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Cincinnati Catholic raised 'red flags' about priest over a year before rape indictment

Cincinnati, Ohio, Aug 23, 2019 / 02:45 pm (CNA).- A Cincinnati news station is reporting on the contents of a letter, sent to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Binzer in August 2018, accusing them of ignoring “red flags” related to a priest now indicted on nine counts of rape.

"What are we to do with these 'red flags' about Father [Geoff] Drew?" the parishioner wrote, addressing former(?) Auxiliary Bishop Binzer.

"They were brought to your attention on many occasions and your response was to place Fr. Drew in a parish with the largest Catholic grade school in the state! I can't be the only one to see the irony in this."

Fr. Geoff Drew was arrested Aug. 19 on allegations dating back 20 years, which concern Drew’s time as music minister at St. Jude parish, prior to his ordination as a priest. The accusations concern abuse said to have taken place over two years, when the reported victim was 10 and 11 years old. If convicted, the priest could face life in prison.

The priest entered a “not guilty” plea at his Aug. 21 arraignment.

Because she considers the priest a flight risk, Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Ghiz set Drew’s bond at $5 million. He remains incarcerated.

Local news station WCPO reported that in the letter in question, a longtime lay leader at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish told Schnurr he had failed to deliver on his promise of being "unequivocally committed" to children and that the church had ignored "red flags" about Father Drew.

WCPO reported that the author of the letter is a mother of three children who attended St. Maximilian Kolbe in Liberty Township, where Drew was pastor from 2009 to mid-2018.

CNA reported earlier this month that complaints were raised to at least one archdiocesan official about Drew’s inappropriate behavior with teenage and pre-teenage boys as early as 2013. Complaints were made to auxiliary bishop Joseph Binzer, who is the archdiocesan vicar general, in 2013 and 2015.

Binzer referred the complaints to law enforcement, who found no evidence of criminal activity. Binzer did not, however, notify the archdiocesan personnel board or Archbishop Dennis Schnurr about the multiple complaints he had received against Drew. The allegations were also reportedly not recorded by Binzer in the priest’s personnel file.

In early 2018, Drew applied for a transfer to St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Green Township, which is attached to the largest Catholic school in the archdiocese. As head of priest personnel, Bishop Binzer was in charge of the process that considers requests and proposals for reassignment, in conjunction with the priest personnel board. Neither the board nor the archbishop were made aware of the multiple complaints against Drew, and the transfer was approved.

Archbishop Shnurr released a public letter Aug. 17, 2018, following the announcement of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which detailed hundreds of cases of historical clerical sexual abuse. Shnurr wrote that there were no active cases of clerical abuse of minors anywhere in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and that the archdiocese is “committed to transparency."

Shnurr’s letter— as well as Drew’s successful transfer— prompted the St. Maximilian Kolbe parishioner to write hers, WCPO reported.

The archdiocese referred the letter to the Butler County Prosecutor's Office, which determined that Drew’s behavior was inappropriate but not criminal, WCPO reported.

One month after Drew’s arrival at his new parish, a parishioner at his previous church resubmitted a 2015 complaint made about the priest. The complaint was again reported to Butler County officials, but this time it was also brought to the attention of Archbishop Schnurr.

The priest was asked to restrict his involvement with the school and was assigned to meet regularly with a “monitor,” but school faculty and administration were not told about these restrictions, or the reasons for them.

The archdiocese removed Drew from ministry last month, after allegations surfaced that he had sent a series of inappropriate text messages to a 17-year-old boy. The archdiocese then confirmed a history of similar allegations against Drew.

Drew worked as music minister at the parish of St. Jude in Bridgetown, Ohio, from 1984-1999. During that time he was also a music teacher at Elder High School until 1991. He entered seminary in 1999, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2004.

The archdiocesan statement, issued Aug. 19, emphasized that neither the archdiocese, nor Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr were aware of the rape allegations at the time of Drew’s removal last month.

Despite the long history of allegations made against the priest, Archdiocese of Cincinnati spokesman Mike Schafer told local reporters that archdiocesan officials were “stunned” by the rape charges.

“We were stunned," Schafer said Aug. 21. “Just stunned.”

Following the initial reports of Drew's removal from ministry, Bishop Binzer resigned from the USCCB’s committee on child and youth protection, which advises the bishops’ conference on all matters related to safe environment policy and child protection. Binzer was removed from some of his responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and could face an internal Church investigation for his handling of the allegations.

 

Christian filmmakers win right to sue against Minnesota human rights law

Minneapolis, Minn., Aug 23, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A federal court has reversed a decision dismissing a lawsuit brought against the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In a decision issued Friday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated claims that the law violates free speech and freedom of religion in a case brought by two Christian filmmakers who refused to make same-sex wedding videos.

The case was brought by Carl and Angel Larsen, the owners Telescope Media Group, both of whom are devout Christians. The Larsen’s intended to expand their business by filming weddings, but were told by state officials that if they produced films celebrating marriages in accord with their own beliefs, they would also have to create films promoting same-sex marriage.

Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Larsens, called the decision a “significant win.”

“The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs. Carl and Angel work with all people; they just don’t create films promoting all messages,” Tedesco said in a statement.

“All creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”

The initial suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and appealed to the 8th Circuit in October, 2018. The Larson’s told the court that they “gladly work with all people—regardless of their race, sexual orientation, sex, religious beliefs, or any other classification.” 

Because they are Christians, the Larsons said they only decline requests for their services that conflict with their religious beliefs, including any that, in their view, “promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman.”

The 2018 Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits vendors from “to intentionally refusing to do business with, to refuse to contract with, or to discriminate in the basic terms, conditions, or performance of the contract because of a person’s . . . sexual orientation.”

According to the state’s argument, the law regulates the Larsen’s business conduct and not their speech, and they would need to make both traditional marriage and same-sex wedding films, or none at all in order to comply, otherwise they could face tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and up to 90 days in jail.

In the decision published Aug. 23, the 8th Circuit held that the First Amendment prevented the Larsons from being compelled to “mouth support for views they find objectionable,” and that their film productions are a form of free speech protected by the Bill of Rights, saying that “the videos they do wish to produce will convey a message designed to affect public attitudes and behavior.” 

The judges also cited the Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a Christian baker refused to create custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

“If Minnesota were correct,” the judges wrote, “it could use the MHRA to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe ‘My religion is the only true religion’ on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service.” 

The decision orders the District Court to review the case again, and to consider if the Larson’s case merits a preliminary injunction against the state law.

Arizona bishops welcome tuition break for undocumented students

Albuquerque, N.M., Aug 23, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Arizona’s Catholic bishops issued a statement Thursday in support of a change in policy that will offer a discounted college tuition rate to resident high school students who are undocumented immigrants. 

“We are glad that these undocumented students, who were brought here through no fault of their own, will now have more opportunities to better their lives after they graduate from our high schools and eventually become productive members of our society,” said the statement, which was co-signed by the state’s four bishops. 

The new policy, announced Aug. 22, sets the state college tuition rate for non-legal resident students at $16,000, which is $5,000 more than the in-state rate for legal Arizona residents. The tuition rate for out-of-state students is $30,000. Previously, undocumented students had to pay the out-of-state rate. 

“Today's action allows these students, as well as other Arizona high school graduates who have left the state, to join immigrant students who are in the DACA program and pay a much lower tuition rate that reflects the actual costs at our public universities,” the bishops said. 

Several states offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduated from a high school in the state. 

The announcement came on the same day that Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, who chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a statement condemning a newly-published Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Homeland Security rule that concerns the care and custody of immigrant children. 

That new rule allows for families, including minors, to be detained for longer than the previous 20-day limit allowed under the Flores settlement. 

Vasquez said the rule is “unlawful and inhumane” and will harm “countless children.” 

“This rule will have heartbreaking consequences for immigrant children – those whom Pope Francis has deemed ‘the most vulnerable group’ among migrants,” said Vásquez in the statement, which was published on the USCCB’s website. 

“It is an attempt by the [Trump] Administration to circumvent existing obligations and undermine critical protections for these children. This rule will jeopardize the well-being and humane treatment of immigrant children in federal custody and will result in children suffering long-lasting consequences of being held for prolonged periods in family detention.”

The new rule will take effect 60 days after its publication.

Exorcists to Jesuit head: Satan is real

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2019 / 11:49 am (CNA).- An international organization of Catholic exorcists said Thursday that the existence of Satan as a real and personal being is a truth of Christin doctrine.

“The real existence of the devil, as a personal subject who thinks and acts and has made the choice of rebellion against God, is a truth of faith that has always been part of Christian doctrine,” the International Association of Exorcists said in an Aug. 22 press release.

The organization’s release came in response to recent remarks on the devil from Jesuit superior general Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, which the organization called “grave and confusing.”

The exorcists said they released their statement to provide “doctrinal clarification.”

Sosa made headlines earlier this week when he told Italian magazine Tempi that “the devil exists as a symbolic reality, not as a personal reality.”

The devil “exists as the personification of evil in different structures, but not in persons, because is not a person, is a way of acting evil. He is not a person like a human person. It is a way of evil to be present in human life,” Sosa said.

Citing a long history of Church teaching on the nature of Satan, including several citations from Pope Francis and his recent predecessors, the exorcists’ organization said that Catholics are bound to believe that Satan is a real and personal being, a fallen angel.

“The Church, founded on Sacred Scripture and on Apostolic Tradition officially teaches that the devil is a creature and a personal being, and she cautions those who, like Father Sosa, consider him only a symbol.”

Sosa’s remarks are “outside the ordinary and extraordinary-solemn magisterium” of the Church, the exorcists said.

The International Association of Exorcists is an “association of the faithful” formally approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in 2014. Among its founders was well known exorcist Fr. Gabrele Amorth, who died in 2016.

Sosa, 70, was elected the Society of Jesus’ superior general in 2016. A Venezuelan, he has a pontifical licentiate in philosophy and a doctorate in political science. He served as a Jesuit provincial superior in Venezuela from 1996 to 2004, and in 2014 began an administrative role at the general curia of the Jesuits in Rome.

Sosa has offered controversial comments about Satan in the past. In 2017, he told El Mundo that “we have formed symbolic figures such as the Devil to express evil.”

After his 2017 remark generated controversy, a spokesman for Sosa told the Catholic Herald that “like all Catholics, Father Sosa professes and teaches what the Church professes and teaches. He does not hold a set of beliefs separate from what is contained in the doctrine of the Catholic Church."

Analysis: Pell, and the politics of Rome

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2019 / 11:15 am (CNA).- This week’s decision by the Court of Appeal in Victoria marked the apparent conclusion of the criminal trial of Cardinal George Pell in Australia.

While the cardinal may yet exercise his final right of appeal to the country’s High Court, legal experts and those close to Pell are skeptical that such a petition would even be accepted, let alone return a verdict in his favor.

With no further civil progress likely, and Pell almost sure to remain in prison for the foreseeable future, attention now shifts to Rome, where a canonical process has been pending.

Given the questions raised about his treatment by the Australian courts, how that process plays out will be of defining significance, not just for Pell, but for how credibly the Church can still claim to operate an independent legal system that dates back to the Roman Empire.

Pell will face a canonical process at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on charges of crimes of sexual abuse of minors – the same charges brought against him in Victoria. But what sort of process he will receive, and when, remain unanswered questions.

With concerns raised from experts and observers about the strength of the evidence against him, it seems highly unlikely Pell would face the kind of abbreviated administrative procedure like the one used to handle the case of Theodore McCarrick.

The shorter administrative process is reserved in canon law for cases where the facts are reasonably clear, or the proof nearly self-explanatory. In many instances of cases of clerical sexual abuse, a civil conviction is taken by the canonical authorities as effective proof as they decree into evidence all the acts of the civil case.

Yet, because of the reporting ban in place for Pell’s two jury trials (which returned two very different results), little of that original evidence is in the public domain, and would need to be brought to the canonical process as-new.

Also, unlike Theodore McCarrick, Pell did not leave a string of legal settlements behind him in his former dioceses, nor does he face anything like the sheer number of accusers over a sustained period of time – he was convicted in Victoria on the testimony of a single man.

The contentious nature of the result, which came complete with a dissenting opinion from a respected judge, means that public interest and scrutiny remain at fever pitch, and a rushed process would likely raise serious concerns in the Church’s own legal community.

All signs point to Pell receiving a full canonical trial, a process which can, if allowed to fully develop, stand next to any secular court system for legal probity. But that is a big “if.”

The first hurdle will be the access to primary evidence and testimony. Pell’s accuser would need to testify again before the canonical tribunal, and canonists from both sides have the opportunity to put questions to him – there is no guarantee he would be interested in participating.

Also, while it is likely that most if not all of the witnesses in Pell’s defense would make themselves available to testify again, Pell himself is in prison, making it hard for him to appear in front of a tribunal.

But assuming that a canonical court could receive all the evidence and access it needs, Pell’s supporters and legal scholars may have as many concerns about the justice of a canonical process as they do about the criminal proceeding in Victoria.

In the ordinary mechanism, Pell’s trial – like that of any bishop - would be handled by a panel of three or five judges, usually cardinals or archbishops, specially selected by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, under the authorization of the pope.

These judges are normally chosen for their legal expertise and judicial experience and the trial is conducted independent from the ordinary business of the CDF. But, whatever conclusion the deliberations of such a panel might reach in Pell’s case, it would unlikely be the final word.

Pope Francis has in the past exercised his prerogative to judge high-profile cases himself, and, given Pell’s stature and the significance of any possible outcome, he may find it impossible to delegate a final decision in the matter.

If the case arrives on the papal desk, Francis would likely find himself receiving advice that is as much diplomatic as legal.

While the CDF’s legal process can be set up to resist outside pressures, many in the Secretariat of State view Pell’s situation as a potential diplomatic crisis to be resolved.

If a Vatican court were to acquit Pell of the charges on which he was convicted, it would be perceived by many as an indictment of the Australian justice system and a tacit acknowledgment of charges that Pell is imprisoned by anti-Catholic sentiment.

The resulting diplomatic fallout could well fuel calls by international leaders to end the Holy See’s sovereign status under international law.

On the other hand, if Pell were canonically convicted, those in the Church who believe the cardinal’s Australian trial was fundamentally unjust might conclude that the Church no longer really has an independent legal system, and that bishops and priests the world over should not look to Rome for a fair hearing.

That outcome could lead to dissension among an already embattled global episcopate.

Diplomatic considerations to one side, Pell, in particular, may already have reasons for concern.

As prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, Pell was openly loathed by many of the other curial leaders.

The Australian cardinal’s efforts to deliver financial transparency and accountability to the curia in the first years of the Francis pontificate met with internal Curial resistance – in one famous incident, the Secretariat of State maneuvered without Pell’s knowledge to cancel an announced independent audit. Since his return to Australia, Pell’s reforms have largely been reversed by those who would take the closest interest in his case in Rome.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s increasingly omnipotent Secretary of State, has been known for years to “check in” on CDF cases which he considers to be of wider importance to the Holy See. Canonists charged with handling the administration of justice have long complained about “pressure” being applied from across St. Peter’s square.

One high-ranking Churchman in Rome familiar with several Vatican trials told CNA that Parolin’s attempts to involve himself in cases have been extensive.

“When [the CDF] was told to basically stop talking to State, [Parolin] started calling nuncios to monitor correspondence between the Congregation and places where cases were in progress. It was a serious problem.”

As the pope’s chief advisor on nearly all aspects of Church governance, Parolin’s advice could prove decisive in any decision the pope makes on Pell.

In March, Parolin called the news of Pell’s conviction “shocking and painful.” On Feb. 28, he told L'Osservatore Romano that Pell’s case “is an incentive to continue in the pope's line: to fight against this phenomenon and pay attention to the victims."

While there is no certainty about how Parolin might counsel the pope, one member of the Vatican’s diplomatic staff told CNA that Parolin is a pragmatist.
 
“Innocent or guilty, the reality is Pell is convicted in an Australian prison,” he said.

“The cardinal puts the stability of the Holy See’s diplomatic status first in line - if you don’t believe it, ask the Chinese,” he said, in reference to the number of Chinese bishops and priests imprisoned by Beijing, despite a landmark 2018 deal between China and the Vatican.

If Pell appeals his case to Australia’s High Court, his canonical case will be delayed until its conclusion. But, whenever it does come to Rome, Pell and his advocate might discover that the Vatican politics he left behind in 2017 still have bearing on his future.

Agreement reached on permanent Holy See representative to Vietnam

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2019 / 10:08 am (CNA).- A Holy See-Vietnam diplomacy working group, which met inside the Vatican this week, reached an agreement on establishing a permanent resident papal representative to the southeast Asian country.

A resident papal representative is considered an intermediary step in diplomatic relations, below an apostolic nuncio.

The Holy See and Vietnam have never had full diplomatic relations, but have been engaged in formal bilateral discussions since 2009. The Aug. 21-22 summit was the eighth meeting of the working group, which had previously met in Hanoi in December 2018.

Since 2011, the Holy See has had a non-resident pontifical representative to Vietnam. At the 2018 meeting in Hanoi, the delegations had agreed to upgrade this representative from a non-permanent, non-resident to a permanent, resident status.

According to a joint statement Aug. 23, the Holy See-Vietnam working group discussed the regulations to underly such an agreement “in view of the setting up of the Office at the earliest possible date.”

In the meeting, the Holy See also expressed appreciation for the State’s assistance to the Catholic community in Vietnam. The State gave its assurance of its continued commitment to improve consistent policy for respect of freedom of belief and religion.

“The two sides also expressed their commitment to continuing dialogue based on trust and respect for the mutually agreed principles governing the bilateral relations. They underscored the importance of further promoting contacts, including at high levels, between the two sides,” according to the statement.

The Vietnamese delegation also met with Pope Francis, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

The delegations are headed by Mons. Antoine Camilleri, Vatican under-secretary for relations with states, and To anh Dung, Vietnam's deputy minister of foreign affairs.

The position of non-resident papal representative to Vietnam is held by the nuncio to Singapore, who is currently Archbishop Marek Zalewski.

Catholics are estimated to make up about 7% of Vietnam’s population of 97 million. Predominant religious practice is of folk religions, followed by Buddhism.

Vietnam’s religious freedom law has been under discussion since 2013, when the Vietnamese constitution was revised. The law guaranteed freedom of belief to people, and formally guarantees religious freedom.

However, Catholic communities have experienced several limitations under the communist regime that took power in 1976.

According to the 2019 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, religious freedom conditions in the country regressed from 2018 to 2019, and despite small improvements, the government of Vietnam continues to persecute religious individuals and organizations.

St. Rose of Lima

On August 23, the church celebrates the first saint of the New World, St. Rose of Lima. Isabel Flores de Oliva was born in Lima, Peru on April 30, 1586, daughter of Gaspar Flores and Maria de Oliva. She was baptized in the parish of San Sebastián in Lima by the priest, Fr. Antonio Polanco. She was confirmed in the village of Quives de Manos by the then Archbishop of Lima, St. Toribius de Mogrovejo. At a very young age, she chose to consecrate her life to God. She practiced very intense prayer and penance daily, sometimes depriving herself of food and sleep.She joined the Third Order of St. Dominic and lived in a little hut in her parents' garden, working to help support them. She was ill for the last three years of her life, and was cared for by a government official and his wife. She diedat the age of 31 on August 24, 1617, feast of St. Bartholomew, as she herself prophesied. She was canonized by Pope Clement X in 1671, and was the first saint of the Americas. Her shrine, alongside those of her friends, St. Martin de Porres and St. John Masias, is located inside the convent of St. Dominic in Lima.

Children before politics say parents as Catholic adoption agency heads to court

Lansing, Mich., Aug 22, 2019 / 05:30 pm (CNA).- Parents of five adoptive children were present in court on Thursday in support of a Catholic adoption agency in Michigan that is threatened with closure by a new state policy.

“Political grandstanding should never come at the expense of vulnerable children,” stated Melissa Buck, who with her husband Chad has adopted five children with special needs through St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Michigan.

Buck was speaking out against a new state requirement that adoption agencies match children with same-sex couples—regardless of the agencies’ religious mission—in order to receive state funding.

“No one has ever been kept from adopting or fostering a child in need because of St. Vincent’s religious beliefs,” Buck stated on Aug. 22 after oral arguments in Buck v. Gordon, the challenge to Michigan’s new policy, at the Western District Court of Michigan in Grand Rapids.

Kristy and Dana Dumont, a same-sex couple seeking to adopt a child out of foster care, said they were referred elsewhere by St. Vincent Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services in 2016 and 2017 when they tried to adopt children through them. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the two organizations on their behalf.

St. Vincent is one of the oldest adoption and foster care agencies in the state, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the agency.

The State’s health department opened investigations into the complaints. Then on March 22, 2019, the state’s new Attorney General, Dana Nessel, settled with the ACLU and required all adoption agencies to match children with qualified same-sex couples in order to receive state funding.

Nessel, a self-identified lesbian, once represented a same-sex couple April DeBoer and Jane Rowse in their fight to marry and adopt children; the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court as part of Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 decision that mandated the legal recognition of same-sex unions as civil marriages nationwide.

The settlement reversed a 2015 state law that protected religious-based adoption agencies from having to match children with same-sex couples if they were morally opposed to doing so.

Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities as well as people who have benefitted from their work—Shamber Flore, a former foster child placed with a family by St. Vincent, and Melissa and Chad Buck, a married couple who adopted five children with special needs through St. Vincent.

After oral arguments on Thursday, Buck shared her personal story of working with St. Vincent to adopt five children with special needs.

“It’s the best and the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and there were challenges that we weren’t equipped to face on our own—but we were never alone. St. Vincent was there for us every step of the way, at all hours of the day or night, for anything we needed, even if it was for just a shoulder to cry on,” Buck said.

“We chose to foster and adopt through St. Vincent because the faith and values that motivate their ministry make them the very best at what they do, particularly finding homes for the children who need it most.”

There are currently more than 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system, and more than 600 children “age out” of the foster care system each year without having been adopted.

Becket said that in 2017, St. Vincent “recruited more adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area.”

Lori Windham, senior counsel for Becket, wrote in an op-ed for The Detroit News that “already, Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Buffalo, and the state of Illinois have forced faith-based adoption agencies to close, and several more agencies are entangled in court battles, all amid a nationwide adoption and foster care crisis.”

“That crisis is only growing worse as with children flooding into the system, their lives the collateral damage of an opioid epidemic,” Windham wrote.

Suspected Hindu radicals arrested in India after attack on Catholic pilgrims 

Velankanni, India, Aug 22, 2019 / 05:24 pm (CNA).- Six suspected members of a radical Hindu group were arrested in India this week after dozens of Catholics were attacked on a Marian pilgrimage.

On Sunday, 40 Catholics were physically or verbally assaulted while on a 280-mile pilgrimage from Karnataka to Velankanni, a coastal town in south east India, ucanews reported.

The assailants blocked the road and destroyed the pilgrims’ Marian statue. No one was seriously injured in the attack.

A police official said six men have been arrested in connection with the assault. They are being charged with rioting, attempted murder, and disturbing religious peace. A local Catholic told ucanews that the attackers claimed to be affiliated with the radical Hindu Munnani group.

The century-old pilgrimage ends at the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. Beginning on Aug. 31, the shrine hosts nine days of festivities, leading up to the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Sept. 8.

During the trek, a Marian statue is typically pulled in a decorated cart while pilgrims sing hymns or pray the Rosary. Pilgrims stay overnight at parishes along the way to Velankanni.

Father L. Sahayaraj, deputy secretary of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, told ucanews the pilgrimage had not seen similar disturbances in the past. He warned that such attacks will sow hatred and division.

Since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 2014, Church leaders have said that India’s Christians have faced an increase in persecution from radical Hindu groups.

Father Cyril Joseph, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Bangalore, called the attacks a threat to the constitution’s protections of free expression and free movement in the country.

“Such attacks are a serious threat to peace and harmony, especially between people of different religious groups,” he said, according to ucanews. “Though the attack was on a small group, the message is for all Christians. It was an open threat against public expression and practice of our faith.”

Bishops praise proposal to clarify religious exemptions for federal contractors

Washington D.C., Aug 22, 2019 / 04:15 pm (CNA).- Leaders at the U.S. bishops’ conference have praised a U.S. Labor Department proposal to clarify protections for religious employers seeking federal contracts.

“Faith-based groups should have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field as they seek to partner with the federal government to provide critical social services,” said the heads of three committees for the U.S. bishops.

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, FL, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, signed an Aug. 21 statement about the proposed changes.

“These proposed rules protect religious liberty, a core constitutional right, by clarifying existing religious exemptions consistent with federal law and recent Supreme Court precedent. We are grateful to the Administration for taking this step, and we look forward to filing more detailed public comments with [the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs],” they said.

The Labor Department announced the proposed rule changes Aug. 15 in the federal register and asked for public comment.

Under existing law, religious nonprofit organizations that enter into contracts with the federal government are exempt from the requirement that federal contractors not discriminate on the basis of religion in employment decisions.

The Labor Department wrote that some organizations, including for-profit companies that have a religious mission, have provided feedback saying they are reluctant to participate as federal contractors because of uncertainty regarding the scope of existing religious exemptions.

In light of recent Supreme Court decisions such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Trinity Lutheran, the department proposed to clarify that the religious exemption “allows religious contractors not only to prefer in employment individuals who share their religion, but also to condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor.”

Among other changes, the department wrote, the proposal is intended to make clear that the existing religious exemption covers not just churches, but also employers that are “organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose.”

It is also intended, the department said, to make clear that religious employers can “condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets without sanction by the federal government,” provided that they do not discriminate based on other protected bases such as race, sex, or national origin. Companies will also still be bound by the state laws of the jurisdictions in which they are located.

Secular groups such as Lambda Legal reacted to the proposed changes with concern, fearing that the rules would allow companies to “opt-out” of civil rights laws and discriminate against religious minorities and the LGBT community.

But Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of the Becket Fund, told The Washington Post that the new rules give religious groups greater clarity on what exemptions they can legally seek in their hiring practices after the Obama administration expanded protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When a religious group says ‘Hey, we need you to be a Christian and adhere to Christian teachings,' federal law has recognized that’s not discrimination,” he said.