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Supreme Court allows blocked federal execution to proceed

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a 2 a.m. decision July 14 after numerous last-minute filings, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn a trial court order blocking the execution of federal death-row inmate Daniel Lewis Lee.

The court's unsigned order enabled federal executions to go forward.

Lee, 47, convicted of being an accomplice in killing three family members in 1996, was executed July 14 and pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana.

His last words, according to a pool reports were: "I didn't do it. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I'm not a murderer. You're killing an innocent man."

Federal executions, on hold for the past 17 years, have been challenged by death-row inmates since the Justice Department announced last year these executions would resume with the use of one drug in the lethal injection. A challenge of this method continued right up until the last minute, and past it, for Lee, whose scheduled July 13 execution was blocked by a federal judge's order.

The Justice Department immediately appealed the ruling by Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who had issued a preliminary injunction against Lee's scheduled execution describing the "extreme pain and needless suffering" caused by the government's lethal injection protocol.

But several hours later, the Supreme Court's unsigned majority opinion said the plaintiffs, Lee and three others in federal prison appealing the manner of their death sentence, had "not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim" in their dispute about the specific drug protocol to be used in the executions.

Lee's execution had already been stopped over pandemic concerns raised by relatives of Lee's victims who said people who would normally have been present at the execution would not want to risk COVID-19 exposure.

The Supreme Court's early morning ruling that cleared the way for the federal executions to proceed said a "last-minute intervention" to stop executions "should be the extreme exception, not the norm." The opinion also said it was the court's responsibility to ensure that challenges to the method of execution "are resolved fairly and expeditiously" so the death penalty issue can remain "with the people and their representatives, not the courts, to resolve."

Dissenting opinions were written by Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan.

Breyer's dissent echoed his previous concern about the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Breyer wrote that Lee's case "illustrates at least some of the problems the death penalty raises in light of the Constitution's prohibition against 'cruel and unusual punishment,'" noting that Lee spent more than 20 years on death row, which itself can cause "severe psychological suffering."

He also said the death penalty is "often imposed arbitrarily," pointing out that Lee's accomplice received a life sentence for committing the same crime.

Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion in its acceptance of the government's "artificial claim of urgency" to stop judicial review in this case sets a "dangerous precedent."

In a July 14 statement issued by the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr said: "Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence."

Lee's attorney, Ruth Friedman, did not agree. She called it "shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when counsel for Danny Lee could not be present with him, and when the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it."

She also said in a statement that it was "beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping."

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, said Lee's "execution was unnecessary and avoidable."

She said the federal government "relentlessly plotted its course to execute Daniel Lee despite a historic decline in public support for the death penalty, clear opposition by the victims' family, unwavering Catholic opposition to the restart of federal executions, and an unyielding global pandemic which has already taken more than 135,000 American lives."

And Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, who is a longtime death penalty opponent, tweeted: "I'm appalled to hear that the federal government executed Daniel Lee early this morning after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a seemingly unprecedented opinion at 2 am. While we were all sleeping, the government killed a man under cloak of darkness."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim


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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]

PPP loans have had direct benefits for church communities, recipients say

IMAGE: CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters

By Tom Tracy

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) -- Catholic entities that took part in the Paycheck Protection Program said the federal emergency bridge loans translated into rapid assistance for their communities in the early months of the pandemic's economic impact.

In Nashville, Tennessee, when Mayor John Cooper convened local philanthropic and business leadership to create the city's COVID-19 Response Fund, one of the first local agencies to join the Nashville effort was a team of staff at Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

Catholic Charities there reassigned some of its staff to the project after ongoing work with refugee resettlement was brought to a halt by the pandemic and the related international border closures and travel stoppage.

Supported in part by the federal loans, Catholic Charities of Tennessee was able to divert some 20 staff who, working remotely, were able to help the COVID-19 Response Fund screen and process local residents who were in need of emergency cash grants for everything from rent assistance to utility and car loan payments.

"The PPP money enabled us to confidently keep our staff in place and immediately assign them with ad hoc work in our city and we became an important player in our city," Judy K. Orr, executive director of the Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville, told Catholic News Service.

The region's expansive tourism-related economy has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic closures. Orr noted the COVID-19 pandemic also came on the heels of a catastrophic tornado event in Nashville that further stretched staffing at the agency in early March.

"I spoke to the mayor's office about taking my partly idled refugee staff for vetting applicants for the fund and in 48 hours we were tapped to do that work," Orr said. Other partners in Nashville's COVID-19 Response Fund included United Way of Greater Nashville and the Frist Foundation.

"It was critical to the city to process these applications for emergency assistance," Orr said of the Nashville program. "We normally help about 200 families a year and instead we helped 500 in one month. Not only did the PPP keep our people working but we were working harder, working remotely and really apropos to the times."

The Paycheck Protection Program -- established by the CARES Act -- is implemented by the Small Business Administration with support from the Department of the Treasury. This program provides small businesses and other entities with a period of funds for payroll costs including benefits. Funds also were used to pay interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.

In late April, the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference had calculated that 8,000 parishes, 1,400 elementary schools, 700 high schools, 104 chanceries, 185 Catholic Charities agencies and 200 other diocesan organizations in 160 dioceses had applied for assistance at that point.

The conference said that church entities that were not funded in the first round or had applied after the original allocation of federal money was exhausted had already applied or planned to file applications as new monies flowed into the program.

In Portland, Oregon, Catholic Charities of Portland was able to acquire a Paycheck Protection Program loan and retain all of its staff while retooling -- even expanding -- many of its programs for the new unemployment and food insecurity challenges posed by the pandemic, according to Vanessa Briseno, director of the Pope Francis Center in Portland and senior development officer for Catholic Charities Portland.

As with the nation's 2007-2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has been met with an impressive amount of community goodwill and volunteerism, but the current crisis is proving far-reaching and complicated for older and vulnerable populations, Briseno said.

Catholic Charities of Portland has used the loan to support a food response network; housing transitions programming, an expansion of resident services and a food pantry program.

"We are very blessed, but what is different is the sheer number of people and the volume of needs; we are seeing a lot of needs we didn't see before," she told CNS. "So many don't have a sense of timeline when they can go back to work."

"We weren't really a provider of food before but now have partnered with the Portland Archdiocese, Blanchet House and St. Francis Dining Hall to provide 10,000 hot meals a week and with farmworker agencies to provide food boxes for (agricultural) workers," Briseno added. Partnerships with local grocery stores have opened up another source of discounted food for needy families.

Marcie Pierce, chief financial officer for Catholic Charities in Portland, said applying for the PPP loans, as they are called, required the agency to affirm it has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and Catholic Charities of Portland was able to show a related reduction in fundraising.

"Once we were aware of the fact that we were harmed (by the pandemic), we applied for the loan with another agency and we were able to secure a loan -- we hope to receive forgiveness," Pierce said, indicating she thought by then the PPP loan funding was likely exhausted.

The loan Catholic Charities was able to get from another agency "focused directly on maintaining employment of our social services organization so they can continue doing the good work that they do," she added.

The U.S. Senate extended the deadline to apply for the PPP loans to Aug. 8. The Senate's action June 30 came as over $130 billion allocated to the program actually remained unused.

Catholic schools and parishes also were among the participants of the Paycheck Protection Program.

In Indianapolis, Holy Spirit Parish and School secured the loan funding during a second round of funding. It enabled the parish to offset the reduction in Sunday collections, which support the tuition subsidy there. The result was teachers, child care, summer camp and other staff were able to keep working through the end of June. The school has a student body of 400, according to Rita Parsons, Holy Spirit principal.

"We would have had to take out a personal loan to cover contracted teachers' salaries," Parsons said, had the PPP loan not come through in May. The school is to resume child care and summer camp programming July 20.

"We completed a survey with all our families and they were very pleased at how everything turned out although they would have wanted to for their children to go back to school earlier -- but they understood that we had to deal with (safety measures)," Parsons said. "We are going to make it and we are going to start back in August stronger than ever."

In Brookline, Massachusetts, Theresa Kirk, principal of St. Mary of the Assumption elementary school, worked with a local bank to secure a PPP loan for the school -- the federal program is administered by the SBA and local approved lenders provide the money and in turn the loan kept faculty and staff working remotely without missing a beat, she said.

"It certainly assisted in keeping us going," Kirk said of the federal loan program. She explained the school had to break March 13, stopping in-classroom instruction to turn to remote learning. "We pivoted over a weekend at a time when no one (on staff here) had even heard of Zoom."

Now, the school is conducting an optional summer bridge program through remote learning to offset the "summer slide" impact and to provide additional social and emotional support for students.

Teachers are expected to reconvene with students on campus for the fall term beginning Sept. 9 with a staggered schedule, moving soon after into a more normal school day as conditions permit.

"We are very lucky in Brookline and the parents are grateful: our enrollment is actually up for fall. Some families came back to us who were considering maybe not coming back," Kirk said.

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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]

New study: Lead poisoning from Notre Dame fire worse than first thought

IMAGE: CNS photo/Charles Platiau, Reuters

By Barbara Fraser

LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- When the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames in April 2019, images were made even more dramatic by thick smoke tinged with yellow as the 460 tons of lead on the roof and spire melted.

After the fire, French officials said the lead did not pose a health hazard, and relatively few families followed up on a government offer to test their children's blood for the metal. But some environmental activists were sharply critical of the way officials handled the possible contamination.

Now a new study has found that the amount of lead that settled to the ground and likely seeped into houses downwind of the fire and within about half a mile of the cathedral was far greater than officials indicated at the time.

"I knew there was a controversy. I knew there were mixed reports on the government reaction," geochemist Alexander van Geen of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, who led the study, told Catholic News Service.

Accompanying his wife on a two-month sabbatical in Paris early this year, he took advantage of daily walks to collect soil samples from parks, under trees, planters and even cracks in the sidewalk.

French government-funded studies estimated that about 330 pounds of lead were deposited between about half a mile and about 30 miles downwind from the fire, and that more probably settled out closer to the cathedral. They did not estimate that larger amount, however.

Van Geen's calculations show that about a ton of lead probably ended up on the ground, on sidewalks and streets, and filtering into buildings in a 50-degree arc within 0.6 mile downwind from the cathedral.

Although officials initially downplayed risk from lead exposure, cleanup work was stopped after environmental activists raised concerns. It resumed after crews were given equipment to protect them from toxic substances at the site, including lead.

In June, when the French government offered to check children's blood for lead, the results showed about 80 children with levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the maximum allowable limit for children set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lead is known to affect children's cognitive and neurological development and can cause other health problems. Very young children are at particular risk, because their brains and bodies are still developing, and because they are most likely to play on contaminated floors and put objects into their mouths.

Although the lead exposure lasted a relatively short time, French government officials reacted slowly to the hazard that lead dust posed, van Geen said.

"They did a lot of testing, but it all happened too late," he told CNS. "In this situation, it's the dust on the table where the child is going to eat -- that's what matters."

Officials recommended wiping surfaces clean of dust, but did not issue a strict warning, and their recommendations may not have reached low-income residents, van Geen said.

"They could have been proactive," visiting the houses most likely to be affected, especially those where children lived. The fact that they did not "was inexcusable," he said.

The study, published July 9 in the scientific journal GeoHealth, highlights the importance of having teams that can react quickly in cases of fires or other disasters that release toxic substances. It is also crucial to let residents know of risks immediately, something that is made easier by smart phones, he said.

Van Geen has investigated the environmental health impacts of lead, arsenic and other metals in countries around the world. His studies have included lead from a smelter in the Peruvian Andes, where the Catholic Archdiocese of Huancayo has been active in pressing for a cleanup.

As work on the Notre Dame Cathedral progresses, including reconstructing the spire in its original design, "this might be a closed chapter," van Geen said of the lead pollution in Paris. Nevertheless, he added, "I still worry about the area very close to the cathedral."


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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]

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