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Texas chapel fenced off from border wall funding

Washington D.C., Feb 14, 2019 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- A congressional budget compromise that would fund the construction of physical barriers along parts of the southern border of the United States includes an explicit provision that excludes La Lomita Park from the funding. The park is the site of a chapel at the center of a court case between the Diocese of Brownsville and the government.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, the text of which was released Feb. 13, would provide $1.3 billion in funding for the construction of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border but contains a list of five specific places where these funds cannot be used to build a wall, the third of which is the site of La Lomita Chapel. 

According to section 231 of the bill, “None of the funds made available by this Act or prior Acts are available for the construction of pedestrian fencing [...] (3) within La Lomita Historical park.” 

The bill is slated to be considered by the House of Representatives on February 14.

La Lomita Park in Mission, TX, is home to La Lomita Chapel. Constructed in 1865 by missionaries, the chapel is located close to the U.S. border with Mexico. While there are no regularly scheduled religious services held at the chapel, it is used for weddings, funerals, and other cultural events. 

The chapel is maintained partly by the city of Mission, as it is located in a park, and is affiliated with Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, located a 10-minute drive away.

If the border wall were to be built as planned, the chapel would be on the southern side of the wall, limiting parishioner access to it from the north.

The Diocese of Brownsville, which includes Mission, filed suit against the federal government arguing that the construction of a border wall restricting access to the chapel would be a violation of religious freedom.

Last week, a District Court decision cleared the way for the land to be surveyed. 

On Feb. 6, Judge Randy Crane ruled that allowing the federal government to survey the land surrounding the chapel to determine if a wall could be built would not interfere with the exercise of religious freedom rights. 

An attorney representing the diocese told CNA that she was pleased La Lomita Park was included in the compromise bill, and that she hoped the bill would be passed by Congress.

“We are of course glad that the authors of this bill have recognized the significance of La Lomita Chapel to the Catholic community in the Rio Grande Valley, and we hope that Congress and the president pass the spending bill with these protections for La Lomita and other local landmarks,” Amy Marshak, an attorney at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP), told CNA.

ICAP is representing the Diocese of Brownsville in its suit against the government.

It is not yet clear if the compromise bill will be accepted by President Donald Trump, who had requested $5.7 billion to build a wall along parts of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Trump indicated Thursday that he was pleased with parts of the compromise, and congressional leaders have expressed cautious optimism that the president could sign the bill and avoid another partial government shutdown.

On Thursday afternoon, the president tweeted that he was reviewing the bill with his staff. 

In addition to funding the border wall, the bill also includes funds for international aid to Central America, and a reduction in the number of beds available to detain undocumented immigrants away from the border. 

Offices for the Diocese of Brownsville were closed on Thursday for an all-staff retreat. 

If passed, the Consolidated Appropriations Act would also prevent funds from going to construction of a border barrier within the National Butterfly Center or within the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.

A bloody secret still haunts the diamond industry

Washington D.C., Feb 14, 2019 / 03:26 am (CNA).- Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by a dark figure in your room. He presses a gun to your head and demands that you get up. You and your family are dragged out of bed and led to a mining field, where you are forced to dig for hours on end.

They may be the proverbial “girl’s best friend,” but diamonds are far from friendly for many of those involved in the mining process.

With abuses ranging from forced labor to the funding of child soldiers, many diamonds still carry the shadow of blood and conflict, even decades after the first attempts to address some of the more troubling practices in getting the stones from their rocky deposits to a glittering setting.

What – if anything – can Catholics do to counter the immense human cost still attached to some of these gems?

Plenty, according to Max Torres, director of management and professor at The Catholic University of America's business school.

“In this economy, the consumer is king,” he told CNA. “The day that consumers want to get worked up over diamonds, this will stop, whatever abuse it is we’re trying to eradicate, it will stop.”

While there are many steps in the process and levels of moral responsibility from consumers to the diamond exporters themselves, Torres maintained that ordinary people can still work to change large-scale moral problems in the industry.

“Do not underestimate the power of the consumer to move supply-chain decisions throughout the economy,” he stressed.

Clear stones; Blood-red controversies

Despite the 2006 hit film “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, many consumers are still unaware of the controversy surrounding the diamond industry. Meanwhile, the need for accountability and higher ethical standards is still sorely felt by many working to mine the precious gems.

In recent decades, the conversation surrounding diamond mining has focused on the so-called “blood diamonds” – those mined in conflict areas whose profits are used to fund the bloody war efforts.  Also called “conflict diamonds,” these previous stones are most associated with the illicit industries backing of civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Liberia.

These countries all now have, at least in theory, legitimate diamond mining industries subject to international standards.

The most well-known international standard, the Kimberley Process, was set up in 2003 following a United Nations resolution against the sale of blood diamonds, to ensure that any given shipment of diamonds does not finance rebel groups. Certified shipments of rough diamonds must be transported in tamper-resistant containers and must be accompanied by a government certificate verifying their compliance.

But many advocates say the process is inadequate at addressing the problems underlying the diamond industry. For starters, there is no guarantee beside the exporting government’s assurance that a given shipment of diamonds is, in fact, conflict-free. Issues of corruption and bribery surrounding some governments’ certification, and a lack of transparency has led some key groups to pull out of the process altogether.

The 2003 National Geographic special “Diamonds of War” found that despite the early efforts of the Kimberley Process to regulate the industry, illegal transactions at the time were still rampant in some areas. A Sierra Leone official said that some 60 percent of the diamonds exported from the country were smuggled rather than going through officially regulated channels. One expert in the documentary estimated that 20-40 percent of the global rough diamond trade at the time was done illicitly.

Another complaint about the Kimberley Process is that while it works to combat funding of conflicts, it does not deal with other issues in the diamond industry, including forced labor and violence against workerssubstandard and exploitative working conditions, the use of child labor and environmental concerns.

These problems show that the current definition of “conflict-free” is “far too limited in scope,” said Jaimie Herrmann, director of marketing for Brilliant Earth, a San Francisco-based jeweler that focuses specifically on providing ethically-sourced diamonds, gemstones and metals.

What the Kimberley Process “doesn’t include is human rights abuses, violence, sexual abuses, and severe environmental degradation, as well as corruption,” Herrmann continued.

“For that reason, we go above and beyond the Kimberley Process’s definition of conflict free,” she said. Brilliant Earth gets its diamonds from select sources in Canada, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Russia. “We feel like those diamonds really do go above and beyond that guarantee and they are untainted by human rights abuses.”

The chance to establish a legitimate and ethical source of diamonds has also been an economic opportunity for some countries. In Botsawna, the government and DeBeers diamond company each own half of the Debswana mining company, and the nation has seen a rapidly growing economy and increasing economic freedom thanks in part to its booming mining industry and trusted industry standards.

Canada too has invested heavily in its mining infrastructure and increased production, quickly becoming a key diamond-producing country since the discovery of large diamond deposits in the 1990s.

Synthetic diamonds too offer promise for more ethically-produced diamonds, though currently the lab-produced stones comprise only two percent of the diamond gemstone market, with the remainder of the synthetic stones used in industrial settings.

The Ethics of Luxury and Necessity

Dr. Christopher Brugger, professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, told CNA that in the diamond industry, as in any other work, Catholic social teaching instructs employers that “people come before profit.”

For businesses, he said, this means “pay employees a fair wage; respect the integrity of the marriages and families of employees; respect the faith of employees; permit labor to organize in socially constructive ways; work for fair access for all to goods and services necessary to living a dignified life.”

“Do producers who use their profits to fund conflicts or who use forced labor fulfill those duties?” he asked. “Emphatically no.”

Sustained abuses ranging from the funding of bloody conflicts to mining practices that exploit and demean workers not only fail to fulfill the moral duties of employers, Brugger said. The unjust practices also affirm that the high profits coupled with neglect for moral obligations have been “attracting scoundrels” to the industry.

But business leaders are not the only people with moral stakes in the diamond industry, he continued.

“It seems to me that morally conscientious people have an increasing responsibility to ‘shop ethically,’ i.e., to keep in mind where things come from, the conditions of those who supply things, the processes by which they are supplied,” Brugger suggested.

While it may not be possible to know the sourcing behind every product in every store, he said, it could be easier to find information on larger suppliers and specific industries.

Furthermore, he elaborated, there is a “greater responsibility on a person who is buying luxury items not to cooperate in the immoral actions of suppliers than there is on persons who are purchasing products for basic subsistence.”

“Ordinarily I do not need diamonds or chocolate,” Brugger said. “If we are dealing with luxuries, I think our obligations are still pretty strong to avoid purchasing from sources that do really bad things.”

“As one becomes aware of the ethical conditions surrounding an industry, one's duty to factor that knowledge into one's moral decision making becomes greater,” he added, noting that not everyone has the same access to the facts on abuses in a given industry.

“As knowledge of the ethical deficiencies become more widely known and the knowledge becomes easily available, our responsibility to use that knowledge in our shopping becomes greater,” he said. Knowledgeable customers should “inquire into the origins of the diamond they purchase; if shopkeepers are coy and not forthcoming about their sources, consumers ordinarily should look elsewhere.”

A Good Place to Start

Lack of information is “a big part of the problem,” according to Herrmann. She recommended that jewelers seek to trace the origin of their diamonds to countries and mines known for more ethical practices.

“Most jewelers know that their diamond is certified as conflict-free by the Kimberley Process, but do not know any more information about where their diamond is coming from,” she said.

Stephen Hilbert, a foreign policy adviser specializing in Africa and Global Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seconded the suggestion that people looking at diamonds ask where they come from. He added that customers should also ask electronics dealers to check for conflict minerals, which face many of the same concerns as the diamond mining industry. 

“Dealers may not be able to tell you whether their devices have been checked, but at least this raises the profile of the issue and this may trickle up,” he told CNA.

Consumer instance could be the force that leads to tighter standards and improved processes aimed at preventing abuse.

Still, Torres insisted, “no process is perfect.”

The Kimberley Process is a reputable starting point that could “be broadened and be brought more into line with human rights,” he said, and asking about the origin of diamonds “seems to be a rather painless method of at least garnering some amount of accountability.”

But in the end, the moral issues surrounding the industry are fundamentally a problem of human sin, which no process or regulations can erase.

“The only thing that can ensure moral behavior is the heart is human beings,” Torres said. Ultimately, “Jesus Christ is the answer.”

This article was originally published on CNA July 5, 2015.

Lack of central authority poses challenges for Southern Baptists amid abuse scandal

Houston, Texas, Feb 13, 2019 / 06:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In the wake of months of sexual abuse reports and allegations within the Catholic Church, and just before a Vatican summit on the problem, two Texas newspapers published a three-part investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, uncovering at least 700 cases of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and volunteers.

The joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed that since 1998, around 380 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders and volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct – some resulting in lawsuits and convictions, others in personal confessions and resignations.

“They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions,” the Houston Chronicle reported. “About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.”

In many ways, the scandal resembles that of the Catholic Church abuse scandals - children robbed of innocence, pastors abusing their positions of trust and authority, negligence and lack of appropriate, timely action on the part of some leadership once they were informed of abuse, the shuffling of accused pastors from church to church.

But one thing makes the SBC scandal even more difficult to track, report, and handle than that of the Catholic Church: the lack of centralized leadership within the convention, making the enforcement of reforms nearly impossible.

"It's a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he's been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister," said Christa Brown, an activist who wrote about her own experience being molested by an SBC pastor.

"Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church,” she told the Houston Chronicle.

"It's a porous sieve of a denomination," she added.

Linda Kay Klein is an author who researches and critiques purity culture in evangelical ecclesical communities, like the one in which she grew up. She also blamed the SBC’s lack of centralized authority as part of the problem controlling abuses within the denomination.

“Sexual abuse was never just a Catholic problem. But unlike the Catholic structure, evangelical churches like the one I grew up in and have spent the past 13 years researching are largely self-governing. This means we’ve mostly lacked the kind of bureaucratic record that might prove systemic abuse the way it’s been documented in Catholic dioceses,” she wrote in an essay for NBC News.

Furthermore, she said, purity culture can force victims of sexual abuse into silence, out of shame: “Meanwhile, when women and girls come forward as survivors, purity culture - which focuses largely on them - can be used against them,” she wrote.

“Many of my interviewees and I were taught that men are weak when faced with the temptation of the female flesh and it was therefore our responsibility to protect men from the threat that our bodies posed to them. We had to walk, talk and dress just right to ensure the alleged purity of our entire community, safeguarding against all sexual expression outside of marriage - the implication being that anything that did happen, even sexual violence, was our fault.”

In a post on his ministry website following the reports, J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that while the numbers of abuse victims are “grievously large….they cannot be the whole story.”

“If you have been victimized by a church leader, we are profoundly sorry. We, the church, have failed you,” he said.

“There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable,” he added in a blog post on the site. The post also included six steps for getting help in the case of sexual abuse, including an affirmation that abuse is not the victim’s fault, and links to abuse hotlines and Christian counseling websites.

Yet the SBC has rejected proposals for a sex offender registry that churches can reference before hiring leaders or volunteers, because, as church leaders told the Texas newspapers, enforcement would be impossible due to local church autonomy.

In an essay about the abuse scandal published on his website, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, proposed that SBC congregations undergo independent, third-party investigations.

“In light of this report and the nature of sexual abuse, an independent, third-party investigation is the only credible avenue for any organizations that face the kind of sinful patterns unearthed in this article by the Houston Chronicle,” he wrote. “No Christian body, church, or denomination can investigate itself on these terms because such an investigation requires a high level of thoroughness and trustworthiness. Only a third-party investigator can provide that kind of objective analysis.”

Mohler lamented that “the SBC ecclesial structure directly contrasts with the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church,” making reforms difficult to enforce. SBC churches are united only by “friendly cooperation with and contributing to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he noted.

“This report from the Houston Chronicle, however, magnifies the need for a mechanism that identifies convicted and documented sexual abusers who may be considered for positions of leadership within the churches,” he wrote.

Mohler recalled that in the past, the SBC has made reforms and “excised” churches that did not conform to those, and were thus no longer in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC. For example, he noted, churches that affirm homosexuality are now no longer considered in cooperation with the SBC, nor are churches with demonstrated racism.

In addition to using the civil safeguards already in place, such as reporting abuse accusations and referencing sex offender registries, Mohler suggested the SBC similarly “excise” those churches that tolerate and harbor abusers.

“Now, it might be that this crisis will foster a new criterion of vital importance for the churches of the SBC – a church that would willingly and knowingly harbor sexual abuse and sexual abusers should not be considered in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. This would not compromise church autonomy, he said, but would still allow the SBC to determine which churches are in cooperation with it.

Mohlen also condemned the “lackadaisical ordination” of ministers by local churches, and urged all churches to take responsibility for the men they make ministers.

“The trauma of this story bears tremendous anguish and heartbreak. The SBC and all who love this denomination must pray for faithfulness on this vital issue – our usefulness for the kingdom of Christ hinges on our response to this horrifying reality,” he added.

“To be sure, there must be heartbreak and concern – that is a place to start, but work must be done. A long road lies ahead. For the church, for the gospel, for the glory of God, we must meet this challenge with fullness of conviction and fidelity to Jesus Christ.”

Arizona lawmakers seek to declare porn a public health crisis

Phoenix, Ariz., Feb 13, 2019 / 05:44 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An Arizona legislator has introduced a resolution that would declare pornography to be a public health crisis in the state.

Although the measure would not have legal consequences, it would declare pornography as perpetuating a “sexually toxic environment that damages all areas of our society.”

The resolution was introduced on Feb. 7 by Rep. Michelle Udall, (R-Mesa). Having passed through committee, the measure will next be voted on by the entire Arizona House.

“Like the tobacco industry, the pornography industry has created a public health crisis,” Udall told lawmakers, according to AZ Central. “Pornography is used pervasively, even by minors.”

Dan Oakes, an Arizona therapist who helps patients with porn addiction, testified in support of the resolution. He expressed hope that it would “open the door” to more laws with greater legal significance, AZ Central reported.

The proposed resolution highlights the risks of pornography, underlining its addictive effects, sexual consequences, and influence on youth.  

“Potential detrimental effects on pornography users include toxic sexual behaviors, emotional, mental and medical illnesses and difficulty forming or maintaining intimate relationships.”

The measure states that, because of the advancement in technology and the internet, children have been enabled to access X-rated material with ease. It also warns that porn can replace proper sex education, shaping young people’s understanding of what is normal in a disordered manner.

“Children are being exposed to pornography at an alarming rate, leading to low self-esteem, eating disorders and an increase in problematic sexual activity at ever-younger ages,” the resolution says.

“Pornography normalizes violence and the abuse of women and children by treating them as objects, increasing the demand for sex trafficking, prostitution and child pornography.”

Some Democratic representatives have pushed back against the bill, arguing that there is not enough proof to warrant pornography being labeled as a public health crisis, and suggesting that lawmakers instead focus on expanding sexual education programs.

“If we really want to look at this, we should start with education. It's embarrassing that we are one of the states that does not have medically accurate sex education. In testimony, they were trying to blame everything on pornography. That is a stretch,” said Democrat Rep. Pamela Hannley, according to CNN.

Pornography has already been declared a public health crisis in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.

Michael Sheedy, executive director of Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA last year that the evidence increasingly shows the negative effects of pornography, especially for young people.

“Research has found a correlation between pornography use and mental and physical illnesses, difficulty forming and maintaining intimate relationships, unhealthy brain development and cognitive function, and deviant, problematic or dangerous sexual behavior,” he said.

“It’s a recognition that children are especially at risk given changes in technology – having more access to pornography than ever before – and the effects on their development and their sexuality.”

 

Investigation finds Covington students did not instigate confrontation

Covington, Ky., Feb 13, 2019 / 03:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An independent investigation into the interaction last month between Covington high school students and a Native American man has exonerated the students, the Diocese of Covington has announced.

In a Feb. 11 message to Covington Catholic High School parents, posted on the diocesan website, Bishop Roger Foys said a third-party inquiry had determined that “our students did not instigate the incident that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial.”

“In truth, taking everything into account, our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening,” he said. “Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.”

The investigations’ report was released nearly a month after controversy first erupted following video emerging on Twitter showing a confrontation between a Native American elderly man with a drum – later identified as activist Nathan Phillips – and a group of students from Covington Catholic High School.

The incident took place as the students were waiting at the Lincoln Memorial to meet their bus on their way home from the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

A team of investigators, which Bishop Foys said “has no connection with Covington Catholic High School or the Diocese of Covington” reviewed 50 hours of internet activity, interviewed 43 students and 13 chaperones, and attempted repeatedly to contact Phillips through multiple venues, with no response. 

As the students arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, they encountered Black Hebrew Israelites, who were yelling offensive statements at anyone who walked by, the report found. “We see no evidence that students responded with any offensive or racist statements of their own.”

“Some of the students asked the chaperones if they could do their school cheers to help drown out the Black Hebrew Israelites,” the investigators said, however they added that they did not find evidence that any students chanted “Build the Wall.”

Phillips then approached the students, the report said. Most of the students thought he was coming to join in their cheers, and many said they were confused by what he was doing, but none felt threatened. 

“We found no evidence of offensive or racist statements by students to Mr. Phillips or members of his group. Some students performed a ‘tomahawk chop’ to the beat of Mr. Phillips’ drumming and some joined in Mr. Phillips’ chant.”

The investigators concluded that the statements they had obtained from students and chaperones were “remarkably consistent,” both with one another and the video footage reviewed. In contrast, they said, “Mr. Phillips’ public interviews contain some inconsistencies, and we have not been able to resolve them or verify his comments,” due to their inability to get in touch with him.

Controversy over the Jan. 18 encounter began after footage posted online showed one student, a junior at Covington, standing in close proximity to Phillips with an uncomfortable expression on his face while the students around him chant and do the “tomahawk chop.” 

As the video went viral, it was roundly condemned by media commenters and some Catholic leaders as racist and antagonistic on the part of the students. However, more footage was subsequently released, showing the Black Israelites, and also appearing to show Phillips approaching the students, which contradicted prior reports that the students had surrounded him.  

The Covington diocese and high school had initially responded to the incident by saying the students’ behavior was “opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

As additional information emerged, the Diocese of Covington removed its initial statement and released a new one on Monday, Jan. 22, announcing both the temporary closing of Covington Catholic High School and a third-party investigation into the events at the Lincoln Memorial.

In his Feb. 11 letter, Bishop Foys voiced hope that the students can now move forward with their lives and education. 

“These students had come to Washington, D.C. to support life. They marched peacefully with hundreds of thousands of others – young and old and in-between – to further the cause of life…Their stance there was surely a pro-life stance. I commend them.”