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Church must welcome people living with disabilities, Pope Francis says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church must be welcoming and creative in finding ways to not let people’s physical, psychological or intellectual limitations keep them from encountering God, Pope Francis said.

“The church cannot be ‘mute’ or ‘tone deaf’ when it comes to the defense and promotion of people with disabilities,” he told differently abled individuals, their families and pastoral workers and professionals who work with them.

Pope Francis greets a French nun with Down Syndrome during an audience with catechists and people with disabilities at the Vatican Oct. 21. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

Words and gestures of outreach and welcoming must never be missing from any church community, so that everyone, particularly those whose journey in life is not easy, can encounter the risen Lord and find in that community “a source of hope and courage,” he said Oct. 21.

The pope spoke during an audience with 450 people taking part in a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. The gathering Oct. 20-22 was dedicated to sharing best practices in engaging and catechizing persons living with disabilities, a topic Pope Francis had specifically asked the council to look into, conference organizers told Catholic News Service.

Fortunately, the pope told the group, there has been progress over the past decades in recognizing the rights and dignity of all people, especially those who are more vulnerable, leading to “courageous positions on inclusion” so that “no one feels like a stranger.”

However, attitudes that are often “narcissistic and utilitarian” still abound, marginalizing people with disabilities and overlooking their human and spiritual gifts, he said.

Also still too pervasive is an attitude of refusal of any potentially debilitating condition, believing it would be an obstacle to happiness or the full realization of oneself, he said.

It’s an attitude, the pope said, that is seen in today’s “eugenic tendencies to kill unborn children who display some form of imperfection.”

But “in reality, all of us know many people who, even with their serious frailties, have found, even with difficulty, the path of a good life, rich in meaning,” he said, and “we know people who are outwardly perfect” yet full of despair.

“It’s a dangerous deception to believe in being invulnerable,” he said, since vulnerability is part of the essence of being human.

Two participants from the United States, who were part of the conference organizing committee, and a father of a young woman with Down syndrome told CNS that the usual approach of “special programs” for people with particular needs should change because they can become a form of segregation.

For example, Sister Kathleen Schipani recalled how dark and lonely it was going to an empty school late every Wednesday night for a parish program meant for children with disabilities.

Sister Schipani, who leads the office for persons with disabilities and the deaf apostolate at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the model they are pursuing is to have one parish religious education program for everyone, but with options for smaller breakout groups, one-on-one instruction or other methods that can address individuals’ particular needs.

Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability based in Washington, D.C., said too much focus on providing special programs also has meant some people get turned away from their neighborhood parish because the church doesn’t have a program accommodating a specific disability.

“The first thing is welcome the person,” she said, and speak with them; the church is more than a collection of programs, it’s about relationships with each other and with God. “It’s not so much having the skills or having the professionals, it’s knowing the person and then just an ordinary way of expressing how they belong to the church” in catechetical formation, participating in the liturgy in some way or parish activities, said Sister Schipani, a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Also, a policy for creating media should be that it is planned from the start with everyone in mind, so that a video, for example, has both visual captions and audio narration since digital platforms “can get less accessible” if they rely too much on one style or format, said Benton.

Not only do people with disabilities miss out on support and the sacraments, the whole church community loses by not including their differently abled brothers and sisters in Christ, said Blase Brown, whose 31-year-old daughter, Bridget Mary, runs ButterfliesForChange.org and is a public speaker about life with Down syndrome.

“The gifts she has to share, particularly at the level of her faith” he said, are “an untapped, beautiful” resource. The question he always asks, he said, is why don’t dioceses put more focus on “how day-to-day parish life, religious education, schools, liturgy” can include people with various disabilities rather than come up with activities that sideline them.

Being together, he said, is “the highest level of respect.”

There might be some disruption or distraction when people with disabilities are more widely welcomed, he said, just like when a baby cries from the pews. “This is who we are, we are people. This is living. This is life. Everybody belongs at the table and sometimes somebody is going to be disruptive and you deal with it,” said Brown, who lives in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

Sister Schipani said priests can make all the difference by setting the tone and the example for the rest of the parish. Priests can talk from the pulpit and parish bulletins can explain about being welcoming, patient and comfortable with families with children and adults with disabilities. Ushers, too, can help by “modeling really wonderful ways of welcoming and including and giving people choices” about seating arrangements, she added.

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Investigation into German choir finds more than 500 boys were abused — Updated

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — More than 500 boys suffered abuse at the hands of dozens of teachers and priests at the school that trains the prestigious boys choir of the Regensburg Cathedral in Germany, said an independent investigator.

Peter Schmitt and Alexander Probst, representing victims who claimed abuse while members of the boys choir at the cathedral in Regensburg, Germany, are seen Oct. 12, 2016. (CNS photo/Armin Weigel, EPA)

Peter Schmitt and Alexander Probst, representing victims who claimed abuse while members of the boys choir at the cathedral in Regensburg, Germany, are seen Oct. 12, 2016. (CNS photo/Armin Weigel, EPA)

Former students of the Domspatzen choir reported that the physical, emotional and even sexual abuse at the school made life there like “a prison, hell and a concentration camp,” said Ulrich Weber, the lawyer leading the investigation of claims of abuse at the choir and two associated boarding schools.

A “culture of silence” among church leaders and members allowed such abuse to continue for decades, Weber said as he presented the final report on his findings during a press conference in Regensburg July 18.

The investigation, commissioned by the Diocese of Regensburg, found that at least 547 former members of the Regensburg Domspatzen boys choir in Germany were subjected to some form of abuse, according to Vatican Radio. Of those victims, 67 students were victims of sexual violence, the radio said.

The 440-page report, which spanned the years between 1945 and the early 1990s, found highly plausible accusations against 49 members of the church of inflicting the abuse, with nine of them accused of being sexual abusive. The Diocese of Regensburg and the Domspatzen choir supplied links to the report and related news stories or resources on their respective web sites: www.bistum-regensburg.de and www.domspatzen.de.

In the report, Weber sharply criticized Cardinal Gerhard Muller, who was bishop of Regensburg from 2002 until 2012, when Pope Benedict appointed him to head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Then-Bishop Muller had “a clear responsibility” in the “strategic, organizational and communication weaknesses” that marked the process he launched of reviewing allegations. Cardinal Muller had ordered the creation of a commission to investigate and search through diocesan archives in the wake of the 2010 abuse crisis.

But in an interview with TV2000, the satellite television station owned by the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Muller denied he had not done enough as bishop of Regensburg.

“I launched the process of investigation” when abuse claims increasingly emerged in 2010, he said in the interview, which aired July 20.

Time, resources and assistance were dedicated to “offering justice to victims,” he said, and he personally set up a team of experts and appealed to victims to come forward.

“Those responsible for abuse are relatively few and a number of them are dead,” he said, adding that “unfortunately we can’t put dead people on trial, but whatever could be done, juridically and pastorally, the diocese did, just as it does today.”

He said the elementary school where the choir boys studied was “institutionally independent from the diocese” and that, at the time, it was also very reserved, “very closed, nobody could go in.”

“Perhaps there were rumors, but they never reached the diocese,” the cardinal said.

One of the first Domspatzen student-victims to come forward in 2010 with allegations of sexual abuse, Alexander Probst, told Deutsche Welle July 18 that he had been very frustrated and angry with the way then-Bishop Muller reacted to his claims. He said the bishop accused him of denouncing the church.

In the interview, whose link could be found on the Regensburg boys’ choir website, Probst said he felt the bishop actively protected abusers, and that “it got even worse when he was appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; it was like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.”

“It was only after the new bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzer, realized that there was much more to all this than met the eye when things began to get better. Starting in 2015, he personally wanted to cooperate with us,” Probst said.

Widespread news of the suspected abuse first emerged in 2010 as religious orders and bishops’ conferences in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands were faced with a flood new allegations of the sexual abuse of children, mainly at Catholic schools.

The boys’ choir had been led between 1964 and 1994 by Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the older brother of retired Pope Benedict XVI.

In an interview with the German newspaper Passauer Neue Presse in 2010, Msgr. Ratzinger apologized to victims at his former school, even though he said he had been unaware of the alleged incidents.

“There was never any talk of sexual abuse problems, and I had no idea that molestation was taking place,” the priest said, as he recalled his 30 years as the school’s choirmaster.

Msgr. Ratzinger had said when he served at the school, “there was a climate of discipline and rigor … but also of human understanding, almost like a family.” He knew that the priest who headed the school from 1953 until his death in 1992 had slapped boys in the face, but said he had not considered such punishments “particularly brutal.”

“If I’d known the exaggerated vehemence with which the director acted, I would have reacted,” he said in the 2010 interview.

In his report, Weber said Msgr. Ratzinger should have known about at least some cases of physical violence, but that his role “was still not at all clear.”

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told Vatican Radio the new report shows how Bishop Voderholzer “has taken seriously all the allegations” and is “very courageous in taking on an issue that has been looming for many years.”

It is only now that the facts have become “plain, in the light of day” because of establishing and cooperating with a professional, independent investigation, he said.

This latest report should inspire church leaders around the world, Father Zollner said, “so that they do the same today because this will help, first of all, those who have been harmed in the past.”

 

Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

 

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Robust pain management, emotional and spiritual support offer alternatives to suicide

By

Catholic News Service

MC Sullivan has heard all of the arguments in favor of assisted suicide.

“There are arguments that would touch anyone with a heart,” said the director of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. “They are couched in emotional language, emotional stories and the reality of a human being who is suffering unbearably.”

In this April 19, 2011, file photo, patient Warren Saunders smiles as Dominican Sister Agnes Mary plays the piano at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who staff a nursing home there that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need. The Catholic Church's main weapon against assisted suicide rests in "robust palliative care," said MC Sullivan, director of the Archdiocese of Boston's Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Warren Saunders smiles as Dominican Sister Agnes Mary plays the piano at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who staff a nursing home there that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need. The Catholic Church’s main weapon against assisted suicide rests in “robust palliative care,” said MC Sullivan, director of the Archdiocese of Boston’s Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Sullivan, a registered nurse and attorney who holds a master’s degree in bioethics from Harvard Divinity School, nevertheless spends her days articulating the Catholic Church’s stand against assisted suicide and promoting the pain relief and emotional, physical and spiritual support system that are part of palliative care.

Assisted suicide is promoted as “a literal and figurative last resort” for those who are dying, she said. Its supporters rely on patients’ and their family members’ “fear of the pain that they are told is coming,” as well as their fears of becoming dependent on others or experiencing a loss of their dignity.

“The day that those arguments don’t touch us is a day we have to worry about ourselves,” Sullivan said.

“But there are other realities that I think we lose sight of when we engage with those realities and those fears,” she said. “Life is a joyous and wonderful gift and it is not ours to do with as we will.”

Sullivan was serving as director of ethics for Covenant Health in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, in 2012 and joined with the Archdiocese of Boston and other organizations in a coalition that narrowly defeated a ballot question that would have allowed assisted suicide in the commonwealth.

Under Massachusetts law, when a ballot question is defeated it cannot be put on the ballot again until six years later. But that has not kept proponents of assisted suicide from bringing up the matter in the legislature and trying to influence public opinion.

“We hoped the issue would go away, but that has not been the case,” she said.

When Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston decided to open a new office on palliative care in 2015, Sullivan was his choice to lead the initiative, believed to be the only archdiocesan agency in the nation with such a charge.

Compassion & Choices, a leading proponent of assisted suicide in the United States formerly known as the Hemlock Society, presents its arguments in terms of individual autonomy, free choice and “better end-of-life options,” Sullivan said. But “it’s not about end-of-life care choices,” she added. “It’s about ending life.”

The church’s main weapon against assisted suicide rests in “robust palliative care,” she said, describing it as “a comprehensive model of being with and caring for someone with a serious, life-limiting illness.”

Sometimes confused with hospice care, palliative care is not only for those close to death and can begin at any stage of an illness, Sullivan said. It also includes effective pain management and encompasses all of the family members and friends involved as caregivers for the patient, “the people who are your people.”

Palliative care is “patient-centered and family-oriented,” she added.

Sullivan said anyone with a life-limiting illness can reach the point of letting go of the fears associated with death if they have help with pain management and handling of the “practical considerations” sometimes associated with an illness.

“I know how fearful letting go can be,” she said. “But at the same time there can also be an amazing richness of experience of loving and being loved that happens in states of serious illness.”

Surveys nationwide have shown that the vast majority of Americans are not interested in participating in an assisted suicide or even in talking about it, Sullivan said.

“Even its proponents will tell us that it just for a small part of the population,” she added. “So why has it become a matter for public policy, which is meant to be applied broadly? That’s turning it on its head.”

 

O’Brien is retired deputy editor of CNS and is freelance book review editor for CNS.

 

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