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 Washington Notebook

March 24, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 11

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

Conservatives approach [abortion] from the 'supply side' and want to criminalize the providers; I come at from the demand side: Why do women consider having abortions and what can we do to remove it from the matrix of choices?"

Ono Ekeh,
founder and moderator of the e-mail discussion list, Catholics for Kerry, and fomerly an employee of the U.S. bihsops' conference

 

Catholic for Kerry ousted at bishops' conference; Political activity clarified; Summer of '42 star lobbies Congress; Maryland committees reject clergy reporting bill

By Joe Feuerherd

Message to church employees who support John Kerry's presidential bid: public endorsement of the pro-choice Catholic senator could cost you your job.

Just ask Ono Ekeh, founder and moderator of the Catholics for Kerry e-mail discussion list and, until March 9, program coordinator at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for African-American Catholics. The 33-year-old father of two is now looking for work.

It all started in late February when Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine and a key player in the Bush campaign outreach to Catholic voters, revealed in his widely distributed weekly "e-letter" that Ekeh hosted the pro-Kerry site. Hudson is a leader of efforts to get U.S. bishops to publicly confront pro-choice Catholic elected officials.

"Look," wrote Hudson, "it's one thing for a Catholic to be a pro-life Democrat -- that in itself is a perfectly legitimate position and consistent with our Catholic Faith. However, it's completely unacceptable to follow Ekeh and trade away our pro-life responsibilities."

Ekeh "even goes so far as to defend Kerry against the explicit directives from the Vatican and the USCCB that condemn political support for abortion and gay marriage." Concluded Hudson, "As Kerry advances down the presidential campaign trail, and as other Catholics equivocate on his blatantly pro-abortion record, it will become more and more vital for the bishops to speak out. And for the members of the conference itself, the issue is getting a bit close to home."

Two weeks after Hudson's column appeared, Ekeh sat down with his boss and the human resources director at the bishops' conference offices in Northeast Washington, D.C.

"They did a comprehensive review of all my postings on the Catholics for Kerry Web site and on my personal Web log [an online journal] and said that my tone toward the church and the bishops was negative," Ekeh told NCR. Ekeh was asked to explain his role in the Catholics for Kerry e-mail list. "I told them that I was the founder and moderator of the group."

Ekeh's support for Kerry was well known among conference employees, though no one was aware of his role as list moderator. "I have three huge 'John Kerry for President' stickers on my car," said Ekeh, "and when Kerry would win a primary people would come by and congratulate me."

Ekeh said he was careful to separate his job from his Web activities, which he conducted on his personal time.

Following Hudson's column, said Ekeh, the pressure mounted. In a Feb. 25 column, conservative columnist William F. Buckley termed Ekeh an "apologist for Senator Kerry's inanimate disapproval of abortion." The secretary in Ekeh's office was fielding phone calls from Catholics who wanted him fired.

At the March 9 meeting, conference officials asked Ekeh to resign and offered him a severance package. He agreed. "Given the work I had done for the bishops, [the controversy] created an atmosphere where it was not going to be productive for me to continue working there."

Ekeh acknowledges that some of his writings on his personal Web site were critical of the bishops (he criticized, for example, the bishops' statements on gay marriage) though he says he was always supportive of "the church itself." But he gives no ground on his pro-Kerry views, particularly when it comes to abortion. Kerry, he says, would fund social programs that would make abortion a less attractive option to women facing a crisis pregnancy.

"My opinion is that everyone agrees that abortion is a bad and evil thing -- the question is how we go about [limiting] it," said Ekeh. "Conservatives approach it from the 'supply side' and want to criminalize the providers; I come at from the demand side: Why do women consider having abortions and what can we do to remove it from the matrix of choices?"

That is not a "pro-life" position, Hudson told NCR.

"That's a rather narrow view of what being pro-life is and certainly doesn't match what either [the] bishops in the United States or the pope" say about the issue, said Hudson. "Pro-life is to protect unborn life and to protect it directly and not just alleviating conditions," said Hudson.

Further, said Hudson, "The fact that an employee of the bishops' conference had started this 'Catholics for Kerry' chat room when Kerry had gone to such lengths during the nomination debates to insist that he was the most pro-abortion of all the candidates was an obvious, apparent contradiction."

Ekeh sees no contradiction. "I believe Kerry's entire vision resonates with Catholic social teaching," said Ekeh, and his support for the candidate "is in no way close to being contradictory with what I did at the conference."

In the course of his years at the conference -- he served as assistant program coordinator in African-American Secretariat from 1999-2000 and returned to the job in 2001 -- Ekeh's work was appreciated, he said. "My evaluations were always good and I think everyone who I worked with would agree that I did very good work."

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As another sideline, Ekeh owns a Catholic book store in Waldorf, Md., and is pursing a doctorate in theology at Catholic University. He will now have more time to pursue those efforts, he said.

Does Hudson regret that his writings resulted in unemployment for Ekeh?

Not at all. "I applaud the bishops for taking this stand -- they've sent a clear message regarding their commitment to life and the responsibility of lay Catholics to do the same," Hudson said in his March 19 "e-letter."

"If you're going to play in the sandbox," he told NCR, "then you have to take the consequences of your public utterances and your public actions."

***

Partisan political activity by church employees might not be prudent for those who value their jobs (see above), but it's all right with the Internal Revenue Service.

That's the view expressed in a March 15 document released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of the General Counsel.

IRS prohibitions on partisan activities by non-profit entities do "not prevent officials of Catholic organizations, acting in their individual capacities, from becoming involved in political activity, provided they 'do not in any way utilize the organization's financial resources, facilities or personnel, and clearly and unambiguously indicate that the actions taken or statements made are those of the individuals and not of the organization,'" according to Political Activity Guidelines for Catholic Organizations.

The document provides an extensive list of do's and don'ts for Catholic non-profit organizations in an election year.

*****

Mention the "Summer of '42" to nearly anyone over age 45 and they swoon. "It was our first date," says a long-married Catholic father of four. "We stayed up all night talking after the movie."

A 46-year-old man, just 14-years-old when the movie was released in 1971, recalled that the film had a particular affect on adolescent males of that era.

Jennifer O'Neill, "Dorothy" in the film, is now a pro-life activist and the celebrity spokeswoman for the "National Silent No More Awareness Campaign." She was in Washington last week, along with Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, where she shared the story of her abortion with members of congress.

The goal? Get Congress to fund research into the effects of abortion on women, many of whom, said O'Neill, deeply regret their decision. O'Neill -- actress, author, businesswoman -- is hard to dismiss; her personal story compelling, her commitment obvious.

Still, she said, pro-choice groups oppose the effort to fund such research, saying that it is a ploy to make women feel guilty and a tool to overturn abortion rights. Of the former, says O'Neill, many women who have had an abortion already feel guilt and need help; of the latter, she agrees, and believes that one key to overturning Roe v. Wade is to have women tell their stories.

*****

Two committees of the Maryland legislature rejected legislation that would have made members of the clergy "mandatory reporters" under the state's child abuse statutes (Washington Notebook, March 17).

The Maryland Catholic Conference, representing the interests of the Archdioceses of Washington and Baltimore in the state capitol of Annapolis, opposed the measure, arguing that it unfairly targeted clergy, could lead to violations of confessional confidentiality, and was redundant with existing law.

Proponents of the measure, including members of local chapters of the Voice of the Faithful, argued that the bill specifically protected the seal of the confessional and would have placed members of the clergy in the same category of "mandatory reporters" as teachers, social workers and police officers.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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