Matt C. Abbott
December 4, 2008
Priest (not ACLU) criticizes Nativity Scene display
By Matt C. Abbott

How's this for the weekly "Say what?!"

The criticism of the first-ever Nativity Scene display in the Illinois state capitol building comes not from the ACLU, but from Father Kevin Laughery, of the Springfield, Ill., Catholic diocese.

Father Laughery is quoted in a story on Illinoishomepage.net as saying, "It could appear to be an endorsement of a particular religion which I think moves closer towards establishment."

The story also reports: "Laughery thinks all religious symbols should be kept out of public buildings, even if they're paid for using private funds like the nativity scene [sic]."

Dan Zanoza, chairman of the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee, made the following comments regarding this historical event:

    'First of all, I would like to thank everyone who helped make the SNS and its unveiling ceremony a tremendous success. Everyone I spoke with said the Nativity Scene was beautiful. The combined choirs of St. Alexander's Catholic Church gave an outstanding performance which sounded even better during the television coverage.

    'The media coverage was outstanding. There were reporters and journalists from all the major networks in central Illinois ABC, CBS and NBC and the print media, including the Associated Press and a number of central Illinois radio stations, covered the event as well. The only disappointment was that the media outnumbered guests. That should tell you how many members of the press were there.

    'The Nativity Scene story was on all the major networks that cover central Illinois. The media was fair. Amazingly, the only on-air criticism our project received was from a Catholic priest, Father [Kevin] Laughery, of Holy Cross Catholic Church. His comments were immediately followed by a statement that the ACLU supported the Nativity Scene.

    'And here is a new development that shocked all of us attending. A spokesman for the Secretary of State's office asked members of the committee if it would be all right to move the Nativity Scene from an alcove to the center of the Rotunda space. The nativity scene will stand next to the 'holiday' tree. Praise God!

    'The committee's hope is that private citizens will be encouraged to sponsor Nativity Scenes on public property in their own communities. Thomas Brejcha, legal counsel to the committee, made this statement at the unveiling ceremony: 'Religious speech, and this is our main message today, is not disfavored in America; it is on equal terms with any other speech and the values behind our religious faith need desperately to be heard in our public square.''

Father Laughery has a controversial past, as illustrated in this 1999 Roman Catholic Faithful article (edited version below):

    'On Monday, August 23, 1999, several Catholic women from the Springfield, Ill., diocese were forced to dig through a trash dumpster to retrieve five United States Flags, Boy Scout flags, school books, crucifixes, rosaries, bibles, vestments, altar linens and other religious items that had been thrown out by the Sacred Heart pastor, Father Kevin Laughery.

    'Also found in the dumpster was a small sterling silver cylinder with ornate writing and designs on its top and sides. This turned out to be what priests refer to as an 'oil stock.' On Holy Thursday, the bishop blesses three forms of oil which are used for various sacraments and liturgical events (for example, the oil of the sick which is used in the Sacrament of Anointing). Another oil is used for the administration of Baptism and the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is called 'Chrism.'

    'These oils are considered blessed and are so important that each parish must send a personal representative to the 'Chrism Mass' on Holy Thursday to personally bring them back. The oil stock thrown in the dumpster was clearly marked 'O.C.,' meaning it contained sacred Chrism, and in fact, on opening it, the Chrism was still inside. The Chrism should have been either poured into the sacrarium in the Church (a receptacle with a pipe leading into the earth and not into the sewer), or it should be poured into the earth and covered. Or it may be burned but never simply thrown into a dumpster to be taken out with the garbage!

    'The prior week Laughery had the dumpster delivered to Sacred Heart and notified parishioners that the basement at the church would be cleaned out. While a select few were allowed to take certain items others were denied access. Rose Hassiepen, a Springfield resident and a member of Sacred Heart parish for more then 70 years stated: 'It is a sad day when parish members are forced to dig through garbage to retrieve religious items we helped pay for. It is heartbreaking.'

    'Pam Bultmann, of Petersburg, a longtime member of Sacred Heart, contacted Father Laughery's office to see if he would donate these items to Mary Immaculate Academy (a new school forming in Petersburg) rather then throw them away. According to Mrs. Bultmann, Father's secretary said he would not allow it.

    'Born July 8, 1957 in Decatur, Ill., and ordained May 28, 1983, Father Laughery was installed as pastor of Sacred Heart and St. Patrick's parishes in Springfield, Ill., on July 21, 1998.

    'Sacred Heart parish had been one of the last parishes in Springfield where a Communion rail that was still in use could be found. Lines for confessions were long and the rosary was still a part of Church tradition at the parish. Many orthodox Catholics of the Springfield area had migrated to Sacred Heart after other parishes in the area had been 'gutted' by renovation. According to some parish members, that all changed when Laughery came to town.

    'On New Year's Eve 1998, Father Laughery, with the help of his parents, removed the Communion rail at Sacred Heart. The congregation, for the most part, was devastated. In the January 16, 1999 bulletin, Father Laughery stated:

    'It was time. The new look brings an openness to the approach to the altar, and a sense of inclusiveness for the congregation in the celebration of the Mass. Without the Communion rail, communicants are now urged to stand to receive the Eucharist, a posture of respect that is just as appropriate as kneeling.'

    'About the same time Father Laughery removed the Communion rail, he was receiving some recognition from a Florida newspaper. According to the Palm Beach Post newspaper reports from December 24 and 25, 1998, and January 10, 1999, two students from Palm Beach Community College became concerned when they found out that their horticulture teacher, Walter Weerts, at times had a live-in 8-year-old 'adopted grandchild' he called 'Manny,' and heard that Weerts and the child shared the same bed.

    'An Internet search by the students revealed that Father Weerts was a convicted child molester, a pedophile Catholic priest, from the Springfield, Ill., diocese. In 1986, Weerts was sentenced to six years in an Illinois state prison after pleading guilty to three counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving boys between the ages of 12 and 16. Weerts pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, and the victims' lawsuit, which blamed the diocese for not preventing the abuse, was settled for an undisclosed amount.

    'Palm Beach Community College, which sought to hire Weerts (after he was released from prison) contacted Father Laughery for a recommendation and received what was later described as a 'glowing reference' from Laughery, Weerts' former superior, who explained Weerts' departure from the diocese as a 'change of career.'

    'Laughery acknowledged he did not disclose Weerts' crimes, though he knew about them. 'I answered the questions I was asked,' Laughery said. 'At that point, I was wishing what was best for him.'

    'According to a Palm Beach Post story of 12/24/98, former Illinois State's Attorney Thomas Leeper, who prosecuted the case, said he 'submitted a 225-page report prepared by investigators that concluded Weerts had been sexually involved with boys for as long as eighteen years and that Church officials knew of his problem but repeatedly reassigned him to other parishes.'

    'The three boys, at least one of whom was an altar boy, filed a civil suit against the Diocese of Springfield and won a seven-figure settlement before the civil case went to trial, said their attorney, Stephen Tillery, of Bellville. 'It was a very substantial settlement that by order cannot be disclosed,' Tillery said. 'The destruction this man caused was horrible. One of the three boys is damaged beyond repair. The toll on the families was devastating. It's outrageous that Weerts would ever be able to work with children again,' Tillery said....'

To see video footage of the nativity scene's debut, click on this link.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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