Florida Bishops' Plea for Murderer's Life Called 'Beyond Offensive'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Friends and family of a disabled woman at the center of a Florida euthanasia controversy expressed outrage Monday that Florida's Catholic bishops are pleading for the life of an admitted murderer on death row but have not come to the defense of the disabled woman whose husband is seeking to have the state end her life.

The criticisms came Monday morning, before the parents of Terri Schindler Schiavo learned that their daughter had been hospitalized in critical condition for the second time in less than two weeks.

The Florida Catholic Conference called on Gov. Jeb Bush Monday to commute to "life in prison without possibility of parole" the death sentence of Paul Hill. Hill was convicted of the 1994 shotgun murders of an abortionist and his driver, and in correspondence with the Miami Herald about the murders, stated: "If I were put in similar circumstances, I believe I would act similarly."

The agency that represents Florida's Catholic bishops in public policy matters issued a press release Monday stating: "Abortion kills unborn children, hurts women and is a terrible wrong; taking lives as Paul Hill did is no less a terrible wrong." The contact listed on the statement is D. Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference.

Pamela Hennessy, volunteer media coordinator for the family of Terri Schindler Schiavo, wrote McCarron as soon as she learned of the bishops' public stand on Hill's scheduled Sept. 3 execution.

"I respectfully request that you convey to the Florida bishops that, if all life is truly sacred, their defense of a convicted killer coupled with their disinterest in the life of a disabled and innocent woman is beyond offensive," Hennessy wrote. "I know that Floridians of all denominations would readily agree with me."

Terri Schiavo suffered a brain injury in 1990 as a result of oxygen deprivation to the brain. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, maintains that the injury was the result of heart failure. Terri's family believes Michael assaulted her and that the oxygen depravation was the result of strangulation. No criminal charges have been filed against Michael Schiavo, and police are not investigating the allegations, which his attorney has denied.

After winning a medical malpractice claim against Terri's doctor and receiving a cash award, Michael Schiavo suspended all but subsistence care for his wife and petitioned the Pinellas County Circuit Court to allow him to stop providing her nutrition and hydration through a "feeding tube." Terri's parents, siblings and friends have been fighting in court to save her life.

What bothers Terri Schiavo's supporters most about the bishops' choice to defend Hill, Hennessy explained, is their apparent decision to ignore settled Catholic doctrine on more than one issue in Terri's case.

"It is extremely troublesome to me that a Catholic woman, Terri Schiavo, would not be the first priority of the Florida bishops for the promotion of their belief that life is sacred," Hennessy wrote. "It is further troublesome that these same bishops have not vigorously defended the Pope's position on euthanasia and their own Catholic teachings on adultery. (Mr. Schiavo has fathered a child with his present girl friend, though he is still married to Terri.)"

Sheila Hopkins, an associate for social concerns with the Florida Catholic Conference, said Monday afternoon that the decision to issue the statement concerning Paul Hill's impending execution was purely coincidental to any of the events in Terri Schiavo's ongoing struggle.

"Normally, we only [issue a press release] a couple of days before the execution. Because of the intensity of the media on the Paul Hill case, because it involves the fact that he had killed an abortionist, that generated a lot of media coverage," Hopkins said. "So, it was strictly by coincidence that this was released on the same day as the end of the order for Terri Schiavo."

Hopkins stressed that the Florida bishops were not trying to give the impression that one human life has more value than another.

"It certainly doesn't mean the bishops are saying that Paul Hill is more important than Terri Schiavo because, certainly, we're concerned about both cases," Hopkins explained. "All people are made in the image and likeness of God, whether it's an unborn baby, a person on death row or somebody who is incapacitated as Terri is; certainly, we're concerned about all of these people."

Bishops discuss 'dignity of human life' and 'unequivocally condemn' murder

The Florida Catholic Conference statement condemned convicted murderer Paul Hill's actions but said: "When society can be kept safe from criminals, we should not execute them."

"[Hill's] brutal murders of Dr. John Britton and Lt. Col. James Barrett outside of an abortion clinic were an unjustifiable attack on human life, and we unequivocally condemn and renounce his actions," the bishops wrote.

Hennessy pointed out what she believes is, at the very least, an incongruity between the bishops' limited defense of Hill and their silence in Terri Schiavo's case.

"In the interest of consistency, I would think the Florida bishops would also unequivocally condemn and renounce the actions of Michael Schiavo pursuing the death of his own wife through the Florida courts," Hennessy wrote

In explanation for their position on the Hill execution, the bishops cite the intrinsic value of human life.

"[Hill's] execution will further desensitize society's understanding of the sacredness of all human life," the bishops wrote. "The dignity of human life can never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Regardless of Paul Hill's actions, we must learn to respect every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others."

Again, Hennessy sees a lack of consistency on the part of the bishops.

"I assume the 'dignity of human life' applies to people who have not done evil as well, correct?" Hennessy asked.

But what seemed, to Hennessy, to be the greatest contradiction is the treatment Paul Hill can expect to receive if his sentence is commuted, compared to what Terri Schiavo will endure if her "sentence" is carried out.

"During this proposed life sentence in prison, Mr. Hill will be provided food, water and proper care and therapy for any medical condition or ailment he may develop," Hennessy observed. "Conversely, Ms. Schiavo will have food and water withheld in order to cause her death, and she has been denied proper care and therapy to address her medical needs."

Hennessy added that, if the bishops can put forth the effort to issue a press release begging for Paul Hill's life, they could at least do the same for Terri Schiavo.

"I would think it would be a small and easy task for the Florida bishops to make a public statement condemning the imminent starvation and dehydration death of Terri Schiavo, a disabled woman, at the hands of her husband and the Florida courts," Hennessy added.

Supporters also upset over scheduling of 'death date' hearing

Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer late Friday set the date for what Terri Schiavo's supporters are calling her "death hearing." The date Greer chose for that proceeding, Sept. 11, 2003, has many of the Schindler family's friends upset.

"We know that there's going to be much about the tragedy in this country, and all media and all news and all press will be focused on that to where Terri's story and her plight may not get the attention it deserves," Hennessy said.

See Earlier Stories:
Woman at Center of Fla. Euthanasia Case Hospitalized
(Aug. 15, 2003)
Bishop: Family Should Be Allowed to Help Disabled Daughter (Aug. 14, 2003)
Florida Bishops Accused of 'Deafening Silence' in Euthanasia Case (Aug. 7, 2003)
Florida Woman to Be Allowed to Die Despite Family's Wishes (Aug. 5, 2003)

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