually abusing a student but was assigned to a Catholic elementary school after receiving treatment, without parents being notified of his history.

The suit also says that the diocese failed to conduct thorough background checks in hiring employees, and when the diocese became aware of employees’ histories – which included, in at least one case, a conviction for statutory rape –  it failed to notify parents about them.

“Parents who pay and entrust the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese and its schools to educate and care for their children deserve full transparency,” Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a March 19 statement.

“Our investigation reveals a serious need for the Diocese to enact policy changes that will better protect children, just as this lawsuit demonstrates our resolve to pursue every avenue to effectuate change as no one is above the law.”

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston said some of the information in the lawsuit is based on the diocesan public disclosure of accusations of clerical abuse against minors from last November, as well as other information given to the attorney general by the diocese in recent months.

Some of the alleged misconduct described in the lawsuit took place over half a century ago, and some “are not accurately described,” the diocese said, noting that in some cases, reports of alleged occurrences were not made until decades later.

The diocese added that the allegations do not fairly depict the overall contribution of Catholic schools and their employees “who work every day to deliver quality education in West Virginia.”

Bishop Bransfield, who is named in the lawsuit, was restricted from ministry last week, following an investigation by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, at the request of Pope Francis last September. The pope had accepted Bransfield’s resignation and asked Lori to look into allegations of sexual harassment of adults against the bishop.

On March 11, Lori announced that the results of that investigation have been sent to the Holy See, where a final decision about Bransfield will be made. Pending that decision, Lori said, restrictions are being placed on Bransfield’s exercise of ministry.

Bransfield had led the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston since 2005. During the 2012 criminal trial of two other priests in Philadelphia, he was accused of covering up sexual misconduct by other priests, as well as molesting a minor.

Two witnesses and a prosecutor alleged that Bishop Bransfield “may have known about sexual misconduct by [another priest] or abused minors himself,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Bransfield denied these allegations, calling them “completely false,” and the alleged victim later came forward to say that he was never abused by Bransfield.

African bishops offer prayers, call for aid after Cyclone Idai wreaks havoc

Solwezi, Zambia, Mar 19, 2019 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Bishops in Malawi, Mozambique, and elsewhere in Africa are calling for prayers and humanitarian aid following deadly floods and tropical cyclones that have left dozens dead and have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Bishop Charles Kasonde of Solwezi, chairman of AMECEA (Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa), in a March 15 statement expressed “profound sadness” over the “tragic effects” of the flooding in the area and called on AMECEA partners “to respond to the cry for humanitarian assistance in whichever way possible.”

On behalf of the bishops, Kasonde also expressed “solidarity to all affected families, quick recovery to the injured, (condolences) to the bereaved families and repose for the souls of the departed.” Starting in early March, several countries in southeastern Africa were struck with heavy rains which lead to flooding that displaced thousands and killed dozens of people. But the situation worsened when tropical cyclone Idai struck around March 11, exacerbating the flooding. Death toll estimates now range from 150 to 200, with hundreds more missing or injured and at least hundreds of thousands displaced.

The worst-hit area was the city of Beira, Mozambique, the country’s fourth-largest with a population of approximately 500,000. The New York Times reported that local aid agencies had said that 90 percent of the city was destroyed by the storm.

Tropical cyclones are hurricanes by another name, and bring in massive wind gusts, heavy rains and storm surges when they hit land. According to the U.S.’s National Ocean Service, tropical cyclones are the generic name for hurricanes and typhoons, and all three terms describe the same weather phenomenon. The only difference between the terms is the regions in which they are used.

Tropical Cyclone Idai was rated as a Category 3 cyclone on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Aid agencies have expressed concern about the “inland oceans” created by the flooding that have cut off roads to some areas, making humanitarian efforts more difficult.

Kasonde said the need for humanitarian aid is urgent, as everyone affected is in need of food, clean water, and shelter, with some temporary shelters are already at capacity, he said.

“I pray for encouragement to all those involved in rescue operations and humanitarian assistance that they may not tire of supporting their brothers and sisters who need them most during this difficult time,” he said. “I also pray that our partners and people of good will who have always journeyed with us in both good and bad times may rise up to the call.”

Several Catholic aid agencies have already initiated responses to the disaster, sending workers and setting up shelters in churches and schools. The Catholic Development Commission in Malawi, a part of Caritas International, has been on the ground since the beginning of the flooding to assess the disaster and mobilize support, AMECEA reported.

Independent Catholic News reported that CAFOD, the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development based in the UK, has already pledged £30,000 ($39,800) in aid. CAFOD representative Gabriel Bertani said in a statement that CAFOD is working with local Caritas agents to prioritize getting food and hygiene kits to the hardest-hit areas.

Reporting from Zambia, Catholic Relief Services said on Friday that its aid workers were on the ground to assess needs and to provide emergency shelter and relief items. They reported that 407,434 acres of farmland have flooded, “affecting more than 100,000 farmers that depend on their land as their main source of income and food.”

Erica Dahl-Bredine, CRS’ country representative for Lesotho and Mozambique, said that “These numbers will likely increase dramatically, and we will continue to assess the situation and as the scope of need becomes clearer.”

CRS said that it will also be working to stop the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera, which can cause severe dehydration and death.

“We are concerned about the possibility of disease outbreaks as sanitation conditions deteriorate,” Dahl-Bredine said. “We will be actively preparing for this scenario and assessing immediate needs to provide the assistance most needed.”

Death tolls are expected to rise before the flood waters recede.

Jackson Muranganwa, a Catholic leader at the St. Charles Lwanga parish in Zimbabwe, told the New York Times: “There are high fears of loss of life...Let’s pray.”

Archdiocese of Milwaukee removes names of two bishops from buildings

Milwaukee, Wis., Mar 19, 2019 / 01:57 pm (CNA).- The Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced Tuesday that it will remove from archdiocesan buildings the names of two former archbishops who were found to have reassigned priests accused of sexual abuse.

“As a sign of repentance, and because of the pain caused to abuse survivors and their families with regard to handling the sexual abuse allegations, I will change the name of the Archbishop Catholic Cousins Center,” Archbishop Jerome Listecki said.

The letters on the sign for the Cousins Center – which received that name in 1983 – were removed Tuesday afternoon. The archdiocese said a new name will be announced Friday.

In addition, the Weakland Center, named for Archbishop Rembert Weakland, will be renamed. Located in downtown Milwaukee, the center holds parish offices.

Archbishop William Cousins led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1958 to 1977.

Weakland served as archbishop from 1977 to 2002. His resignation at the age of 75 came amid revelations that he had paid $450,000 to silence an adult male seminarian with whom he had a sexual relationship.

Both bishops failed to remove priests who had been accused, in some cases by dozens of people, of sexual abuse, archdiocesan documents have found.

Archbishop Listecki noted that the idea of changing the building names had been raised for several years.

“As the Church continues to restore trust in its response to clergy sexual abuse, the timing seemed right to do so now,” he said, according to WTMJ radio.

The archbishop voiced hope that the measure would be a step toward healing for abuse victims.

“Whether it be clericalism, a misguided intent to protect the institutional church or the desire to avoid scandal, regard for priest-offenders often trumped care for victims.  For this, I apologize to abuse survivors and to the faithful of this archdiocese,” he said.

Nigerian bishops: Government should seek the common good

Abuja, Nigeria, Mar 19, 2019 / 01:51 pm (CNA).- After a recent gathering, the Catholic bishops of Nigeria called on local residents and officials to promote the common good by fostering respect for the human person.

“We enjoin all Nigerians, leaders and the led, to abide by democratic principles such as respect for human life, human rights and the rule of law,” they said in a March 15 communique.

“We also encourage the electorate to ensure that those who hold public offices in our country are held accountable. We equally urge all Nigerians to eschew all forms of indiscipline and corruption and be resolute rather than lose hope in our struggle for a better future and nation.”

The bishops of Nigeria gathered in Durumi, Abuja, from March 10-16. The statement released by the bishops’ conference summarized the meeting, was signed by Archbishop Augustine Akubeze of Benin City and Bishop Camillus Umoh of Ikot-Ekpene.

At their plenary meeting, the bishops discussed the recent elections, which were primarily held Feb. 23 after a last-minute delay from the prior week.

In considering the goal of politics, the bishops stressed the importance of the common good, which must be founded in virtue - rooted not only in the practice of social justice but also a culture of life.

“The pursuit of this good must be based on the respect for the sanctity and dignity of human life and the equality of all people. The Common Good presupposes respect for the human person and requires the social well-being and development of the group itself,” the bishops said in their statement.

Also discussed in their meetings was the role of the Church in Nigerian to educate the laity, especially the youth. Catholic social teaching should be simplified and given in practical examples to ensure “an effective socio-political formation of all the people,” the bishops said.

They applauded the behavior of the electorate, who fulfilled their civic duties or accepted defeat without violence. However, they also expressed concern that there may be a trend toward apathy.

“We believe that this apathy may not have been unconnected with among other things, the violence, malpractice and the unnecessary militarization of the process, all of which contributed to eroding the people’s confidence in the electoral process.”

In the days and weeks surrounding the elections, areas including Kaduna State, Taraba, Benue, Kogi, Edo, Rivers, Zamfara, and Adamawa, underwent violent disturbances, the bishops said. They lamented the lack of concern for the human person, saying it was painful to see.

The bishops encouraged the government to uphold just policies. Their statement particularly called on officials to address the continuing dysfunction within the election process, which enabled the purchase of votes and the election quarrels.

They also challenged the officials to enact policies that take into account the needs of the people, especially the vulnerable, and most importantly, that are founded in a respect for the person.

“Governance worth its name is only possible where there is true justice, equality and peace. It demands virtues, such as, patience, modesty, moderation, charity and efforts to share. In governing, leaders have to focus on the Common Good and ensure that the people and their aspirations, both individual and collective, assume paramount importance.”

Especially during this season of Lent, the bishops said, the people of Nigeria have the opportunity to pray and fast to further Christian charity. They reiterated the words of Pope Francis, pointing to this holy season is an opportunity to learn to live as Children of God.

“As we sincerely seek the face of God, let us be steadfast in cultivating those virtues of decency and moral uprightness that will enhance the peace, the unity and the well-being of the whole nation,” they said.

“We must continue to pray to God to help us rediscover our common humanity, cultivate respect for one another, enthrone transparency and accountability in the use of our common patrimony and imbibe apostolic charity towards the poor and the vulnerable in the Church and society.”

Directors speak of ‘spiritual warfare’ while making pro-life film

Los Angeles, Calif., Mar 19, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- The writers and co-directors of the upcoming film “Unplanned” have spoken of how they prepared for a “spiritual battle” to make the pro-life film in the hopes that it will change hearts and minds through it groundbreaking depiction of the abortion process.

 

“We, from the beginning, knew that it would be spiritual battle, spiritual warfare. It was prophesied over us that this is not a normal movie,” co-director Cary Solomon told CNA in an interview following a screening for press on March 18.

 

“Unplanned” dramatizes the truth-life account of Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson’s decision to leave the organization and become a pro-life campaigner.

 

Solomon and co-director Chuck Konzelman told CNA that they arranged for a priest to exorcise the set, and bless the cast and props.

 

“We tried to do Mass and adoration as much as we could,” said Solomon. For the Evangelical Christians involved in making the film, similar spiritual guidance was offered.

 

Despite anticipating the usual stresses of the production process, Konzelman and Solomon told CNA that they found “profound moments of tremendous peace” on set, which is atypical of the movie-making industry.

 

“It was amazing. We didn’t have any problems that you would normally have on a movie,” said Solomon. Konzelman agreed, and added that the set of “Unplanned” was “the calmest set [he’s] ever been on.”

 

“There was no screaming, there was no tension--the average day would have no incident,” said Konzelman. “That’s just not normal in filmmaking.”

 

Despite the relative calm on set, other incidents plagued the cast and crew, as well as their families. Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt, but there have been several close calls.

 

“We've had probably 15 accidents where people or family members of people who worked on the movie, were in a car crash, [...] and the person would just walk away,” said Solomon.

 

“They’ve all been crazy violent,”  he explained. One person survived a bike accident that destroyed her helmet, and a producer’s car was split in half after being t-boned.

 

Lead actress Ashley Bratcher, who plays the role of Abby Johnson, survived a near death-car accident under bizarre circumstances.

 

"Ashley herself, she had a deer, a stag, jump backwards--I've never seen deer jump backwards--on the highway into her car and wiped out her car and almost killed her,” said Solomon.

 

The accident saw both airbags deploy and left Bratcher trapped in her car. “And yet, she got out and walked away. She was stuck on the highway, in the dark."

 

Konzelman said that despite the challenges faced during filming, and the financial hurdles to completing production, he never doubted that there was a higher interest supporting the film.

 

"It took two years for us to raise the money for this film, from the production to the marketing, which I never would have expected that would be the case,” he said.

 

“The Lord has told us this from the beginning--and this is obviously putting it in human speak-- ‘I’ve got this. I got you. Do not fear, for this is for my glory,’” said Solomon.

 

The film provides an uncensored, graphic, look at the realities of abortion, and received an R-rating from the MPAA. “Unplanned” is the first R-rated film to be distributed by Pure Flix, a Christian movie production company.

 

The co-directors previously told CNA that they would not be challenging the rating, which they feared was motivated by the movie’s political message.

 

“No one’s ever seen [a graphic presentation of abortion] before. It’s been very carefully and very studiously avoided by the [entertainment] industry,” Konzelman said.

 

He explained to CNA that Planned Parenthood employs a director of arts and entertainment engagement, “who teaches the mainstream film industry and television industry how to film in accordance with their guidelines.”

 

“Unplanned” is unique, Konzelman said, because it tells the story of the abortion industry from the perspective of someone who was once a part of that industry, and does not sugar coat the reality of abortion. He and Solomon hopes her story will inspire other people to either leave their jobs in the abortion industry, or to change their minds on the issue.

 

“Seeing [an abortion procedure] is what changed Abby’s life. No matter how pro-choice you are, you can’t be more pro-choice than Abby Johnson was,” said Konzelman.

 

Prior to becoming clinic director, Johnson herself underwent two abortions. Both of these are shown in the film.

 

“And yet, one look at the process taking place in front of her eyes in real time, changed her entire life,” Konzelman said.

 

In fact, the film has already changed the perspective of one viewer: Solomon’s father.

 

Solomon told CNA that showing his “far left,” pro-choice atheist father a short clip of the film caused him to change heart entirely on the issue. Solomon shared a clip where two volunteers from the Coalition for Life group pray over a 55-gallon drum containing fetal remains.

 

He said his father told him that “Unplanned” was “gonna change the world” because of its unflinching portrayal of abortion, which was something he had not previously seen or thought about.

 

The movie “showed what we [as a society] never wanted to see,” Solomon’s father told him. “And now when you know, you can’t un-know.”

 

Unplanned will be released in theatres nationwide on March 29. The film is rated R due to disturbing images and violence.