Ledyard –– Barbara Souder believes that all life is sacred, so she found it easy to agree when church leaders at Our Lady of Lourdes Church asked her to oversee a petition drive Saturday evening to abolish the death penalty.
Souder and her husband, Bill, are Gales Ferry residents who have worshipped at the Route 12 parish for 20 years. She said they both oppose capital punishment and were willing to man a table in the church’s lobby to get the signatures of other people with the same belief.
The Rev. Joseph De Costa, the pastor, said he was on vacation in December when a letter arrived from the Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell, archbishop of the Hartford diocese.
Mansell sent a letter concerning the church’s teaching on the death penalty to all Catholic churches Dec. 8, and asked that it be read at all Masses during the weekend of Jan. 8-9.
He asked that a copy of a petition opposing the death penalty be posted in the entrance to each church that same weekend and asked that each congregation host a petition drive this weekend to collect signatures.
De Costa said a copy of the letter was printed in the church bulletin and that he would make an announcement at every service this weekend.
De Costa said the death penalty is not really a punishment — it’s retribution.
“That makes the state just as guilty as the murderer,” said the pastor. “If someone kills someone, how can you justify someone else killing them? It’s the same crime. Killing is killing.”
De Costa said Friday that feelings on the death penalty within the congregation are mixed. Although several people bypassed the table in the lobby after the 4 p.m. service Saturday, many stopped to sign their names.
By 5:20 p.m., 24 people of the almost 100 attending the Mass had signed, declaring their opposition to the death penalty.
Bill Souder said that most of the church’s members attend the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday. Volunteers will man a table for that service and for another Mass two hours earlier.
The petitions will be returned to the Connecticut Catholic Conference, the public policy office for the state’s Roman Catholic bishops.
The conference is collaborating with the Connecticut Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which developed the petition that will be presented to this session of the General Assembly.
The debate on the death penalty is heating up as the state prepares for its first execution in more than 40 years. Serial killer Michael Ross is slated to die by lethal injection in the early morning hours of Jan. 26 for killing four eastern Connecticut women and girls, three of whom were raped.
In his letter, Mansell stressed that the church’s intention is not to defend Ross, but rather to assert the belief that all life should be preserved.
Opposition to the death penalty is a moral tenet of the Catholic church. In his letter, Mansell referred to a statement by Pope John Paul II, who said that execution is necessary only when it would be otherwise impossible to protect society from a dangerous criminal.
Because society has a penal system that is steadily improving, capital punishment should not be an option, said the pope.
“The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life only by taking life,” wrote Mansell.
Ron and Ruth Boucher, a Catholic and Baptist, respectively, said Saturday at Our Lady of Lourdes that they don’t believe in killing of any kind, including abortion. Ron Boucher said whether the death penalty is right is not a question of religion or politics, but one of conscience.
Deacon David Reynolds, the legislative liaison for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said in a phone interview Friday that the organization has submitted letters to newspapers and religious publications. The group’s role is to advocate at the state level for various policies that could affect the church, he said.
The church is taking the stand that life is sacred from conception to natural death, he said. Reynolds said capital punishment “violates the dignity of human life.”
Mansell’s letter says that the death penalty is applied unfairly and more often to the young, poor and minorities.
Joseph McCutcheon, the first person to sign the petition Saturday evening, agreed. McCutcheon said there have been too many cases where people sentenced to death were later exonerated.
“One person put to death that was unjustly convicted is one too many,” he said.
Calvin Ackley and his wife, Lauren, signed the petition, while their children, Lindsey, 10, and Calvin III, 13, looked on. Calvin Ackley said he used to be in favor of capital punishment, but recently changed his mind.
“The more I learned about God and religion, the more I was against it,” he said.
Lauren Ackley said her position on the death penalty is not a political issue, but rather one steeped in faith.
“It’s what I believe in my heart,” she said. “God gives life. He should be the only one to take it away.”
Jan. 16, 2005
Katrina T. Gathers, Day Staff Writer