Karen Clifton is the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a Washington, DC, based Catholic group that seeks to apply the Catholic Church’s pro-life mission to the abolition of the death penalty in the US.

Michael O’Loughlin: Your group, Catholic Mobilizing Network, fights to end the use of the death penalty. How does this fit in to the Catholic Church’s very active pro-life movement?

Karen Clifton leads a Catholic group fighting to abolish the death penalty.

Karen Clifton leads a Catholic group fighting to abolish the death penalty.

Karen Clifton: The death penalty is a pro-life issue. By educating Catholics on the death penalty, we close the loopholes on all of the life issues. If we can come to believe that those who have done heinous crimes have the right to life and redemption, it is logical to believe the innocent have a right to life. Abolishing the death penalty is a means of changing the mindset of our culture from using violence to solve problems.

MO: Federal authorities may seek the death penalty against the alleged Boston marathon bomber, accused of killing 4, including a child, and injuring hundreds. Why should this person, and those who commit heinous crimes, be spared?

KC: Putting the Boston marathon bomber to death is not going to bring any of the four people who were sadly killed back to life. Two wrongs are not going to make a right, and using the death penalty just increase the violence. His death would just teach that killing justifies killing. Another way to think about it is, how does killing someone show that killing others is wrong? As a Catholic, I believe in redemption, which is all in God’s time.

MO: You’re from Texas, home of what the New York Times called America’s busiest death chamber. What was it like fighting the death penalty there?

KC: It feels like you are invisible. The executions were on the newspaper’s back page when I lived in Texas, and they were never discussed. It was as if they weren’t happening at all. The good works of many, including attorneys, students, and religious, are raising their voices to make the facts and moral issues known. Texas can always surprise you.

MO: Your group works with Sr. Helen Prejean, made famous for her anti-death penalty work in the movie ‘Dead Man Walking.’ What impact has she, and the film, had on America’s attitudes toward capital punishment?

KC: ‘Dead Man Walking’ was the perfect example of how film, theatrical performances and media can educate people about issues. Often, people don’t think about the death penalty unless it touches your family or someone you know. The book, which has many more facts, and the movie, which was beautifully written and acted, caught the nation’s attention. Other movies have done the same for mental illness, poverty, and racism, which are all issues that come to play in the death penalty. We need more movies that educate people about the realities that exist.

MO: In addition to fighting against capital punishment, you promote restorative justice. What’s the goal of restorative justice?

KC: Restorative Justice asks us to consider how we achieve justice and promote healing of the victim, the perpetrator, and the whole community. It’s not an easy out for the perpetrators; it’s actually more difficult. The offender has to recognize what they have done, own their actions, and then work to restore the harm they have caused. Through our retributive system of justice, all is focused on the offender. We need a system that gives the victim a voice, as well as the means to heal. The death penalty has proven not to be a source of healing, but a system that re-victimizes the victim’s family for many, many years.

MO:  What’s more effective in converting people to your cause, moral arguments or economic ones?

KC: Depends on the audience. I would say initially, the economic arguments are more effective. People have usually not thought about the death penalty and often they don’t know the facts. If you give them the facts about cost, then they are often open to hearing the moral arguments as well. They often don’t know that execution can cost three times more than a life sentence in the highest level security prison, that poverty plays a major role in who gets the death penalty, as people with money do not sit on death row, that it’s racially biased, that one-third of all executions come from only 15 counties in the US, that there is a high probability of executing an innocent person. Once people hear this, they are open to hearing the moral arguments about a flawed system playing God, the lack of redemption, and the dignity of human life.

MO: A majority of Hispanics in the US supports the death penalty, despite the overrepresentation of Hispanics on death row compared to the population. Why?

KC: Hispanics tend to be culturally pro-life, but Spanish-speaking Catholics usually come from countries that do not have the death penalty. When they arrive in this country, usually in the South, they try to assimilate into American culture.  They assume our values, which are predominately pro-death penalty. It is our job as Church to educate them that the death penalty is a pro-life issue and our laws are not always just.

Categories: Culture, Institutions, Politics

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin writes about religion and politics from Washington, D.C., paying close attention to the role of the Catholic Church in public life. His writing has appeared in Religion & Politics, the Jesuit magazine America, on BustedHalo.com, and in Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership.

6 Comments

  1. Catherine Burke

    As someone on the ‘outside’ of MURDER, this may be your view…

    WE DEMAND EQUAL JUSTICE be given to our mass murderer!

    I am the Victim of a mass murderous attempt in my HOME December 20, 2011. My 18 year old daughter Saskia was butchered in front of us… My husband and another child were stabbed as we fought with this MURDERER who brought with him an entire duffel bag FULL OF KNIVES with which to slaughter all of us! My 13 year old daughter watched all this happen…

    Since his arrest, as we now await trial, HE CALLS THE HOUSE TO TERRORIZE US from jail… He is part of an organization of SUPREME RACISTS, and they continually pursue in their blogs and magazines “Our Families Annihilation”.

    And as our MURDERER planned and practiced for his attack for almost 1 year BEFORE he came to KILL US ALL? In our ‘overly lenient’ justice system, if he is not put to death he could one day GET OUT of Prison… And come to FINISH WHAT HE STARTED!

    We VICTIMS deserve to be finally FREE of this monster. My 13 year old daughter does NOT deserve a life FILLED WITH FEAR for her future…

    WE VICTIMS DEMAND EQUAL JUSTICE.
    Catherine Burke
    California

  2. Catherine Burke

    I REFUSE to let anyone tell me what to think or how to feel! I CAN ONLY HONOR MY DAUGHTER, SASKIA SAVANA BURKE – in DEMANDING the monster who so BRUTALLY TOOK HER LIFE – PAY WITH HIS! Saskia LOVED her family, loved her LIFE – and she would NEVER FORGIVE WILLIAM GARY SIMPSON FOR WHAT HE DID! NOT EVER! To honor Saskia and HOW MUCH SHE LOVED LIVING – I will NEVER FEAR DEMANDING WILLIAM GARY SIMPSON’S DEATH!

    2010 – In Saskia Burke’s own words:

    ” I value my happiness. I value how happy and content I am with my life. I value the memories that have made my life as happy as it is. I value my friends and family who make me happy and share my happiness with me. I value all the things that make me happy, like fun and relationships, but what I value most is the fact that I am happy because there are so many people who are not that lucky. I value my happiness the most because the friends and items that you have may change, and circumstances may change, but the fact that
    I AM HAPPY WITH WHAT I HAVE
    AND WHO I AM – 

    IS THE MOST PRECIOUS GIFT
    THAT I COULD EVER BE GIVEN!”

    Having Saskia in our lives, and being a “complete” family was OUR MOST PRECIOUS GIFT, and truly made us happy! And inside this box Simpson has placed us in – of horror and terror, misery and pain, hopelessness and injustice, there simply “is” NO happiness, EVER!

    Saskia Burke’s words of how SHE feels:
    “ I could never forgive someone for taking away my rights, my home, my friends and my life! If things like this happened to me I would be resentful, rather than forgiving. I just couldn’t forgive the people who were so prejudiced that they made me lose my best friends, and school. Just the thought of losing them brings tears to my eyes. I couldn’t forgive the people who took away my parents rights as citizens. I couldn’t forgive the people who restricted my loved ones from doing the things they love. I couldn’t forgive those who made me leave my home. I wouldn’t be able to forgive them for MAKING ME SO SCARED OF THEM, I FROZE WITH FEAR EVERY TIME I HEARD A SOUND!”

    Saskia’s thoughts, written just weeks before her murder, for an essay on Anne Frank. “Thinking that Anne forgave them for all that, is unbelievably saintly. Even though Anne was just a regular girl like me, she was more remarkable than anyone I have ever heard of! I wouldn’t be as forgiving and naïve. I would be resentful, for being so wronged!” I ran across this open page, sitting in her room amongst her unfinished homework. SASKIA’S THOUGHTS, about an unspeakable horror and injustice. SASKIA’S WORDS, that speak directly to William Gary Simpson, Saskia’s “NAZI”!

    Our legal system is a cruel and sick JOKE. Ours is a case of “PLANNED MURDER”, by someone we’ve known for over 10 YEARS – and as we fought with him for OUR lives we KNOW IT WAS WILLIAM GARY SIMPSON who MURDERED OUR SASKIA and ATTACKED US, with MORE THAN ENOUGH DNA EVIDENCE AT THE CRIME SCENE… Yet, we’re still waiting two years later for the “trial”, as his lawyers put together his “INSANITY DEFENSE” to PROTECT HIM from the Death Penalty that HE HAS IMPOSED UPON US!

    As a VICTIM of attempted MASS MURDER, and the Mother of a MURDERED CHILD – I say it loud and clear to the world:
    I DEMAND THE DEATH PENALTY BE GIVEN TO THIS MURDEROUS MONSTER, WILLIAM GARY SIMPSON!

    NOTHING LESS IS ACCEPTABLE!!!

  3. Kristin Froehlich

    Catherine, I am so so sorry for your loss. Your experience sounds so terrible. I, too, suffered the loss of a family member during a mass murder. 18 years later, I am still in the process of healing. I can certainly understand why you would want to end the fear that your family continues to suffer. The case of my brother’s killer started as a death penalty case, but the death penalty was dropped during the trial. I’ve come to the conclusion that the death penalty is a false promise for family members of murder victims. I will pray for a speedy resolution to the legal wrangling that is so maddening. I will pray for safety and healing for you and your family. Peace to you. Kristin

    • Kristin, I once read an article about you. I am so very sorry for your loss. I believe that it is wonderful that you are doing work in the field of helping others who have similar devastating memories as yourself. God bless.

  4. I believe that Karen is turning her back on God’s word.

    Helen Prejean has been quoted as saying the more she works on the issue of the death penalty, the less she relies on the Bible. Of course she must say this because the Bible completely supports Capital punishment.

    St. Alphonsus Ligouri – Doctor of Moral theologians
    “It is lawful to put a man to death by public authority: it is even a duty of princes and judges to condemn to death criminals who deserve it: and it is the duty of the officers of justice to execute the sentence; God himslef wished malefactors to be punished.”

    Karen is not promoting Catholic truth but liberalism. She doesn’t realize her work is evil. Read this interview carefully and then read the Bible. They are complete opposites. There is NO “restorative justice” in the Bible.
    Every Saint of the Catholic church who has written on Capital punishment has supported it.

    The Rev. Billy Graham has said, “God could not remain a righteous God and compromise with sin. His holiness and His justice demands the death penalty.

    • MM,
      Thank you. I read Evangelium Vitae by John Paul II. The death penalty parts would get a D from a demanding professor in a good college because John Paul four times quotes Gen.9:5-6 but each time hides from view the death penalty parts of the passage. Then he never cites and faces Romans 13:4 which was pivotal onthe passage for centuries. Instead he quotes the catechism which is written by Cardinals at the Vatican. The catechism implies that life sentences now protect perfectly without that anonymous Cardinal ever dealing with murder arrest rates….ie 62% in the US and 5% in Guatemala. How is the life sentence of 5% of Guatemala’s murderers protecting society. It’s not. Deterrence is not addressed by the catechism nor are arrest rates nor are the deterrence studies done in the US by economists using regression analysis cited. Power means you don’t have to be rational…exactly what Pope Benedict lectured the Muslims on at Regensberg but failed to see in the Catholic system whereby neither Popes nor Cardinals at the CDF have to undergo peer review or interface debate when they venture into sociology or penology. Popes on this issue have recently circumvented both tradition and Gen.9:5-6 and Romans 13:4 because they are trying to impress secular Europe into returning to the Church and secular Europe is “progressive” and thus anti death penalty.

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