September 18, 2014

SNAP hopes priest case encourages other victims (AUDIO)

A support organization for people abused by priests hopes resolution of an abuse case in Boonville last week encourages more people who’ve been harboring a secret to step forward.

A judge in Boonville has ruled that the statute of limitations had not run out on the man who was known as Father Jerry Howard, who is going to prison for 12 years for abusing three boys in the 1980s while serving as a priest in Boonville. Howard had left the state, which stopped the limitations clock from running. He was living in New Jersey when he was arrested.

Director David Clohessy of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests says the judge’s ruling should encourage other prosecutors to go after priests and other abusers whose acts were done decades ago.

Clohessy continues to accuse the Catholic Church of delaying actions and concealing information, saying any progress the church has made has been “painfully” small. But he says the Catholic Church is not the only faith group with abuse problems. “Every faith group could and should do a better job…Many denominations have fewer restrictions on who may become clergy and those denominations tend to be more open to kicking out bad apples,” he says.

Howard was known in New Jersey as father Carmen Sita, who was charged in 1982 with molesting boys. He was put on probation for five years in 1988 and went to a clinic in New Mexico that treats sex offenders. He changed his name to Gerald Howard after his release, moved to the Jefferson City diocese, and was stationed in Boonville.

Clohessy’s group has strongly criticized the Jefferson City diocese for its actions and last week added to its criticism when it said the diocese had withheld information that Howard/Sita had been defrocked two years ago by Pope Benedict. SNAP says it learned of the Pope’s actions from a lawyer for the Newark, New Jersey Archdiocese.

Clohessy says there’s no way to know how many victims of clergy abuse could be helped by the circumstances behind Howard’s conviction and sentence.

AUDIO: Clohessy interview 10:33

Student Religious Liberty bill awaits action (AUDIO)

One of the bills awaiting action by Governor Nixon is the Student Religious Liberties Act. But it’s written to protect those without religion, too.

The bill says schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of religious expression or viewpoint, however expressed—whether in art, writing, speech, or in clothing, jewelry and accessories. It does not require anyone to take part in any religious activities.

It requires school districts to write policies that provide for what’s called a “limited public forum” speech at any event where a student is to speak in public–graduation and baccalaureate events, for example. It says students can pray or take part in religious activities before, during, and after school hours.

Supporters say the bill also protects non-believers as well by allowing clothing, jewelry, or accessories that promote Satanism or witchcraft, as long as the items are not indecent.

But sponsor Ryan Silvey of North Kansas City says the decency line is up to the school district to define. The bill also requires districts to say any student expression does not reflect an endorsement of the student’s position.AUDIO: Final debate 13:57

House overwhelmingly endorses student religious liberty legislation

The House has given broad bipartisan first-round approval to a bill that, its sponsor says, is necessary to make clear for school districts what the law in Missouri says about students’ religious liberties.

Representative Elijah Haahr (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Elijah Haahr (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill (HB 1303) is offered by Representative Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

He says students’ ability to express religious beliefs in schools is jeopardized not by school districts, but by organizations who take advantage of unclear state statute to sue school districts in order to block such expressions.

“As an attorney I know the money is made in the gray areas,” says Haahr. “When the statute’s unclear, the case law’s unclear, that’s where attorneys get excited and they want to make a move. If we lay out something clear … as long as a school district follows the state statutes, it makes it very hard for anyone to bring a case against them.”

The legislation won broad support on the initial, or “perfection,” vote, 128-20, including from at least one lawmaker who had earlier opposed it.

“I think what this bill does is protected already,” says Representative Margo McNeil (D-Florissant), a former teacher who voted against the bill in committee but voted for it Wednesday. “Perhaps putting it in state statute would make school districts in service their teachers on how to deal with religious issues … I think that it is a valid concern.”

Opponents argue the bill increases the likelihood of litigation against schools.

Representative Bob Burns (D-St. Louis) says some school districts can’t afford additional litigation.

“Some districts just will not challenge because they’re in such financial difficulty. They realize even having that attorney sit at a school board meeting costs an astronomical amount of money at the end of the year.”

The proposal needs another favorable vote to be sent to the Senate.

Jefferson City Church invited to send choir to sing at the Vatican

A choir from a Jefferson City church has been invited to sing at a mass with Pope Francis on New Year’s Day, 2015.

The music minister at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Lisa Screeton, took a choir to sing at a papal mass on the Catholic Feast of Epiphany in 2010. When a new opportunity came up for American choirs to participate in papal masses, an invitation was extended to Screeton.

She says she has some quality singers at Jefferson City.

“I knew that I could accept that invitation on their behalf because they would be a phenomenal group to take there, so we accepted the invitation to sing at the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on January 1, 2015 at St. Peters.”

Screeton says she plans to open up the opportunity outside Immaculate Conception and even to those of other faiths, and she encourages everyone to sing.

“They can go as a non-singing pilgrim,” Screeton says, “but if they’re going to go on the trip they may as well sing with us because everyone is welcome.”

In addition to the papal mass the group will have opportunities to perform at concerts at other churches in Rome and in Florence, Italy. Screeton says those are typically well attended because they offer something locals don’t often get to hear.

“Romans particularly love an American choir who does American music,” Screeton explains, “Either spirituals or by English or American composers.”

The trip will cost about $3000 per person. Screeton says fundraiser will take place through 2014 that are aimed at offsetting part of that cost, and anyone that participates in the fundraisers will get an equal share of the proceeds toward the cost.

Screeton says the experience of visiting the Vatican was, “moving,” and says it is more impactful from the standpoint of a musician.

“To be able to stand and sing or stand and conduct a choir with a sitting Pope just a few feet away … it just doesn’t get any better than that. It’s something that you never take for granted and it’s something that you never forget.”

The group will leave for Rome on December 26, 2014 and return January 2, 2015. It will also attend Mass at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

Governor, First Lady ask Missourians to remember men, women in military during holidays (VIDEO)