Wednesday’s roundup

The father of a dead Marine, whose funeral was picketed by anti-gay protestors from Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, has been ordered to pay Phelps’ legal fees. The case is headed to the Supreme Court, but until then, supporters have launched a grass-roots campaign to help pay the bills. Members of the Hutaree Christian militia in Michigan will face a judge today on whether they can be released on bond. A Baltimore judge who married a couple involved in a nasty domestic violence case defended his decision to marry them, saying he was guided by his Catholic conscience to “legitimize” their relationship. The AP says the Vatican is planning to claim diplomatic immunity in response to a Kentucky lawsuit that charges U.S. bishops who allowed abuse to fester were employees of the Vatican.

NY Bishops v. NYT

New York has traditionally been a far cry from Philadelphia when it comes to relations between the Catholic Church and the media. In Philly, a line of tough archbishops has a history of squaring off with the local press; a decade ago, investigations into the spending of then Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua resulted in a notable holy war from which neither side emerged unscathed. In the Big Apple, at least since the days of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes and Thomas Nast, the history of church-press relations reflects the care and deference with which the Great Powers of an Establishment tend to treat each other. If the Daily News, whose readership roots are solidly in the Catholic working class, has, in the current era, sometimes seemed like an archdiocesan daily, the New York Times has generally donned kid gloves when dealing with the city’s other great purveyor of moral suasion. In the previous phase of the scandal,
the Times was late at the party, and far more attentive to
clerical misdeeds outside than inside metropolitan New York.

The Vatican’s `Watergate’?

WaPo’s Sally Quinn was asked to come on MSNBC and talk about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. She didn’t mince any words, calling the scandal “the Vatican’s Watergate, and the pope is Nixon.” You’ll recall that Quinn’s family knows a thing or two about Watergate; her husband, Ben Bradlee, was the top editor at WaPo during the original Watergate. For a more, um, measured look at the scandal, USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman went on the same show on Tuesday and was a tad less hyberbolic:

Bush most `surprised’ by prayers of Americans

UCN: (RNS) The thing that most surprised former President George W. Bush was not international crises like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, nor the resilience of the Iraqi insurgency, but rather the impact of prayers from the American people, he said. Full story.

U.S. bishops defend pope as approval ratings drop

WASHINGTON (RNS) Top leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S. are defending Pope Benedict XVI against accusations that he mishandled at least two clergy sexual abuse cases. The statement, released Tuesday (March 30) by the executive committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, comes as a new poll finds the abuse scandal has caused the pope’s approval ratings to plummet among U.S. Catholics. “As we accompany Christ in his passion and death during this Holy Week, we stand with our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI in prayer for the victims of sexual abuse, for the entire church and for the world,” said the committee, headed by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. The defense of the pope echoed a similar Palm Sunday statement by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who said “Our earthly shepherd (is) now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar, as did Jesus.” The bishops said Benedict had responded “tenderly and reassuringly” when he held an impromptu meeting with U.S. abuse victims during his May 2008 visit to Washington, and said he was intimately involved as U.S. bishops crafted their own reforms in 2002.

Experts describe Michigan militia as a cult

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (RNS) When militia expert Jack Kay first ran across a MySpace page for the Michigan-based Hutaree militia six months ago, he thought it was just another group wrapping itself in God and country. But on Monday (March 29), following weekend raids by federal authorities in three states, Kay said the group went beyond that initial assessment. “Everything I’ve read about them and on their Web site establish, to me, that they are a cult,” said Kay, the provost and executive vice-president of academic affairs at Eastern Michigan University, who has done extensive research on militias. “They are true believers.

Muslims probe growing Islamic financial sector

TORONTO (RNS) Global leaders in Islamic finance are meeting in Toronto Tuesday and Wednesday (March 30-31) to probe the growing but still under-explored world of financial products and services that comply with Shariah, or Islamic law. The Usury-Free Association of North America (UFANA) conference brings together more than 150 experts from a dozen countries to explore a wide range of services that abide by Islam’s prohibition on interest. Conference organizers say the potential of the global Islamic financial market is an estimated $500 billion. Islamic scholars, lawyers and financial experts from the U.S., Canada, Britain and several Middle East countries are looking at Shariah-compliant stocks and investment products, banking, equity funds, mortgages, and credit. Canada’s first Shariah-compliant credit card, the iFreedom Plus MasterCard, will be launched at the conference.

Is Obama ignoring black church leaders?

WASHINGTON (RNS) When President Obama was elected, some black pastors, fresh from a campaign that featured extensive outreach to their churches, expected meetings with the president, or at least to be enlisted as informal advisers. For better or worse, those expectations have largely fallen flat. “I think he doesn’t avail himself as fully as he could of the input of black religious thinkers, and this is not a judgment upon his regard for us,” said Obery Hendricks, a professor at New York Theological Seminary. “I’m not sure why that is.” The Rev. James Forbes, the former senior pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, said the White House is doing a delicate dance in the aftermath of Obama’s ties — and public breakup — with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, whose fiery sermons nearly derailed his campaign.

Faith-based groups finishing work in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Two religious denominations that have been pouring money and volunteers into rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina are winding down their recovery projects to return to work elsewhere on a more normal scale. Representatives of the United Methodist Church and the Salvation Army said they see an end to their rebuilding work around New Orleans. The Methodists will likely wrap up this year, the Salvation Army at the end of next year. Both are major players. While there is no clearinghouse for rebuilding statistics, one estimate suggests the Methodist and Salvation Army efforts contributed to the rebuilding of more than 1,200 homes damaged by Katrina.

COMMENTARY: Being upset is all the rage

(RNS) From 33,000 feet, America seems a peaceful land. All this room, all these people growing crops and working in factories and offices, trying their best to build families and to make their brief spans worthwhile. At ground level, however, we encounter a more disturbing picture. At the airport in Corpus Christi, Texas, I listened to a young Tea Party activist explain why she felt trivialized by mainstream politicians. Citizens of all persuasions could identify with that sentiment.

Tuesday’s roundup

Countering reports in the NYT and AP, the Catholic priest in charge of the church trial of a pedophile priest in Milwaukee says the Vatican, and specifically the future Pope Benedict XVI, never called off the trial. The Rev. Thomas Brundage, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995-2003, says the Rev. Lawrence Murphy was scheduled to be deposed when he died in 1998. Brundage said he was “introduced to the story of Father Murphy” in 1996 and began interviewing victims that year, which raises its own questions. Why does it take two years to depose Murphy? Is justice delayed justice denied for victims?

S.C. Episcopal diocese declares itself `sovereign’

(RNS) A South Carolina diocese has declared itself “sovereign” within the Episcopal Church, the latest salvo in a long-running skirmish between the conservative diocese and the denomination. The Diocese of South Carolina, which covers 47 parishes in the eastern and coastal parts of the state, voted on Friday (March 26) to assert the local authority of Bishop Mark Lawrence, particularly in dealing with breakaway parishes. Concerned that Lawrence would not fight to keep conservatives from seceding with church property, the Episcopal Church hired its own lawyer earlier this year. The 2.2 million-member denomination maintains that local parish property is held in trust for the regional diocese and the national church. In a series of four resolutions, the South Carolina diocese declared that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has “no authority to retain attorneys in this diocese that present themselves as counsel for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.”