Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Unintended Consequences

A Wrongly Convicted Man
A Murder Victim’s Sister
Their Painful Experience with the Death Penalty

"The story of Greg Wilhoit's astounding journey to Death Row and his release from it is far better than fiction. It is unbelievable, infuriating, depressing, but
also inspirational."
--John Grisham

Greg Wilhoit, one of the key characters in John Grisham's New York Times Bestselling non-fiction book The Innocent Man, was convicted for a murder he did not commit and was sentenced to death. His painful experience which included befriending another wrongfully convicted man Ron Williamson, on Death Row, resulted in his desire to alert the rest of us about the dangers of the death penalty.

Marie Verzulli is the sister of Catherine Marsh, who was murdered by a Serial Killer. Marie seeks to strengthen, support, and empower family members of murder victims by sharing her personal story and illustrate that family members of murder victims do not all support the death penalty and that the long legal process surrounding the death penalty can be damaging.

Sunday, March 25th 2pm

School of Criminal Justice
SUNY Albany
Milne Hall
Room 200
135 Western Ave, Albany, NY 12203

All are welcome, parking is free!

Monday, February 26, 2007


Catholic Relief Services
, the official international relief and development organization of the US Catholic Community, is asking Catholics to urge their Congressional representatives to enact comprehensive immigration reform this year.
WHY THIS ISSUE IS IMPORTANT: Last year, efforts in Congress to enact immigration legislation failed despite huge public demonstrations on both sides of the immigration debate. Immigration reform is high on the new Congress’ agenda and President Bush has repeated his strong support for enactment of comprehensive immigration reform this year. We expect the Senate to begin their work on immigration reform in the coming weeks.

Pro-comprehensive immigration reform advocates agree that the opportunity to enact comprehensive immigration reform is now until the summer, before presidential election politics could derail efforts for several years. We have also repeatedly heard from Congressional offices that the pro-comprehensive immigration reform message has been overshadowed by those who want to restrict immigration. If we want positive changes, the time for action is now!

: Our faith teaches us to uphold the dignity of every person and to act in solidarity with our brothers and sister around the world, especially the poor. As an expression of these Catholic social teachings, CRS serves displaced people, refugees, migrants and victims of human trafficking worldwide, daily confronting the suffering and exploitation of migrants and families separated across borders often for years. CRS also works with the Catholic Church throughout the world to create economic opportunities so that people are not forced to migrate.

To learn more, and to contact your Congressional representatives, click here. Catholic Relief Services' advocacy efforts flow from the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, especially the call to protect the dignity of people, uphold rights and responsibilities, safeguard the common good and to act in solidarity with people in poverty.

Building Peace with Justice

The Diocese of Rochester offers Building Peace with Justice, a brief, weekly bulletin reflection written by members of a Public Policy sub-committee that links the Sunday readings to Catholic social teaching. Many parishes publish them as space allows.
For Sunday Bulletins on March 4, 2007

In today's second reading St. Paul cautions the Philippians against those who make"their God * their stomach." With those strong words we are reminded that "eating is a moral act." We know that what and how much we eat affects our health. Today, we are also concerned about the safety and quality of our food. But as moral "eaters" we are also urged by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference to be concerned about:

* whether the environment is harmed in the production of our food;
* how animals are treated, and,
* whether farmers and farm workers are paid a just wage.

Lenten Reflection: Does my Lenten fasting and abstinence help me be more attentive to the moral treatment of the earth, animals, and farmers who produce the food I enjoy?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ash Wednesday

The good folks at have provided an on-line version of their popular Catholic Updates to discuss the significance of Ash Wednesday.
When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are. We remember that we are creatures of the earth ("Remember that you are dust"). We remember that we are mortal beings ("and to dust you will return"). We remember that we are baptized. We remember that we are people on a journey of conversion ("Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel"). We remember that we are members of the body of Christ (and that smudge on our foreheads will proclaim that identity to others, too).

Renewing our sense of who we really are before God is the core of the Lenten experience. It is so easy to forget, and thus we fall into habits of sin, ways of thinking and living that are contrary to God's will. In this we are like the Ninevites in the story of Jonah. It was "their wickedness" that caused God to send Jonah to preach to them. Jonah resisted that mission and found himself in deep water. Rescued by a large fish, Jonah finally did God's bidding and began to preach in Nineveh. His preaching obviously fell on open ears and hearts, for in one day he prompted the conversion of the whole city.

From the very beginning of Lent, God's word calls us to conversion. If we open our ears and hearts to that word, we will be like the Ninevites not only in their sinfulness but also in their conversion to the Lord. That, simply put, is the point of Ash Wednesday!

The entire Update may be found here. Another resource from American Catholic is this wake-up call that provides some suggestions for Lenten practices, including these two:
• Reflect on how responsible you are being with your faith life. Make note of ways you are growing or ways in which you can improve. Keep that note close at hand as a constant reminder.

• Think about last Lent. Did you fulfill the promises you made during that Lenten season? If not, what went wrong? If so, have you made any changes? If you didn’t quite get it right last Lent, perhaps you should give it a second try this year before moving on to a new promise.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cradle to cradle

Fr. Dennis Tamburello, a Franciscan and a Professor of Religious Studies at Siena College, recently wrote in his blog about a design concept called “Cradle to Cradle,” a way to design products that are made of materials that can be perpetually circulated.
Dr. [Michael] Braungart has created a company, MBDC, to promote cradle-to-cradle design, a philosophy that he describes as the next Industrial Revolution. Some of the products that are already available include office furniture, carpet fibers, cleaning products, window shades, and even diapers. Dr. Braungart and his business partner, William McDonough, have published a book called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. It is now officially on my reading list.

His February 17 entry is available here.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Centering Prayer on Saturday

Centering Prayer Morning Retreat
Saturday, February 17th
8:30 – 11:30 AM
The Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary
959 Madison Avenue in Albany (at the College of St. Rose)

8:30 -- Coffee and . . . plus a brief introduction for newcomers
9:00 -- Chair yoga and two periods of Centering Prayer
10:00 -- Break
10:15 -- 3rd Segment of Video – Fr. Thomas Keating on the
Psychology of the Spiritual Journey
11:10 -- Centering Prayer
11:30 -- Adjourn

Free will offering. Please let us know if you are coming
Email or call 518-325-5546

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Just to be clear -- we at the Commission on Peace and Justice oppose it. Apparently, that puts us out of the mainstream of Catholic thinking, at least the thinking of the majority of people who call themselves Catholic. A story in the National Catholic Reporter last year noted:
Is the American public apathetic about charges its government uses and sponsors torture in its fight against terrorism?

Not apathetic, according to surveys. Fact is, a majority of Americans actually approve of the use of torture under some circumstances. What’s more, according to one survey, Catholics approve of its use by a wider margin than the general public.

The article contained results of a survey conducted by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press the previous year. You can read more here. Another issue of NCR carried an editorial on torture here.
In the popular imagination, patriotism is most often defined in military terms. It is about military heroes and their exploits, about glorifying war and despising anything and anyone who might be perceived as a threat to the homeland.

So it is particularly significant -- in this time of war when the president of the United States targets opponents of his ideas as threats to the country’s security -- that three U.S. senators of the president’s own party would summon the courage to stand up to him over the matter of rules governing the trials of detainees.

Sens. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona are to be applauded for their political bravery -- and profound patriotism -- in refusing to go along with President Bush’s proposals for bringing terrorist suspects to trial.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of such voices in times like these. And to those voices of courage add Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush’s former secretary of state. Powell reportedly has had serious reservations for some time over the administration’s proclivity for ignoring international law and the Geneva Conventions’ provisions for treatment of detainees.

In order to appreciate the importance of the stand by Warner and his partners in the Senate, it is necessary to recall the degree to which this administration is willing to undermine international law and ignore the norms of U.S. law.

Perhaps some of our leaders (and some of their followers) have been watching too much television.
Are American soldiers modeling themselves after Jack Bauer, the ruthless antiterrorism agent on the Fox TV series "24"? The U.S. military is increasingly worried that the popular show's use of torture as an essential tactic to fight terrorists is having a toxic effect on the training of real-life soldiers, Jane Mayer reports. But the show's creator insists he serves as a valuable conservative counterpoint to Hollywood's entrenched liberalism.

In "24," each high-voltage season traces a single day in which Bauer grapples with evil forces threatening to annihilate America. Bauer frequently faces a dilemma -- treat a suspect within the law, and risk allowing a terrorist plan to succeed, or torture a suspect in the hope of breaking a nefarious plot. He invariably opts for torture.

For the U.S. military, the drama glamorizes torture to an extent that some young soldiers have come to believe that illegal and immoral behavior is necessary, even patriotic. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the Military Academy at West Point, says the cadets he teaches ask, "If torture is wrong, what about '24'?"

Gary Solis, who taught law at West Point, says his students were impressed with a scene in which Jack Bauer compels a suspect to talk by shooting him in the leg. "In real life, [Jack Bauer] would be prosecuted," Mr. Solis says. "I tried to impress on [the students] that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill."

Last fall, Gen. Finnegan went to Los Angeles to voice his concerns with the creative team of "24." Absent from that meeting was Joel Surnow, the series' co-creator and executive producer. Mr. Surnow, whose political leanings Ms. Mayer traces to his facing financial difficulties in his childhood and in his early career, contributes money to conservative causes and feels the image of Sen. Joseph McCarthy has been unfairly maligned. Discussing the military's complaints about "24," he says, "They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that."

The link to that story is here.

Last month, The Evangelist ran this story on local opposition to torture:
Rev. Paul Smith, Catholic chaplain for three Albany colleges, opened a Bible and began to read from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."

Behind him stood a silent figure with bound hands, clad in the orange jumpsuit worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval station in Cuba and the black hood seen in photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Father Smith was one of a half-dozen speakers of various faiths, plus a representative of the New York State Civil Liberties Union, who joined last week at a recent press conference to call for an end to U.S. torture of prisoners under any circumstances.

The press conference, held Jan. 11 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany, coincided with the arrival five years ago of the first prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The Interfaith Alliance of New York State sponsored the conference.

"Torture is morally repugnant and contrary to the values upon which this nation was built," said Bernard Fleishman, president of the Interfaith Alliance.

He pointed out that torture also violates treaties about the fair treatment of prisoners, is unreliable as a source of accurate information and can spur enemies to feel justified in torturing U.S. prisoners.

Then there is this, from someone who served in the Army from 1995 to 2000 as an Arabic linguist and worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator in early 2004.
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

Does torture work? The answer to that question (a resounding NO) is one reason so many oppose it. Somewhere we read about taking the idea of torture one step further, based on the often cited instance of a terrorist who plants a bomb in a large city and must be made to give up the location in order to save hundreds/thousands/millions of lives. The writer asked, why not bring in the bomber’s children and torture them to make the terrorist divulge the information wanted? Begin by lopping of a finger or two, then a hand or a foot. Or cut the ears and lips off the terrorist’s spouse/sweetheart? There is no end to the mayhem we could inflict. The question is, “Should we?” If the end justifies the means, then are not any means acceptable?

We think not.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Poverty, immigration and more

Catholic News Service reports on a meeting of Dominican provincials from Latin America and the Caribbean.
From his vantage point 170 miles south of the U.S. border, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, Mexico, sees the people who pass through his diocese on their way to seek work in the United States as testimony to decades of failed economic policy in Latin America.

The migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and places like the southern Mexican region of Chiapas, where the bishop worked in the 1990s, are victims of "a deliberately exclusive economy that makes an option for big business and excludes everyone else," he said.

"It is no longer a matter of marginalizing them -- it's exclusion," he said.
. . .
Commitment to the poor is deeply rooted in Dominican tradition. In 1511, in what is now the Dominican Republic, a group of 14 friars signed their names to a homily protesting the Spanish colonists' inhumane treatment of the native people.

That protest could easily be made today, said Father Brian Pierce, whose job as "promoter of the Dominican family" takes him around the region to listen to friars, sisters and laypeople and to encourage them to collaborate in their ministries.

"We live in a world where people purposely turn away. We put walls up around poor neighborhoods. We don't listen to the cry of the poor," Father Pierce said. "One of the powerful challenges for us today is to have the courage to say, 'You aren't seeing, you aren't hearing,' to governments that talk about how (the) gross national product has soared this year," when so many people still live in poverty.

The entire article is here.

More on capital punishment

America magazine offers an overview of the current death penalty situation here. The editorial concludes:
Before his retirement in 1994, the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who had been a supporter of capital punishment, concluded that the death penalty could not be fixed and declared, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Since then, “tinkering” on a wide level has led to significant results in lessening the use of and support for the death penalty. In New York and New Jersey, for example, hearings held over many days led state residents to testify overwhelmingly that capital punishment should be abandoned. Meanwhile, four countries account for almost all executions in the world: China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are three. The United States is number four—hardly appropriate company for a nation that wants to be proud of its human rights record.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Pursuing the death penalty

The Wall Street Journal last week published a front-page story about the increasing willingness of the Justice Department to demand the death penalty, even in cases where the local prosecutors might disagree.
At a time when many states are backing away from capital punishment, the federal government is aggressively pursuing -- and winning -- more death sentences, including in jurisdictions that traditionally oppose them.

On Tuesday [January 30], federal prosecutors in New York persuaded a jury to give a death sentence to Ronell Wilson, a 24-year-old man convicted of killing two undercover detectives by shooting each in the back of the head. The decision -- the first time in more than 50 years that a federal jury in New York agreed to sentence someone to death -- marked something of a milestone for the Justice Department in its continuing effort to apply the death penalty more evenly across the country.

Today, there are 47 people on federal death row -- more than double the number six years ago -- and Mr. Wilson this week became the seventh sentenced in a state without a death statute of its own since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. The ranks may grow in the months ahead, with several capital cases on tap in locales traditionally opposed to the death penalty.

You can read more here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Poverty and National Security

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has found that a majority of Americans believe an increase in poverty would threaten national security.
Most Americans – 62 percent – think an increase in poverty in the United States would threaten national security, according to the latest Poverty Pulse survey by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).

The survey also found that 91 percent of the public is concerned about health care, that 62 percent think there are more people “living in poverty today than there were a year ago” while 60 percent think the ranks of poverty will grow further by next year; and that many believe federal support for health and education should take priority over spending on national defense, fighting terrorism, and war, combined.

When asked whether “an increase in poverty will hurt our national security,” 24 percent said they “strongly agree” that it will, while 38 percent said they “agree,” for a total of 62 percent. Another 24 percent were neutral, neither agreeing nor disagreeing; 12 percent said they disagree with the statement and 2 percent said they strongly disagree.

When questioned about their choice for “the federal government’s highest priority in terms of spending,” 22 percent of respondents said “education,” the top answer, and 21 percent replied “healthcare.” But “health insurance” and “affordable healthcare” and other health-related comments accounted for an additional 5 percent, bringing the total choosing health and medical spending to 26 percent, outpolling even education. Fifteen percent of respondents cited “national defense,” while “fighting terrorism,” “war,” and “other security-defense” options were each mentioned by 1 percent. The fourth-highest response, spending money “on the nation, not on foreign countries,” was favored by 5 percent while 4 percent chose “helping the needy-poor people,” which was the fifth-highest response. Various comments on social concerns (including Social Security, social programs, welfare, seniors/elders and fighting drugs and alcohol abuse -- in addition to helping the needy/poor people) when combined represented the views of 8 percent of respondents.
. . .
“As I reflect on the public response to this survey, I believe that people see societal problems as interrelated, not isolated”, said Bishop Howard Hubbard, Chairman of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the national anti-poverty program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We inherently strive as a society to achieve a healthy condition for all. Of course, within CCHD and the Catholic Church, there is always a focus on achieving the common good for the full community. In this context, I also see that respondents are stressing that if all of society is not healthy and vibrant, but lives in a depressed state of poverty, it follows that unhealthy social conditions will increase and multiply. I believe the time has come for all who are not poor to recognize the needs of our nation’s poor and support efforts to permanently break the cycle of poverty and build strong and healthy communities that repel crime, terrorism and social injustice,” he added.

The news release on this topic is here.