Colorado needs more compassionate care, not killing

Archbishop Aquila

In August 1997, I was in the oncologist office with my mother and her doctor. The doctor shared with us that my mother had cancer in her brain, lungs, and liver and while there was some possibility to prolong her life, her prognosis was she would die in a few months. On our way out, the doctor pulled me aside and said, “Your mother will be dead by December. I don’t know how she is doing so well with the extensiveness of the cancer.” She celebrated her 75th birthday in December at a large gathering of family and friends and was still driving. She didn’t die until June 1998.

On August 15, an initiative that will legalize physician-assisted suicide was officially certified to appear as an initiative on the Colorado ballot. Proposition 106 must be opposed because it will open the door for people in situations like my mother’s to kill themselves based off of guesses made by doctors that are often wrong. Having assisted suicide in our state will also create a culture that discourages advances in compassionate palliative and hospice care, and crucially, it will shorten the window for God’s grace to act as people prepare to meet their maker.

In Colorado, we pride ourselves on the natural beauty of our state and our care for the environment. People from other states also remark on how welcoming, warm and caring Coloradans are. These are good and praiseworthy values of which we can be proud. But if Proposition 106 is approved, it will engrain much different, more inhumane values in our culture, and help spread them to other states by giving momentum to assisted suicide advocates.

Aside from the moral problems associated with physician-assisted suicide, the ballot measure has serious flaws in the way it’s written. In order to qualify for assisted suicide, for instance, a person must receive a diagnosis that they are suffering from a terminal illness and have six months or less to live. But as the case of my mother shows, how often are those diagnoses wrong? Most of us know people who outlived a fatal diagnosis by months or years, and in some rarer cases doctors misdiagnose their patients completely.

Proposition 106 also requires that a physician certify that the person requesting assisted suicide be of sound mind. What the measure does not specify is that the certifying doctor be trained in psychology. That means that any doctor may carry out the assessment – even a podiatrist or audiologist. There is nothing in the initiative that would prevent a doctor who is untrained in psychology from missing the cues that a person is depressed and needs treatment, not an overdose of lethal drugs.

The way the assisted suicide ballot measure handles the act of a person killing themselves also demonstrates how contrary its values are to those of Coloradans. To begin with, even though the overdose doesn’t always work, Proposition 106 does not require a medical professional to be present for the death. It also shuns accountability by mandating that physicians or coroners lie on the death certificate and say that the person died of the disease from which they were suffering. Should this become law, the state will be supporting the “father of lies,” sweeping under the carpet the reality of what is happening.

The most important shortcoming of Proposition 106 is that it treats human life as something that can be discarded, like an appliance that has outlived its use. Human beings are vastly more valuable than that, and our dignity does not depend on our ability to perform functions or our health. Our dignity comes from the fact that a loving God made us in his image and likeness and gave us souls that are eternal. The state does not bestow dignity on a human person, God does.

As a priest, I have accompanied people in their last days, including both my parents, and seen the profound changes that can occur when a person is open to God’s love and mercy as they approach their earthly end. I have heard so many stories of families who were grateful for those last moments, which thanks to advances in medicine and hospice care, are not filled with pain.

However, if Proposition 106 is passed, it will create a system that has the potential to rob people of those cherished moments with their loved ones. It will also incentivize inhumane treatment by health insurance companies and people who stand to gain financially from the deaths of the sick, elderly, or disabled. For example, in Oregon, a woman with breast cancer was told by her insurance that it would not cover her chemotherapy, but would cover the pills for her to commit suicide, even though she was still in fairly good health.

In stark contrast to Proposition 106 and its values stands the testimony of Coloradan Miranda Smith, whose mom died naturally while receiving hospice care for brain cancer. “I wouldn’t give up those last moments of my mom up for anything in the world … seeing how in those last weeks, how family would come and she would touch them; I can’t imagine not having that.”

As Coloradans, we cannot allow our state to become the next suicide state. We must treat life with care, dignity and true compassion, instead of exposing it to the error-prone, unaccountable system that Proposition 106 would create. Vote “No” on physician-assisted suicide and help build a culture of life!

To contribute to the effort to defeat Proposition 106, please make checks out to No Assisted Suicide Colorado and mail it to 1535 Logan St., Denver, CO 80203. Donations are not tax-deductible.

COMING UP: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]