Nun makes case against death penalty in Pittsburgh

'Dead Man Walking' author visits Shadyside's Rodef Shalom

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When Sister Helen Prejean entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957, she couldn't have dreamed that she would become the guardian angel of death row prisoners or that a Hollywood star would win an Oscar for portraying her.

The 1995 movie "Dead Man Walking" made her book a best-seller and put her in a position to influence Pope John Paul II on the death penalty. But she is still based in New Orleans, with a ministry to death row inmates and the families of their victims.

"That is the hub of the wheel, accompanying people on death row," she said in a thick Louisiana drawl during an interview.

She is also working to free Manuel Ortiz, convicted of two murders in 1994 despite another man's confession. Sister Helen, 74, spoke at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside on Thursday.

"I'm crisscrossing the country, waking people up, telling the story to help them deal with their own ambivalence about the death penalty," she said. "There is that outrage for the people who were killed, but what does it mean for us as citizens to decide who lives and who dies? "

She was the sheltered daughter of an attorney when she entered the convent at 18. When Vatican II inspired her community to move beyond the classroom to the streets, she was reluctant but went to live in one of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods. Soon she noticed that black people didn't receive equal treatment from police or adequate legal representation. Killers of white people got the death penalty; killers of black people got away with it.

When someone asked her to become pen pals with a death row inmate, she agreed. Her relationship with Patrick Sonnier and the families of his victims was the basis of "Dead Man Walking."

Some in her own church have shied away from her, citing accusations that she condones abortion. She denies it, saying her words were twisted in a 1996 story. In 2006 her name was on an ad citing his opposition to abortion as a reason to remove President George W. Bush. She said the abortion clause wasn't in the draft she agreed to, and that she wouldn't have signed if it was.

"Of course I'm against abortion," she said. "I believe that children have a right to live. I speak at pro-life rallies and conferences and workshops. I embrace a consistent ethic of life, and I had a small role in helping the Catholic Church see that dignity of life applies to the guilty as well as to the innocent."

In the 20th century the Catholic Church became an opponent of the death penalty, but put it in a different category than abortion because those executed had been convicted of murder. By the 1990s authoritative church teaching said that other means of punishment were preferable, but that execution was permissible in cases of "absolute necessity" for crimes of "extreme gravity."

In a letter and meeting with Pope John Paul II, she argued that states could define those terms any way they wanted to.

"I told him that he needed to close those loopholes," she said. "And he did. He changed the catechism."

The 1997 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church stops short of forbidding execution, but limits it to when there is no other way to protect society, noting that such cases are practically nonexistent.

In a 1999 visit to St. Louis, the pope called "for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

The U.S. Catholic bishops launched a campaign to end the death penalty, which she works with. Catholic support for execution has fallen faster and farther than the wider public's.

In 1999, she said, 78 percent of American adults and 80 percent of Catholics supported the death penalty. By 2005, that dropped to 64 percent of the public and 59 percent of Catholics.

"There is hope. I've been doing this for 20 years, I've been with the American public, and they get it," Sister Helen said. "It isn't that they're really invested in the death penalty, but they've never thought about it deeply.."

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Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.


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