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Supreme Court sends back case against Puerto Rican archdiocese

Washington D.C., Feb 25, 2020 / 12:10 pm (CNA).- The Supreme Court has sent a case concerning the Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, back to Puerto Rican courts, overturning a previous decision against the Church which it said would be a First Ammendment violation.

The case involves a lawsuit against the archdiocese over a failed pension fund for Catholic school teachers. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court had ruled that "the Roman Catholic Church" could be recognized as a single legal entity, responsible for all Catholic institutions even if they were separately legally incorporated.

The court announced its decision in Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico v. Yali Acevedo Feliciano, et al. on Monday, Feb. 24. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, and ruled that the Puerto Rico Court of First Instance did not have proper jurisdiction to rule on the case. 

The case concerned the 2016 decision by the Archdiocese of San Juan to terminate a pension plan for employees of Catholic schools in the archdiocese. The pension trust was created in 1979. The case was brought forward by retired and current employees of three schools in the U.S. territory. 

In the initial lawsuit, the defendants were listed as the “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church of Puerto Rico,” the Archdiocese of San Juan, the schools’ Superintendent, the pension trust, and the three Catholic schools in Puerto Rico. 

After the lawsuit made its way through the Puerto Rico courts, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court found that “if the Trust did not have the necessary funds to meet its obligations, the participating employers would be obligated to pay.” 

When the Puerto Rico Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Puerto Rico Court of First Instance, that court decided that the “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico” was the only entity with separate legal personhood, rather than any of the other defendants. The Archdiocese and other defendants were determined by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court to be a “division or dependency” of the Church as a whole.

The Catholic Church in Puerto Rico was subsequently ordered to make payments to the employees formerly covered by the pension plan, and the Church was required to pay $4.7 million into an a court account. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court also issued an order which required law enforcement to “seize assets and moneys of … the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, and any of its dependencies, that are located in Puerto Rico.”

When that verdict was appealed to the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals, it was reversed. That court found that “Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church in Puerto Rico” is a “legally nonexistent entity.” Instead, the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals ruled that the Archdiocese of San Juan or the schools themselves would be the ones to make pension payments. 

Following further appeals, the Archdiocese of San Juan petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to hear their case. The Supreme Court received the petition for writ of certiorari on January 14, 2019.

In the per curiam decision, the Supreme Court returned the case to Puerto Rico, with the added stipulations that the Puerto Rico Court of First Instance lacked jurisdiction in the case. 

The Supreme Court also noted that Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision could violate the First Amendment because it “relied on a special presumption--seemingly applicable only to the Catholic Church…--that all Catholic entities on the Island are ‘merely indivisible fragments of the legal personality that the Catholic Church has.’"

By singling out the Catholic Church, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court “thus violated the fundamental tenet of the Free Exercise Clause” that prohibits unequal treatment of religious beliefs and denominations. 

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion in the case, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, adding commentary on “other important issues that may arise on remand.” 

Alito wrote that the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico erred in its interpretation of past cases in making its decision in the case Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico v. Yali Acevedo Feliciano.

“The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico held that Ponce decided that in Puerto Rico the Catholic Church is a single entity for the purposes of civil liability. That was incorrect,” wrote Alito.

Alito said that the misinterpretation of the Ponce case would have been enough to reverse the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico’s decision, had the issue regarding proper jurisdiction not been raised, plus the First Amendment violations.

“The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment at a minimum demands that all jurisdictions use neutral rules in determining whether particular entities that are associated in some way with a religious body may be held responsible for debts incurred by other associated entities,” said Alito.

Indian bishop charged with rape faces allegation from second nun

Kottayam, India, Feb 25, 2020 / 10:48 am (CNA).- It has emerged that a second nun of the Missionaries of Jesus has accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jullundur of sexual harassment. The bishop has been charged with raping a nun repeatedly over the course of two years, allegations he denies.

The first nun, who is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, has said that Bishop Mulakkal, 55, raped her during his May 2014 visit to her convent in Kuravilangad, in Kerala. In a 72-page complaint to police, filed in June 2018, she alleged that the bishop sexually abused her more than a dozen times over two years.

The Missionaries of Jesus is based in the Diocese of Jullundur, and Bishop Mulakkal is its patron.

Bishop Mulakkal was arrested in September 2018 amid protests calling for a police investigation of the allegation. He was subsequently released on bail, and he has maintained his innocence.

According to The New Indian Express, a witness in the case against the bishop told investigators Sept. 9, 2018 that from 2015 to 2017 she participated in sexual video chats with the bishop, having been pressured by him, and that he groped and kissed her April 30, 2017, at a convent in Kannur.

This second alleged victim did not wish to press charges, but there are calls for police in Kerala to bring a suo motu case against Bishop Mulakkal.

A preliminary hearing was held in Bishop Mulakkal's case Feb. 22, where his lawyers asked that the charges be dismissed. The defense said that the leak of witness statements to the media demonstrated a collusion between prosecutors and the press, and that the bishop could not have a fair trial. The bishop's counsel have also argued that his accuser bears a grudge against him.

The Times of India reported that the court adjourned the case to Feb. 29.

The nun who initially accused Bishop Mulakkal of rape has complained against him to the Kerala women's commission, saying he his harrassing her and others through social media videos.

In August 2019 a nun representing the alleged victim accused the defense of evidence tampering in the case and demanded that the real evidence be presented.

The bishop has claimed the allegations were made in retaliation against him because he has acted against the nun’s sexual misconduct. He said the nun was alleged to be having an affair with her cousin's husband.

The bishop was charged in April 2019 with rape, unnatural sex, wrongful confinement, and criminal intimidation. He faces imprisonment of 10 years to life if found guilty.

He was temporarily removed from the administration of his diocese shortly before his arrest.

Lesotho PM murder case could have canon law consequences

Cape Town, South Africa, Feb 25, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Prime Minister Thomas Thabane of Lesotho has been charged with the murder of his estranged former wife, police announced last week Thursday. The trial, and its verdict, could have an unforeseen canonical consequence for Thabane and his second wife, who has also been charged with the murder.

The murder took place in 2017, two days before Thabane took office as prime minister of the African nation, which is surrounded entirely by South Africa. 

Lipolelo Thebane was shot multiple times at close range as she walked beside a road in a village outside of the capital city of Maseru. The couple was in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, and Thomas Thabane was living with another woman at the time.

The prime minister married his former paramour, Maesaiah, in a Catholic wedding two months after the murder. Maesaiah Thabane has already been charged in the murder, after she surrendered to police custody earlier this month.

Charges against the prime minister were filed on Friday.

The prime minister appeared in court on Monday, Feb. 24, sitting in the public gallery with his second wife, while his lawyers argued he should be given immunity from prosecution, and that filing criminal charges against a sitting prime minister raised constitutional questions which the country’s high court would need to resolve before the case could proceed.

A spokesman for Thabane said that “the prime minister is protected by the constitution,” though conceding he is not “above the law.” 

“This whole exercise is just meant to embarrass [Thabane] and nothing else,” he said.

Paleka Mokete, Maseru’s Deputy Commissioner of Police told CNN that there is a “strong case” against the prime minister for the murder of his wife.

Thabane, 80, had previously announced that he would step down in July, and indicated that he wished to retire from public life. A spokesman for the prime minister said these plans remained unchanged.

In addition to the political and criminal repercussions of the case, the Thabane murder charges could have canonical effects.

Thomas and Maesaiah Thabane married in the Catholic Church shortly after Lipolelo’s murder. Lipolelo’s death brought the ongoing divorce proceedings to a close and made the marriage possible. Before the killing, Thomas Thabane was attempting to obtain legal recognition for Maesaiah as first lady, despite being still legally married to his first wife, a move Lipolelo was blocking.

Canon 1090 of the Code of Canon Law provides that “Anyone who with a view to entering marriage with a certain person has brought about the death of that person’s spouse or of one’s own spouse invalidly attempts this marriage.”

In fact, the canon continues that “those who have brought about the death of a spouse by mutual physical or moral cooperation also invalidly attempt a marriage together,” even if the collaborators didn’t intend to marry.

If either or both of the Thabanes are found to be responsible for the death of Lipolelo, it could result in a determination of invalidity by a canonical tribunal.

The ecclesiastical promoter of justice in the Archdiocese of Maseru can petition the archdiocesan tribunal to consider the validity of the marriage, if he believes it is in the public interest to do so. The promoter of justice could not be reached before publication.

California doubles down on rule forcing Catholic nuns to pay for abortion

Sacramento, Calif., Feb 24, 2020 / 05:20 pm (CNA).- Facing the threat of major cuts to federal HHS funds, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has said the state will not back down from its ban on health insurance plans that exclude abortion, even after federal authorities have sided with Catholic nuns who object to the ban.

The attorney general has accused the federal government of interfering in his state’s sovereign duty to protect women’s “reproductive rights.”

“Clearly, this is a disappointing response by the attorney general,” Stephen J. Greene, the attorney representing the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit religious sisters said in a statement sent to CNA Feb. 24.

“As we have repeatedly stated, our clients, the Guadalupanas, just want their conscience rights (and those of others who may hold different, but sincerely held views, as well) to be respected as provided for under the law.”

“At this point, my clients need to consider their next steps as does the federal government,” said Greene.

The Guadalupanas, whose province is headquartered in Los Angeles, are consecrated Catholic women who live among the poor and needy in inner city and rural areas. Their service includes teaching religion classes and working with destitute Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Their June 2017 complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights alleged that California’s 2014 rules mandating abortion coverage in health plans burdened their conscience rights and compelled them to fund “the practice of abortion on demand for other plan participants,” despite their Catholic beliefs that direct abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”

On Jan. 24, federal officials sided with the Guadalupanas and another complainant, the Skyline Wesleyan Church of La Mesa.

In a document known as a notice of violation, the Office of Civil Rights said that California’s Department of Managed Health Care ignored its specific request to confirm or deny whether it would align its practices to the federal Weldon Amendment, and instead issued a response that “confirms its non-compliance.”

The office gave California 30 days to agree to comply with the law or face limits on federal HHS funds.

The Weldon Amendment, first passed in 2005, bars HHS-appropriated federal funds to state or local governments if they discriminate against institutional or individual healthcare entities, including health insurance plans, that decline to pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, abortions.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in a letter to Severino dated Feb. 21, said has said the state will take “no corrective action” in response to the federal notice.

In a Feb. 21 press release, Becerra said “California has the sovereign right to protect women’s reproductive rights.”

“Political grandstanding should never interfere with that,” he added.

Becerra’s letter objected that the notice contradicts a 2016 determination that California was in compliance with the Weldon Amendment, despite complaints from groups like the California Catholic Conference. The attorney general argued that the latest notice “dramatically reinterprets” the amendment and threatens to cut federal funding for vital state programs.

Becerra’s letter to Severino did not mention either the Missionary Guadalupanas or Skyline Wesleyan Church whose legal complaints prompted the HHS action.

For his part, Severino said the Department of Health and Human Services will take appropriate action in response.

“For decades Californians could choose whether or not they wanted abortion-free health insurance coverage until California took away that option,” Severino told CNA Feb. 24.

“HHS is assessing the recent letter from the California Attorney General and all appropriate remedies in light of California’s continued refusal to comply with federal law.”
 
Becerra’s letter echoed the arguments behind the state’s 2014 rule change. California Supreme Court precedent, and California constitutional provisions require protections for “women’s right to privacy and reproductive freedom.” California legislation requires health plans to offer abortion services as part of “basic health care services.”

Only one provider had requested an exemption, he said, and this exemption was granted. This was proof the state was willing to comply with the Weldon Amendment.

Federal action he said, threatens programs like emergency preparedness, infectious disease programs and child welfare programs.

The attorney general requested all evidence related to the Notice of Violation so that California could have a “full and fair opportunity” to refute it. His letter objected that “corrective action” was not specified.

California officials mandated the coverage after two Catholic universities in autumn 2013 announced that they planned to stop paying for employees’ elective abortions and had secured state approval for the new health plans.

Lobbyists from Planned Parenthood wrote to the California Department of Health and Human Services to insist that agency rules be changed to force religious groups to provide coverage for elective abortions, according to emails published in court filings from the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group.

When the Obama administration rejected complaints from groups like the California Catholic Conference, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the ruling was “contrary to the plain meaning of the law.” They said it was “shocking” that the federal government allowed California to force all employers, including churches, to fund and facilitate elective abortions.

Now the controversy includes the Guadalupanas, who work closely with farm workers and with immigrants.

“They’re wonderful women,” Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told CNA Feb. 18. “They just didn’t understand why their conscience rights were being ignored, so they took action for themselves and others.”

Eckery said that the California Catholic Conference is “pleased” that federal action has been taken, but he stressed the need to seek a resolution and to reject partisan political interpretation of objections to the state rule.

“We’re not out to start or continue a culture war. We’re just out to make sure that the beliefs of people like the Guadalupanas are respected,” he said.

“We’re not seeking to cut off federal funds,” he said. “All we’re seeking is a respectful conversation, but one that is now clearly backed by the government which recognizes that this is a violation of conscience rights.”

“We’re interested in simply rolling back to the status quo that existed prior to 2014,” Eckery said.

The HHS Office of Civil Rights estimated that the state mandate wrongly affected at least 35 employer groups serving over 28,000 enrollees, including 13 groups that met California’s definition of religious employer.

California officials framed the federal action as a dispute with President Donald Trump.

“This is extreme presidential overreach and would, if carried out, jeopardize lives of Californians,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Feb. 21. “We will not allow it.”

HHS had announced the action on Jan. 24, the same day that President Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to address the National March for Life in person.

“California’s abortion mandate not only devalues life, but cruelly compels many Californians to support abortion against their will,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said Jan. 24. “I urge Governor Newsom to reconsider his support for this unlawful policy.”

McCarthy’s office characterized the Weldon Amendment as “a critical federal law crafted to protect the civil rights of Americans who want to live their lives without being discriminated against by the government simply because they are not willing to provide, pay, or cover abortions.”

His office charged that California disregarded the law under the Obama administration and “is forcing health insurance plans to cover abortion.”

McCarthy’s office pointed to a January 2019 ruling that California discriminated against pro-life pregnancy resource centers, violating both the Weldon Amendment and the Coats-Snow Amendment.

US Hispanic Catholics more likely to attend Mass, less likely to vote Trump

Washington D.C., Feb 24, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- A new poll shows that Hispanics Catholics in the U.S. are more likely to attend weekly Mass and far less likely to support President Trump than other U.S. Catholics.

An EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research poll published on Monday surveyed 1,512 Catholic registered voters from Jan. 28 through Feb. 4, 2020. The poll asked Catholics about their political affiliation, preferred presidential candidate, religious beliefs and practices, and opinions on life issues such as abortion and euthanasia.

The poll surveyed Catholic voters across various demographics; 37% of the respondents identified as Hispanic.

Politically, Hispanic Catholics are more likely to affiliate with the Democratic Party and to oppose President Trump.

The president’s net approval rating among all Hispanic Catholics is only 29%, nearly 30 points below his net approval from white non-Hispanic Catholics. Nearly half (48%) of Hispanic Catholics say they would never vote for Trump.

A majority, 53%, of Hispanic Catholics are “strongly” or “somewhat” open to voting for a third-party presidential candidate in 2020, up five points from 48% of non-Hispanic Catholics.

They are much more likely to think that the country is on the “wrong track,” with 55% answering that way. Not even one-third say the country is generally headed in the right direction.

Nearly six-in-ten (58%) think the country is worse off financially now than it was four years ago; in comparison, two-thirds of non-Hispanic Catholics (67%) share the opposite sentiment—they think the country is better off financially than four years ago.

As he did with Catholics overall, Joe Biden led the Democratic presidential contenders in support from Hispanic Catholics with 31%. Bernie Sanders registered second place with 28% support, and Michael Bloomberg third with 17%.

Regular religious practice is higher among the demographic; Hispanic Catholics are more likely to attend Mass once or more per week, 39% compared to 32% for non-Hispanic Catholics.

They are more likely to pray the rosary weekly or more frequently—33% of Hispanics to 24% of non-Hispanic Catholics.

And a smaller proportion of Hispanic Catholics (51%) support the death penalty than do non-Hispanic Catholics (60%), and, compared to just 42% of non-Hispanic Catholics, a majority of Hispanic Catholics (51%) believe euthanasia is “intrinsically evil.”

As with U.S. Catholics more broadly, Hispanic Catholics are evenly split on several contentious religious freedom issues, with no clear majority for or against the rights of religious business owners to not serve same-sex weddings—41% support their right not to serve, 40% say they should be required to serve, and 19% say they are not sure.

Hispanic Catholics also registered split perspectives on the rights of religious adoption agencies to not pair children with same-sex couples—37% said the agencies should not be required to do so, 38% said they should be required, and 24% said they are “not sure.”

The rights of parochial schools to make hiring decisions contingent upon employees’ adherence to Church teaching also divided Hispanic Catholic respondents —38% support the rights of the schools, 38% oppose, and 24% are “not sure.”

In line with repsonses from other Catholic demographics, less than half of Hispanic Catholics think abortion and physician-assisted suicide are “intrinsically evil,” with just 48% and 47% answering “yes” to those questions, respectively. They are slightly more likely than non-Hispanic Catholics to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with 54% of Hispanic Catholics saying that compared to 50% of non-Hispanic Catholics.