Urge governor to abolish death penalty: Illinois bishops

By: By Jennifer Willems

“The death penalty in Illinois should be abolished,” said the Catholic bishops of Illinois, who are urging Gov. Pat Quinn to sign legislation that would do just that.

The Jan. 13 statement by the bishops came a week after the Illinois House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 3539, which would do away with the death penalty, and two days after the Illinois State Senate also approved the bill.

“Capital punishment is no longer required to protect Illinois’ citizens,” according to the statement, which was issued by the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “Life without parole and Illinois’ Truth in Sentencing laws can and must be used to guarantee that the guilty offenders who would have been put to death under the previous system will instead spend the rest of their lives in prison.”

The bishops also cited Illinois’ experience with the death penalty and the “irredeemable flaws inherent to the system.”

“Even subsequent to death penalty reforms instituted after former Gov. George Ryan imposed the moratorium, authorities have pursued the death penalty against those later proven innocent,” the statement says. “There is no guarantee that the death penalty would not again be imposed on an innocent person. This threat is too great to ignore.”

It has been reported that the capital cases of 20 people have been overturned since 1977. Ryan established the moratorium on capital punishment in 2000.

“We are incapable, I think, of justly imposing what is the extreme punishment,” Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, told The Catholic Post on Wednesday. “We are unable to do it in a just and equitable way. We have the evidence of that all over.”

Bishop Jenky said his prayers and his heart go out to the victims of violent crime and “to the people who stand between us and crime” — namely police officers and prison guards. On more than one occasion he has interacted with those victims and their loved ones.

“If, God forbid, I was the witness of a violent crime or the victim of one, I can assure you that I would feel anger,” he acknowledged. “But even for those who are guilty, I believe we have a better means to protect people.”

Not only do the Catholic bishops of Illinois teach that the death penalty should be abolished, but the bishops of the United States also have taken that position. Bishop Jenky added that Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about how advanced societies like the United States have other means to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes that teaching, which the late pope addressed in “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Culture of Life”).
“If . . .non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person,” the catechism notes.

“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm . . . the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'” (CCC 2267)

This is not the first time Bishop Jenky has been involved in the issue of capital punishment.

He was an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend when the Indiana bishops mounted a teaching campaign to raise consciousness about the death penalty and why it was no longer necessary. As part of that effort, he visited a number of prisons in the state and met many people on death row.

One of them had murdered several people and didn’t deny that he was guilty. He used the time that he was in prison to be converted and started reading John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and prayed the Divine Office every day.

“He was executed. He was guilty. He felt it was just that he be killed, but he knew that on death row there were all sorts of people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bishop Jenky said.

“It’s a multifaceted thing,” he added. “I do not try to beat up, emotionally or verbally, people who would disagree with the shepherds of the church on this. But I would also say that when I’m reading papal documents or what my brother bishops have written, that it’s a call to a deeper insight and conversion.”

Noting that he needs to be converted every day, he said, “I hope people would approach the issue freshly.”

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said it’s hard to gauge what Gov. Quinn might do, but encouraged Illinois Catholics to call the governor’s office and weigh in “and urge others to do the same.”

He has sent messages to the respect life coordinators and peace and justice coordinators in the state asking them to include the bishops’ call to abolish the death penalty in their communications as well.

Gilligan suggested that letters to the editor of community newspapers that talk about why capital punishment should be abolished could also be helpful.

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