Macrh 17-23, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 10
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
ALBANY –– Hundreds of Catholics converged at the state capital on Tuesday, March 8 to speak with lawmakers on critical issues such as the death penalty, stem cell research, equal health insurance benefits for mental health and substance abuse and Medicaid as part of the New York State Catholic Conference’s annual Public Policy Forum.
While more than 1,100 Catholics had registered to attend, inclement weather limited the crowd to a little more than 800 individuals including bishops, clergy and religious.
Kathleen Eichenlaub, director of Oneida County Catholic Charities, began the day meeting with Senator Dave Valesky, D-Oneida, to address the death penalty. “I will be voting against it,” said Valesky. “One innocent person put to death is one too many. I don’t think the state should be in the business of perpetuating the cycle of violence.”
Eichenlaub’s next agenda items were advocating for safe, affordable, quality housing in Oneida County for low and moderate income families and individuals and adequate funding and equity for behavioral health services. Catholic Charities is subsidizing a large measure of the provision on behavioral health services it provides. Many health insurance plans and health maintenance organizations limit access to behavioral health services. “The Office of Mental Health contracts don’t cover our costs,” said Eichenlaub. Valesky, who is well aware of the fact, responded, “I’ve met with senior staff at Upstate Medical Center to talk about adding 60 additional psychiatric beds.”
Michelle Bennett, social concerns coordinator for Oneida County Catholic Charities who also works in prison ministry, addressed Rockefeller Drug Law Reform. Last year’s legislative session sharply reduced lengths of the mandatory sentences, doubled the threshold amounts of drugs that led to those sentences and allowed some currently convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to petition for early release. It did not, however, include judicial discretion or new funding for alternatives to incarceration treatment programs.
“The effect that prison has on people is such a negative one,” said Bennett. “Inmates have commented that the lack of a loving environment and negative atmosphere causes them to come out of prison less responsive to living positively.”
Valesky listened intently to both women’s views and promised to take them under consideration.
Eichenlaub and Bennett then met with Senator Raymond A. Meier, R-C 47th district, to talk about a number of issues including adopting tax credits and funding for schools, embryonic stem cell research, adequate Medicaid reimbursement and abolishing the death penalty. Bennett told Meier that there are options besides putting criminals to death. “We don’t need to take lives. Life is not ours to take,” said Bennett. “I encourage you to consider how you vote.”
“The question that is asked is, how does society express its outrage proportionate to the crime?” responded Meier, referring to someone who has committed multiple murders.
“Violence begets violence,” responded Bennett. “It tells society that we have a right to vengeance. We have a right to justice, not to vengeance. The tone of the American people is changing regarding the death penalty.”
“I think there are some crimes in which society needs to reserve the right and find a limited way to do it,” responded Meier.
“If you take a life, repentance and forgiveness are no longer possible,” said Bennett. “A murderer who reconciles to the family is more healing for that family. Also, it costs more to put someone to death.”
The senator said that the debate ultimately has to be resolved in a moral dimension. Therefore, the arguments of finances are not compelling ones and should not drive one to a conclusion. “The question is, does the state have the right to take a life? On what basis and with what distinction?” Meier stated. “I struggle with this issue.”
Meier’s said that society needs to be careful of the components of embryonic stem cell research. “You are playing fast and loose with science. It’s fact versus opinion. It’s not about theology. It’s about science,” said Meier. “Researchers want to set science aside, denying you are dealing with human life. If adult stem cell research can be promising in terms of stem cells that still have the capacity to differentiate, why not put our money there while we struggle with the issue of embryonic stem cell research?”
The death penalty was foremost in the mind of Bishop Thomas Costello who met with Assemblywoman Joan Christensen’s legislative director, Sally Drake. “She won’t take a position in tomorrow’s vote,” said Drake, referring to Christensen previous support of the death penalty.
“We applaud the fact that there will be no action from the assembly,” responded Bishop Costello. “But there’s pressure to bring it back. We are very concerned about Joan’s vote. If it comes up, we would love to talk to her more in depth. If you can keep it off the table, that would be great.”
Linda Grady, a parishioner of Holy Cross in Dewitt, was also present during the meeting with Christensen’s legislative director and asked Drake to take her message back to the assemblywoman. “We ask for Joan’s continued support of Family Health Plus and Child Health Plus,” said Grady. “There is a very large population of working individuals who cannot get services. Their income is too high for Family Health Plus benefits and too low for Medicaid.” The governor’s proposed budget contains reductions in the Medicaid and Family Health Plus programs and cost increases for Family Health Plus, which will limit the access of low and moderate-income individuals and families to necessary health care. Grady also addressed the need for equality in insurance coverage for those who suffer from mental illness. “Even those who have insurance may find mental health services unattainable due to the high cost of co-pays,” said Grady.
“Joan’s posture on mental health has been very positive,” added Bishop Costello. “It affects people on death row, who clearly have mental health issues.”
Across the hall on the fifth floor of the legislative building, Bishop James Moynihan was discussing the very same issues with Assemblyman William Magnarelli, D-Syracuse. Magnarelli told Bishop Moynihan that lawmakers were split in their views on the death penalty, with more being against it. Magnarelli is leaning toward opposing the death penalty.
“That’s great news,” responded Bishop Moynihan. “The Holy Father said it’s a very useless kind of punishment and does not protect society.”
Bishop Moynihan and Magnarelli moved on to the subject of embryonic stem cell research and talked at length of the moral and ethical issues associated with it. “The Holy Father is raising people’s consciousnesses [about embryonic stem cell research],” said Bishop Moynihan.
“These are very difficult issues. We have a lot of people to represent,” said Magnarelli. “We read, we pray, and we continue to do the best we can.”
Sue Stapleton, a parishioner of St. Augustine’s Church in Baldwinsville, introduced the topic of adequate funding for behavioral health services, specifically, Timothy’s Law, a bill that provides parity in insurance benefits for behavioral health services, making them comparable to coverage for physical health services.
“Timothy’s Law is going to be an unfunded mandate that will increase insurance costs,” said Magnarelli. “I believe it’s equitable. The bottom line is you’ll hear everyone screaming it’s a mandate and who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to take care of the poor? If you ask the good people of Syracuse for a few extra pennies to fund these things, I think they’ll go for it. But businesses are fighting it. Insurance premiums are going to go up. The premiums will be passed on to employees. Everybody is scared.”
Separation of church and state was the next item addressed with Magnarelli. John Cataldo, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Syracuse Diocese, requested member item funds to assist Catholic schools. “What I’ve been fighting for is to fund ancillary services,” said Magnarelli. “Technology, books, if it’s secular and has nothing to do with church and state, we can try to help.” Magnarelli used the example of securing $6,000 in funding to help renovate the kitchen and restroom facilities at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception’s Emergency Services facility. The facility offers a hot meal to 75 to 100 homeless men from the Oxford Inn and the YMCA every Wednesday morning. “If an operation is opened to the public and serves the community, we can do something.”
“Ancillary support has been locked for a long time and funding allocations haven’t changed for textbooks, library materials and software,” said Cataldo. “In the past, books were the primary source of information for children and the state acknowledged that and provided funding for textbooks. These days, technology is a source of information for many students and the state has not provided any technology funding.”
“The problem I have in the Syracuse city schools is that they don’t have tech funding either,” responded Magnarelli. “Do we give it to parochial schools at the detriment of the Syracuse schools? There’s not enough education funding, period.”
“In other countries, [Canada, Scotland, England] the public builds Catholic Schools and funds the teacher’s salaries,” added Bishop Moynihan. “They believe in fairness in education.”
Following the public forum, Catholics gathered in the conference center to attend Mass celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan. Following the Mass, Bishop Thomas Costello was presented with the J. Alan Davitt Award for Exemplary Service. The award held special meaning for Bishop Costello who was a close friend and fellow colleague of J. Alan Davitt. The two worked together for many years on education and public policy and were “a magnificent team,” said Bishop Moynihan in his opening remarks.
“In the Diocese of Syracuse, Bishop Costello is known for being the Man of the People. He makes time for those who wish to meet him whether they are a fellow priest or a person down on their luck and looking for help. He treats them all the same which in my opinion is why he has been such an effective advocate in New York State over the years,” said Bishop Moynihan. Although officially retired, “he remains in the same office in the Chancery doing the same great work he had been doing. “
Bishop Moynihan recalled Bishop Costello’s golden jubilee celebration of the priesthood held at the OnCenter. “During the evening, many paid tribute and shared stories of how Bishop Costello took on race discrimination in our community, fought for equal rights and equal pay, brought communities of different faiths together, and continued to be the resounding voice for social justice.
“Thomas Costello has truly been a man for all seasons in the Syracuse Diocese, a noble Roman Catholic, appreciated by people of many faiths and religions for his labors,” Bishop Moynihan quoted from a letter written and read on the occasion of his jubilee.
Upon receipt of the award, Bishop Costello led the focus away from his own accomplishments and on to those of his recently deceased friend, J. Alan Davitt. “For more than 40 years, we have been friends and associates. Let me tell you about him,” said Bishop Costello. He told of the personal and professional highlights and accomplishments of his friend –– expanding on his integrity, sincerity, fidelity to principles and unequivocal candor. In 2005, Davitt was honored posthumously for his work as a member of the advisory committee under President Gerald Ford. “He deserves this award,” said Bishop Costello. “You have done very well in recognizing him. May he be in peace.”