Statewide education campaign kicks off for more than 375,000 Catholics, 350+ parishes
LINCOLN (SNR/NCC) – At a Sept. 29 press conference, Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic bishops of Nebraska, said the Catholic Church and Nebraska bishops “oppose the death penalty because it is not necessary to protect society.”
Joined by priests, nuns and other Catholic leaders, the conference kicked off an education campaign to encourage Catholics and all people of good will to vote to “Retain” the repeal of the death penalty.
“In this work of advocacy we reach out to 375,000 Catholics spread throughout more than 350 parishes across our great state,” he said, “and encourage Catholics to inform their consciences with Gospel values and participate in the political process.”
The Bishops and the Nebraska Catholic Conference actively supported the elimination of the death penalty by Nebraska state senators. In a joint statement during debates on LB268 in 2015, the bishops of Nebraska concluded that “justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed serious crimes be put to death.”
“The bishops recognized that ‘[p]ublic safety can be assured through other means’ such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Venzor said. “Not only are non-lethal and bloodless means—like life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—available, but the death penalty is a broken system.”
Venzor pointed out, that in addition to the three Nebraska bishops, the past three popes also called on Catholics worldwide to end the death penalty.
Saint John Paul II taught that the state “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
“This teaching has been similarly and unequivocally affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis,” Venzor said. “This has also been expressed by bishops across the world and in the United States.”
Father Douglas Dietrich, pastor of St. Mary Parish, located across from the State Capitol in Lincoln, said churches from across the state are gearing up to address the issue.
“My brother priests from throughout Nebraska and I are speaking to our people from the pulpit. We want them to know why the Church says we don’t need the death penalty in Nebraska,” he said. “We are taking a principled pro-life stance and proclaiming that we do not need the death penalty in Nebraska.”
According to Venzor, the bishops and the Catholic Conference are taking an active role in helping parishioners form their consciences and then to vote. The Church has distributed a variety of materials to all parishes across the state advocating and urging a vote to retain the repeal of the death penalty, including videos for each diocese, filmed with the bishops outlining the teaching of the Church on the death penalty; a social media campaign with radio and video; hosting speaking events at the Cathedral parish in each diocese, as well as other parishes and venues throughout the state.
Venzor expressed other concerns the Church has with Nebraska’s death penalty.
“The bishops are deeply disturbed by the fact that since 1976 there have been 156 people freed from death row, a number of these as a result of DNA evidence that demonstrated they were wrongly convicted,” he said. “Even here in Nebraska the death penalty can sometimes be misused as we have witnessed with the Beatrice Six who were initially threatened with the death penalty and have since been released from prison on account of DNA evidence. The bishops are deeply troubled by a justice system in which the innocent might be executed and that racial minorities and the poor are disproportionately sentenced to death, which can occur as the result of racial bias or inadequate defense.”
He continued, “the bishops are also deeply concerned for the families of victims who often suffer from the seemingly endless appeals process often associated with the death penalty. The pain experienced by these families is real and agonizing as the torturous experience of their loved ones’ brutal death is re-lived.”
He said Nebraska’s bishops also recognize that while some may have a proper sense for retributive justice, the death penalty “all too often serves our culture’s desire for vengeance.”
“This unrestrained anger can too easily skew our understanding of our neighbor,” he said, “even the guiltiest among us.”
The bishops also express concerns regarding the cost of the death penalty. The death penalty has been shown to cost Nebraska taxpayers substantially more than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“Even if the exact amount may be disputed,” Venzor said, “whether the cost is millions or mere cents, there can be no real price placed on the value of human life.”
The Nebraska Catholic Conference has planned events Oct. 24, 25 and 26 at each of Nebraska’s cathedrals to present information on the death penalty. Each event will include presentations from at least three of five speakers, including Venzor and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, and others who are well known in the subject matter.
Joe D’Ambrosio is the 140th death row inmate to be exonerated after serving more than 20 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. He will present a talk at each event with the help of his prison chaplain and friend, Father Neil Kookoothe.
Speaker Marietta Jaeger-Lane advocates for the abolition of the death penalty despite the kidnapping and murder of her 7-year-old daughter, Susie.
Vicki Schieber’s daughter Shannon was raped and murdered in Philadelphia in 1998. Vicki and her husband, Syl, publically opposed the death penalty for Shannon’s murderer and have worked for decades to end capital punishment. Vicki is a co-founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and a regular speaker and volunteer for Catholic Mobilizing Network.