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Catholics Play Key Roles in Efforts to End Death Penalty in Oregon
Ed Langlois
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, September 24, 2009
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PORTLAND, Ore.—The drive to repeal the death penalty in Oregon has gained vigor, with Catholics in key roles.

"We need to share our Catholic teaching with courage and clarity," said a memorandum sent to parishes recently by Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland. "We need to reach out to our teachers and to our parishioners. We need to form and to persuade. We need to be advocates for change."

Tully has joined other lay Catholics on the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

With statements from the catechism, Pope John Paul II, the U.S. bishops and most recently Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny, Oregon Catholics are being urged to oppose execution as an affront to the sanctity of life as well as an ineffective and expensive public policy.

Catholic leaders say capital punishment encourages the idea that violence is an appropriate solution to social problems. In addition, new technology has exonerated scores of death row inmates nationwide, meaning that innocent people have probably been executed.

The death penalty has never been an effective deterrent to murder, Archbishop Vlazny wrote in a column in the Catholic Sentinel, officials newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. He added that the punishment has been applied arbitrarily and disproportionately against the poor and minorities.

One part of the Catholic catechism says state acts of justice are meant in part to improve the offender and allow for possible redemption, even if it occurs within prison walls. The idea is linked to the Christian value of forgiveness, which comes straight from Jesus.

"If punishment is supposed to correct someone, you can't correct them by killing them," says Mary Ryan-Hotchkiss, a member of the peace and justice group at St. Pius X Parish in Portland.

At a workshop in August at St. Andrew Parish in Portland, activists were urged to work in their churches to help parishioners match the resolve of their leaders.

"Pastors now need to hear from the grass roots, the people on the ground," said Ron Steiner, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem and a leader of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He helped organize the successful effort to abolish executions in New Mexico.

Steiner said grass-roots organizing in New Mexico led to stunning results, like 12,000 messages to Gov. Bill Richardson in four days.

"We're trying to find people in the parishes to take this to their community," Steiner said of the Oregon campaign. "We'd like someone in every parish in the archdiocese."
In 2000, opponents of the death penalty attempted to qualify an initiative for the Oregon ballot, but fell short of signatures. This time around, they plan to aim for a referendum, a law change sent from lawmakers to the public. Key legislators have promised support. The next time such a referendum could be on the ballot is fall 2012.

With recent bans in New Jersey and New Mexico and strong campaigns under way in Montana and Nebraska, Oregon's activists have stepped up activity, though the work has been developing for years.

"There is no question—the understanding is different in the past decade," said Sarah Craft, a Seattle-based campaign organizer for Equal Justice USA, a group formed to end the death penalty.

Ann Lackey, a teacher and member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, said recent Catholic teaching on the death penalty has "changed the whole dynamic." Linking the opposition to the pro-life movement makes perfect sense to her.

"It's really starting to build," she said of the abolition movement.

The movement has sought allies not only among parishes but in religious orders. Holy Names Sister Janet Ryan attended the workshop on behalf of her fellow women religious.

In the works at parishes are book groups that take up works like Dead Man Walking or Innocent Man. Churches may have potluck dinners at houses to discuss the issue. Items could go out on the church Web site, via e-mail lists, Facebook and Twitter.

"We feel rejuvenated on the cause," says Bill Long, a Portland attorney with a blog on faith, government and health. "We're gradually trying to build up the community of those who oppose."

Thirty-five states have a death penalty. In Oregon, the death sentence is possible in cases of aggravated murder.

Oregon is one of only three states where the death penalty is written into the state constitution. That means it can be changed only by initiative or referendum.

The Oregon Supreme Court has overturned half of the death sentences handed down since capital punishment was reinstated by voter initiative in 1984. Since then, 73 death sentences have been pronounced but 36 have been reversed. Thirty-one individuals are currently on death row. Two men have been executed since 1984 because they abandoned their appeals.

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