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'Tolton' play in spotlight as Church addresses racial division

Denver Newsroom, Nov 27, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).-  

During the U.S. bishops' meeting last week, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento said his diocese had hosted a one-man play honoring the first African-American slave to become a Catholic priest, as part of its efforts to address racism.

The play is “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” the work of St. Luke Productions. It has been performed in front of thousands of people since it was released three years ago.

Leonardo Defilippis, director and president of St. Luke Productions, told CNA that the witness of Fr. Augustus Tolton is important at a moment of racial division, especially Tolton gives witness to Christian unity beyond racial barriers.

“We're the only show in the whole country and it's the only instrument like it in the Catholic Church,” he told CNA. “It's so powerful. [It helps] you realize all men are created equal.”

Fr. Tolton is played by Jim Coleman - a television and film actor of almost 30 years. During the show, Tolton engages with memories of his past, meeting his mother, his friends and enemies, and the devil himself.

Since it opened in 2017, the play has been performed over 200 times at Catholic venues across the United States. The goal of the play is to bear witness to a holy man who confronts hatred and segregation with charity, said Defilippis.

He said this show provides the best example of a persecuted person who encountered trials with compassion and faith. Rather than with violence or revenge, Tolton responded to racial hatred with the virtues of a saint, Defilippis added.

Speaking of facing injustice, Defilippis said that “saints have a way of showing you how to do it.”

“You have to do it through love. You have to do it through forgiveness. You have to have faith. You have to have hope. That’s what leads us to that oneness, that unity.”

Tolton was born into slavery in Monroe County, Missouri, in 1854. During the Civil War, Tolton and his family escaped slavery.

He entered St. Peter’s Catholic School in Quincy, Illinois, when he was young. The school’s pastor, Fr. Peter McGirr eventually instructed him for his first Holy Communion and recognized his vocation to the priesthood.

Tolton studied for the priesthood in Rome because no American seminary would accept an African-American student. When he returned to the U.S. after his ordination in 1889, he was greeted by thousands of people. A brass band played hymns, and black and white people processed together into the local church.

Tolton served for three years at a parish in Quincy before moving to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics, St. Monica's, where he remained until his death in 1897.

Coleman has performed as Tolton for the past two years. He said he was reluctant to audition at first because he was not interested in theater roles. But he said he’s glad for the experience.

“The experience of doing a true story [about] someone's life and actually using the words that he said, ... I started to take on a lot of the things that he experienced … I always pray before every show in rehearsal to allow Fr. Tolton to tell his story,” he told CNA.

Coleman expressed hope that the play might be a catalyst for racial healing. He said the show pushes the audience to see past the color of a person’s skin, and to see the unity of the human race.

“The goal of this show is to let people know that we are all one in the spirit, we are all one in Christ. Racism is a divide to the human family … In order to heal that divide, we have to heal our hearts as well as our minds of racism,” he said.

“It lets you know that in order for us to achieve, it's not going to always be the people of the same race. It takes all of us to create greatness. It takes all of us to succeed.”

 

 

Warning of donor harassment, Trump administration backs foes of Calif. disclosure rule

CNA Staff, Nov 26, 2020 / 11:01 am (CNA).- The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to review a challenge to a California requirement that charitable organizations disclose their major donors to the state attorney general, siding with groups like the Thomas More Law Center that say the requirement will make their donors vulnerable to retaliation, harassment, and violence.

The move from the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office drew praise from John Bursch, senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy at the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group.

“Charitable entities shouldn’t be required to disclose confidential donor information to state officials who do not need it and who fail to adequately protect donor identities from disclosure to the public,” Bursch said Nov. 24. “We are pleased that the United States agrees that this case presents critically important issues that the Supreme Court should decide immediately. Forced donor disclosure is a threat to everyone and discourages both charitable giving and participation in the marketplace of ideas.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is backing the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center’s complaint in the case. The center promotes issues related to religious freedom, moral and family values, and the sanctity of human life, Alliance Defending Freedom said in August 2019. Another challenger to the California rules is the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which tends to take conservative or libertarian positions on questions of economics and other issues, including opposition to labor unions.

Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to grant a hearing on the case, which was victorious in federal district court but suffered a defeat in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

“As this court’s precedents make clear, compelled disclosures that carry a reasonable probability of harassment, reprisals, and similar harms are subject to exacting scrutiny, which requires a form of narrow tailoring,” said the brief to the Supreme Court. The solicitor general’s office said the appeals court ruling “compromises important associational interests protected by the First Amendment.”

“Petitioners alleged that their contributors had in the past suffered harassment, reprisals, and similar harms because of their association with petitioners,” the brief said. Disclosure would likely “expose their substantial contributors to those harms, and thereby deter those contributors and others from making future contributions.”

At issue is a matter of non-profit tax forms and the crucial information they contain.

Qualified tax-exempt organizations already must submit to the IRS a Form 990 federal information form, including the names of “all substantial contributors” in a section called Schedule B. Substantial donors are defined as those who give $5,000 or more to the organization in a year or 2% of total annual contributions. However, the information about these donors must be kept confidential on pain of civil and criminal law.

Non-profits that ask for donations in California must file their tax returns with California’s Registry of Charitable Trusts, administered by the state attorney general, currently Xavier Becerra.

Beginning in 2010, the California attorney general said that disclosures must include this Schedule B. The incoming U.S. vice-president Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, and the rule change began under her predecessor Jerry Brown.

Both the Thomas More Law Center and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation have alleged that there is a high risk their information will be made public and disrupt their freedom of association.

Alliance Defending Freedom alleged that in March 2012, the California Attorney General’s Office began to “harass the law center and demand the names and addresses of its major donors even though the center’s donors, clients, and employees have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, boycotts, and even assassination attempts from ideological opponents.”

The legal group said that for those associated with charities like the Thomas More Law Center that “speak on contentious matters,” the disclosure of donor information “poses an imminent danger of hate mail, violence, ostracization, and boycotts.”

“Only the most stalwart supporters will give money under such a toxic cloud. Most will reasonably conclude that the risk of association is too great, with the result that groups who make the most threats will effectively shut down those with whom they disagree,” said the legal group’s request for Supreme Court review.

“Charities will continue to find as-applied exemptions impossible to achieve, and support for groups advocating contentious ideas will dry up,” the legal group said. “This Court should intervene now while there are still dissenting voices left to save.”

The request said California law has “deprived charities of resources, chilled their speech for nine years, and blocked dissemination of their ideas in our Nation’s most populous state.”    

Alliance Defending Freedom has cited the Supreme Court’s 1958 ruling in the case NAACP v. Alabama, which ruled against the Alabama Attorney General’s demands that the civil rights group produce its membership list or cease operations. The restrictions on the group crippled the organization in Alabama at a key time when black Americans sought to secure civil rights.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

The district court found that California’s required disclosures were not “substantially related” to its interest in regulating charities, as auditors and attorneys seldom use the Schedule B section when they audit or investigate charities. Even when the information was relevant, it could be obtained from other sources. The disclosure requirement was not narrowly tailored.

The district court said petitioners presented “ample evidence” that their contributors had previously suffered “harassment, reprisals, and similar harms” when their involvement became known. The California attorney general’s office had “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality of Schedule B forms.” This failure included making hundreds of the forms available on its registry website.

The court of appeals, however, overturned the district court. It said confidentiality measures had been tightened and said California had a compelling interest in policing fraud in charitable organizations, and disclosing major donors advances this interest, Reuters reported.
It compared the rule to political disclosure cases such as Doe v. Reed, where the Supreme Court said that the disclosure of the names of people who signed a petition referendum was relevant to state interests in protecting the electoral process.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s summary of the case said, “the California Attorney General’s office has a history of posting supporter’s information online and offers no protection against employees, contractors, or summer interns downloading, e-mailing, or printing supporters’ names and addresses and then disclosing them publicly.”

“We’ve already seen how publicly revealing political donors with the intent of doing harm (or 'doxing') can ruin careers and corrode civil discourse,” the legal group said. “Givers would have good reason to fear being doxed—especially in today’s toxic cultural climate.”

The Thomas More Law Center's president and chief counsel is Richard Thompson, who came to prominence for opposing prominent assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian. Thompson co-founded the law center in in 1998 with Thomas Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza who continues to be a prominent Catholic philanthropist. Alliance Defending Freedom said about 5% of donors to the law center are California residents.

Besides issues related to religious freedom and family values, the law center’s website also provides resources for critics of the Common Core curriculum. It names other key issues as “confronting the threat of radical Islam” and “defending national security.”

The similarly-named Thomas More Society, based in Illinois, is not connected to the law center.

For its part, Americans for Prosperity was founded in 2004. It has had strong financial support from two wealthy brothers, David and Charles Koch, whose combined net worth is in the billions of dollars.

Pandemic conditions have increased Christian persecution

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated Christian persecution in some places, according to a new report from the group Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN).

“The devastating and unprecedented impact of COVID-19 all over the world,” said the new ACN report, “had a direct bearing on trends concerning unjust detention.” Aid to the Church in Need International is a pontifical aid foundation with sectors in 23 countries.

A new report, released Nov. 25, focuses on the plight of Christian prisoners around the world. Titled “Set Your Captors Free,” the report details the kidnapping and detention of Christians by state and non-state actors.

“Around the world, militants, both those in sympathy with Daesh, and those with a very different outlook, including extremists from other faith traditions, target religious minorities with alarming regularity,” ACN’s report said.

Additionally, “there exists the disturbing trend of state actors unjustly detaining members of faith minorities,” the report said.  

An average of 309 Christians are “unjustly imprisoned” each month in the 50 worst-offending countries, and more than 1,000 are abducted, the report says, citing the group Open Doors. In prison they face sham trials, arbitrary detention, torture, and prison overcrowding.

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly through the world in the first months of 2020, state arrests of Christians fell as countries focused on combatting the pandemic, and some prisoners were released, the report said.

However, persecution of Christians increased in severity in some cases, both as the pandemic spread and as some countries reopened after lockdowns.

The spread of the virus meant that some courts shut down partially or completely, thus delaying trials for Christians languishing in prison on faith-based charges.

As churches stopped in-person religious services during lockdowns, and conducted them online, some governments have used the opportunity to increase their surveillance of Christians. For instance, footage reportedly showed police in China’s Fujian province raiding an underground church service in May, and dragging attendees out of the gathering.

States and militant groups have used local lockdowns and the global occupation with the virus, to conduct even more attacks against Christians, ACN found. In Nigeria, Fulani militants stepped up attacks Christians in their homes during lockdown.

China, for its part, increased its crackdown on underground Christian groups during the pandemic while the rest of the world was occupied with COVID, the report said.  

Once communities began to reopen after lockdowns, some governments restored their surveillance of Christian communities. In Iran, intelligence agents arrested a dozen Christians across three cities in July.

Almost one-third of arrests of Christians without charge, and for faith-based reasons, occurred in China in one 12-month period. From Nov., 2018 through Oct., 2019, Beijing imprisoned or detained without charge more than 1,100 Christians “for faith-based reasons.”

Christians face widespread kidnapping by jihadist militants in Nigeria, with more than 220 Christian captives per year. There has also been a “surge” in kidnappings of priests and religious, ACN reported.

In countries such as Pakistan and Egypt, Christian women are kidnapped and subject to forced conversions and forced marriages. In one Pakistani province, there were 1,000 cases of forced marriages of Christian and Hindu women in 2018 alone.

North Korea is known to be one of the worst persecutors of Christians, with more than 50,000 Christians imprisoned in harsh labor camps.

Eritrea, referred to by some as the “North Korea of Africa,” more than 1,000 Christians are reportedly detained and within only several months in 2019, around 300 unregistered Christians were arrested.

The report also highlights individual Christian cases, such as those of Asia Bibi who faced the death penalty in Pakistan for false blasphemy charges, and Eritrea’s Patriarch Antonios, under house arrest since 2007.

Kentucky dioceses keep Masses open despite governor's request

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Kentucky’s four Catholic dioceses will not suspend public Masses despite the governor’s request that religious services be held online only until December 13. 

Gov. Andy Beshear (D) requested that houses of worship stop having in-person services in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Kentucky has been experiencing a spike in the number of cases and deaths. Beshear raised concerns that church services and related events, such as pot-lucks, could be contributing to the spread. 

Despite the request, public Masses will not be stopping in Kentucky. 

“At this time, we will not be suspending public liturgies but encourage all to act in a responsible way that respects the seriousness of this pandemic and the health and safety of all,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville in a statement on November 19. 

The Sunday obligation for Catholics to attend Mass, however, is still suspended in the state. Catholics do not have to attend Mass on Sunday if they think it is imprudent or unsafe to do so.

Kurtz said that his brother bishops in the commonwealth of Kentucky--the Dioceses of Owensboro, Covington, and Lexington--would not be suspending public Masses at this time either. 

"I join with the other three Catholic bishops of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in acknowledging the difficult circumstances Gov. Beshear is seeking to navigate, and I appreciate his concern for the common good," Kurtz said in the statement provided to WRDB News.

"The increase in cases of COVID-19 is indeed alarming and presents significant challenges,” said Kurtz, who “reiterated the importance” of following the guidelines that had been previously set by the dioceses following the resumption of public Mass.

“Our commitment to providing the opportunity to participate in the Church’s liturgies remotely will continue, as will the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass,” said Kurtz. 

While Mass will continue to be in-person, other institutions have shut down for the time being. 

Schools in the archdiocese, both private and public, have shifted to remote learning until after the Christmas holiday. Gathering sizes for other events have been capped, and there will not be indoor dining or bars in Kentucky until mid-December. 

Other Christian groups have issued similar statements to Kurtz, saying that they will keep their congregations as safe as possible but continue to hold services in-person.

Ransomware attack cripples St. Louis archdiocesan websites

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).-  

A ransomware attack crippled the websites of the Archdiocese of St. Louis last week, but data has not been compromised by the attack, the archdiocese told CNA. Several archdiocesan affiliated sites have been taken offline in response to the attack.

“On November 16th, our website hosting company experienced a coordinated ransomware campaign. To ensure integrity of our data, the limited number of impacted sites–including ours–have been taken offline,” the Archdiocese of St. Louis informed Catholics last week.

“Upon further investigation and out of an abundance of caution, our hosting company took down their entire system to ensure that we were not compromised. Our hosting security team are working diligently to eliminate the threat and restore our website to full capacity.”

Seven archdiocesan urls are impacted, among them archstl.org, stlreview.org, and pages for archdiocesan cemeteries and fundraising. A spokesperson for the archdiocese told CNA Tuesday “we do not have information regarding an expected timeline for the restoration of our website.”

“We have been told that none of the Archdiocese of St. Louis' information has been compromised, and the hosting company has taken down our sites to protect us,” the spokesperson added.

Ransomware is a kind of hacking measure by which websites are taken over unless a ransom is made. In some cases, hackers threaten to release confidential data gained from the attack unless the ransom is paid.

Maria Lemakis, archdiocesan multimedia manager, told CNA that because the attack happened with the company that hosts websites, a decision about whether to pay the ransom is not up to the archdiocese.

“Whether or not the ransom will be paid is at the discretion of the hosting vendor,” Lemakis explained.

 “It is our understanding that the vendor is working with federal authorities on the issue,” she added.