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Monday, April 28, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Ben Stein's Selective Quoting of Darwin

One of the many egregious moments in the new Ben Stein anti-evolution film "Expelled" is the truncation of a quote from Charles Darwin so that it makes him appear to give philosophical ammunition to the Nazis. Steve Mirsky reports in the Scientific American's 60-Second Science podcast.

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Podcast Transcript:

This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. Hi, Steve Mirsky here. I’m going over our usual one minute. By now, you’ve probably heard of Expelled, the new Ben Stein anti-evolution crockumentary. It officially opens today as I speak, that’s April 18th. Because of my job, I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through this film twice now. As least I was getting paid. The film tries very hard to connect Darwin with the Holocaust.

Toward the end, Stein reads the following quote from the book Descent of Man: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

That’s the end of the quote. And when he finishes reading the quote, Ben Stein intones the guilty verdict by naming the source: Charles Darwin. Oh my, it sounds like Darwin actually did provide a rationale to the horrific practices of the Nazis.

Well, I’ve been covering the anti-evolution crowd for over 20 years. So I immediately suspected that the propaganda-makers had engaged in what’s called quote-mining—you examine the writings of somebody you want to smear and then selectively quote those portions that appear to make your point. I bet that whatever came immediately after the quoted portion would be something that Stein wouldn’t want you to hear. My research took all of about three minutes. I went to a full text of Descent of Man online and found the quoted passage. And then found the sentences that come right after where Stein stopped quoting.

So here’s Charles Darwin again, from Descent of Man: “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Leads to kind of the very opposite impression of Darwin that the filmmakers want you to take away. Mind you, none of this has anything to do with whether or not Darwin’s scientific findings were correct. They were. But Ben Stein and his cronies, in their selective use of passages written by a great man merely showed themselves to be so very small.

We have a package of coverage about Expelled and its misinformation at our website, Also check out a resource page put together by the National Center for Science Education, www. For Scientific American’s 60 Second Science, I’m Steve Mirsky.

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Saving lives is better than saying prayers

By Chuck Lunney

I’m sure that many readers have heard that Thursday is the National Day of Prayer. It’s supposed to be a day when believers of all faiths gather to kneel down and pray for healing, hope and peace (at least, I certainly hope that’s what most people would pray for).

I do appreciate the sentiment, and I know prayer makes those doing the praying feel better, but unfortunately prayer is one of the most objectively ineffective and useless forms of assistance. Other than making those doing the praying “feel better,” numerous studies have shown time and again that prayer fails to benefit those who are prayed for, and at best it is no better than a placebo. As an atheist, that just seems like a tremendous waste of time and personal effort, which I’d prefer to see spent in a more unselfish and demonstrably beneficial way.

For the last two years I’ve participated in the National Gift of Life Day (see, which is an organized effort to get atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers to donate blood. A single donation of whole blood is one of the most effective proven ways to save lives. It’s also a demonstration of selfless sacrifice and altruistic caring about the rest of humanity.

I don’t know who will receive the blood I donate — he or she could be black, white, Asian, gay, racist, Christian, Muslim or atheist — and I don’t care. I am willing to stand on my feet, giving freely and openly of my own flesh and blood to provide a direct and demonstrable part of myself for the benefit of others, as opposed to all those on their knees who are wasting their time doing something that benefits no one but themselves.

(I realize that there are some, for whatever reason, who cannot donate blood — sexual orientation, travel restrictions, disease history and so forth.)

For those who are unable to donate, there are many other things you can do Thursday to help — volunteer at a local blood center, encourage your friends, neighbors, co-workers and everyone else to donate, publicize the National Gift of Life Day on your blogs, your Web sites, your calendars and everywhere else. Don’t just sit around. Make a difference for the good of humanity.

Please, no matter what your beliefs or affiliations, do more than bend your knees in ineffective prayer. Open your hearts to allow the most effective and lifesaving thing you could possibly do — donate your blood to save lives.

Show the Kansas City area how ethical, caring and significant the atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and other nonbelievers can be. Donate and show everyone the way to effectively and rationally make a difference in the world.

Sunday, April 27, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Founder of Christian school solicits sex in exchange for diploma

The founder of a Christian school is confronted after 13 Undercover catches him soliciting sex from a parent, who's trying to get her daughter a high school diploma.

At graduation ceremonies he talks about God, but you'll hear the founder of a Houston-area Christian school not only talk about sex, but ask for it on tape.

It's the middle of the day when a white pickup truck pulls into the back of a motel on 1960. Then it goes to the very back to park for a long while. We already know who the driver is. His name is LaVern Jordan and he runs Parkway Christian School.

Dolcefino: "What were you doing there at the La Quinta."

Jordan: "I wasn't doing anything at the La Quinta sir."

Dolcefino: "Were you there?"

Jordan: "I was there."

Dolcefino: "What were you doing there?"

Jordan: "I was just driving around. Why?"

Of course when Mr. Jordan was parked all that time, we were undercover just a couple of cars away.

Dolcefino: "Were you going there to get lucky?"

Jordan: "No, absolutely not."

Dolcefino: "You weren't going there for sex?"

Jordan: "No."

The woman getting in Jordan's passenger seat is a parent who's been trying to get her 18 year daughter enrolled in Jordan's school.

"She hadn't passed the TAKS test and she hasn't got all her credits, that's the reason we are going to that school," the mother told us.

A fee to the school and some course work can get students a diploma without passing the required state test at Parkway Christian School, where the Web site boasts, "a program based on Christian character, morals, values and integrity."

Dolcefino: "How long were you talking to him before sex came into it?"

Mother: "No longer than five or ten minutes."

Dolcefino: "What were you thinking?"

Mother: "This man has got to be crazy."

Now back to Jordan.

Dolcefino: "There's no tape?"

Jordan: "Will you get out of my way please?"

Dolcefino: "There's no tape of you and this woman?"

Jordan: "No. Wayne will you please move? No."

Dolcefino: "Well, you're going to hear it."

And so are you.

Jordan on tape: "Do you have sexual relationships often anymore? Are you seeing a man now?"

Mother: "No. Nuh-uh."

Jordan had already promised to waive the $300 school enrollment fee for a much different kind of payment.

Jordan: "For the uh, enrollment fee and stuff like that, maybe you and I can do something, you think?"

Mother: "Yeah, what, I mean what, what, you gonna wipe out all the fees?"

Jordan: "All the enrollment fees."

Mother: "All the enrollment fees?"

Jordan: "Three hundred dollars."

Mother: "So you gonna wipe everything if me and you get together?"

Jordan: "The enrollment fee, yeah."

Mother: "Ok."

Jordan: "If you and I get together."

Mother: "What you mean? I mean, what?

Jordan: "Excuse me and I don't mean to be so blunt but I am talking about f------ you."

Mother: "You talking about what?"

Jordan: "F------ you."

"I couldn't believe someone was saying such things like that," the mother told us. "I couldn't believe it."

And the tape shows Jordan wasn't just talking about a one time thing.

Jordan: "For the $300 I would expect maybe we could get together several times, you think?"

Mother: "Several times, whatcha mean several times?"

Jordan: "Well I don't know, you might like whatcha getting."

Jordan was ready for action right then.

Jordan: "If you're not in like just a great big hurry, I know uh, of a place not too far that we can go and I can just do that we can just do some play around a little bit. Would you like that?"

Jordan: "We could go and we could do some t--ty play."

Jordan wanted to make sure no one else would know.

Jordan: "Nobody else will know nothing?"

Mother: "Nuh-uh."

Jordan: "Can I touch you?"

But our parent will make Mr. Jordan wait for his sexual rendezvous and this time she'll be carrying our hidden camera and microphone.

"I was meeting with him specifically for y'all to expose him to the world and to those parents sending their kids up there," the mother told us.

Thursday at 10pm, the rendezvous we caught on tape. You won't hear it anywhere else.



Saturday, April 26, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

The Darwin Online Project

About 90,000 pages of manuscripts, field notes, photographs and sketches connected with Charles Darwin are being placed online, where they can be viewed free. Among the gems are his first formulation of the theory of natural selection, his first written doubts that species were fixed and touching correspondence from his wife on religious faith.

The huge set of documents and images is part of the Darwin Online project, based in Cambridge, which claims to be the largest Darwin bibliography and manuscript catalogue created. Many of items were previously available only to scholars with access to the Cambridge University Library.

The project began in 2002 and this is the last major set of additions. Dr John van Wyhe, Darwin Online's director, said: "[The documents] have been known to scholars, but for the first time they are available to everyone for free online."

One set of pages that is likely to attract considerable interest is Darwin's scrawled first draft of his theory of evolution from 1842. The scribbled argument is crammed with afterthoughts, footnotes and crossed-out text. A transcript of the text has been published previously, but few will have seen the original facsimile of Darwin's unpolished thought process.

"There is a kind of fascination about it having all the original handwriting and the places where he was making changes and was struggling with issues," said Dr Paul White, part of the Darwin Correspondence Project, a separate effort to catalogue Darwin's letters.

The collection also touches on Darwin's views on religion. Although he shook the foundations of religious faith with his scientific work, scholars know only a limited amount about Darwin's personal views. In a memo written by his wife, Emma, in 1839, she expresses her concerns about Darwin's declining faith. "May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way?" she wrote.



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Soldier sues army, saying his atheism led to threats

FORT RILEY, Kan. — When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.

But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them, according to the statement.

Last month, Specialist Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, filed suit in federal court in Kansas, alleging that Specialist Hall’s right to be free from state endorsement of religion under the First Amendment had been violated and that he had faced retaliation for his views. In November, he was sent home early from Iraq because of threats from fellow soldiers.

Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, declined to comment on the case, saying, “The department does not discuss pending litigation.”

Specialist Hall’s lawsuit is the latest incident to raise questions about the military’s religion guidelines. In 2005, the Air Force issued new regulations in response to complaints from cadets at the Air Force Academy that evangelical Christian officers used their positions to proselytize. In general, the armed forces have regulations, Ms. Lainez said, that respect “the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs.”

To Specialist Hall and other critics of the military, the guidelines have done little to change a culture they say tilts heavily toward evangelical Christianity. Controversies have continued to flare, largely over tactics used by evangelicals to promote their faith. Perhaps the most high-profile incident involved seven officers, including four generals, who appeared, in uniform and in violation of military regulations, in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group.

“They don’t trust you because they think you are unreliable and might break, since you don’t have God to rely on,” Specialist Hall said of those who proselytize in the military. “The message is, ‘It’s a Christian nation, and you need to recognize that.’ ”

Soft-spoken and younger looking than his 23 years, Specialist Hall began a chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit, to support others like him.

At the July meeting, Major Welborn told the soldiers they had disgraced those who had died for the Constitution, Specialist Hall said. When he finished, Major Welborn said, according to the statement: “I love you guys; I just want the best for you. One day you will see the truth and know what I mean.”

Major Welborn declined to comment beyond saying, “I’d love to tell my side of the story because it’s such a false story.”

But Timothy Feary, the other soldier at the meeting, said in an e-mail message: “Jeremy is telling the truth. I was there and witnessed everything.”

It is unclear how widespread religious discrimination or proselytizing is in the armed forces, constitutional law experts and leaders of veterans’ groups said. No one has independently studied the issue, and service members are reluctant to come forward because of possible backlash, those experts said.

There are 1.36 million active duty service members, according to the Pentagon, and since 2005, it has received 50 formal complaints of religious discrimination, Ms. Lainez said.

In an e-mail statement, Bill Carr, the Defense Department’s deputy under secretary for military personnel policy, said he “saw near universal compliance with the department’s policy.”

But Mikey Weinstein, a retired Air Force judge advocate general and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the official statistics masked the great number of those who do not report violations for fear of retribution. Since the Air Force Academy scandal began in 2004, Mr. Weinstein said, he has been contacted by more than 5,500 service members and, occasionally, military families about incidents of religious discrimination. He said 96 percent of the complainants were Christians, and the majority of those were Protestants.

Complaints include prayers “in Jesus’ name” at mandatory functions, which violates military regulations, and officers proselytizing subordinates to be “born again.” After getting the complainants’ unit and command information, Mr. Weinstein said, he calls his contacts in the military to try to correct the situation.

“Religion is inextricably intertwined with their jobs,” Mr. Weinstein said. “You’re promoted by who you pray with.”

Specialist Hall came to atheism after years as a Christian. He was raised Baptist by his grandmother in Richlands, N.C., a town of less than 1,000 people. She read the Bible to him every night, and he said he joined the Army “to make something of myself.”

“I thought going to Iraq was right because we had God on our side,” he said in an interview near Fort Riley.

In the summer of 2005, after his first deployment to Iraq, Specialist Hall became friends with soldiers with atheist leanings. Their questions about faith prompted him to read the Bible more closely, which bred doubts that deepened over time.

“There are so many religions in the world,” he said. “Everyone thinks he’s right. Who is right? Even people who are Christians think other Christians are wrong.”

Specialist Hall said he did not advertise his atheism. But his views became apparent during his second deployment in 2006. At a Thanksgiving meal, someone at his table asked everyone to pray. Specialist Hall did not join in, explaining to a sergeant that he did not believe in God. The sergeant got angry, he said, and told him to go to another table.

After his run-in with Major Welborn, Specialist Hall did not file a complaint with the Army’s Equal Opportunity Office because, he said, he was mistrustful of his superior officers. Instead, he told leaders of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, who put him in touch with Mr. Weinstein. In November 2007, Specialist Hall was sent home early from Iraq after being repeatedly threatened by other soldiers. “I caution you that although your ‘legal’ issues are yours and yours alone, I have heard many people disagree with you, and this may be a cause for some of the perceived threats,” wrote Sgt. Maj. Kevin Nolan in Specialist Hall’s counseling for his departure.

Though with a different unit now at Fort Riley, Specialist Hall said the backlash had continued. He has a no-contact order with a sergeant who, without provocation, threatened to “bust him in the mouth.” Another sergeant allegedly told Specialist Hall that as an atheist, he was not entitled to religious freedom because he had no religion.

Responding to questions about Specialist Hall’s experience at Fort Riley, the staff judge advocate, Col. Arnold Scott, said in an e-mail message, “In accordance with Army policy, Fort Riley is committed to ensuring the rights of all its soldiers are protected, including those of Specialist Hall.”

Civilian courts in the past have been reluctant to take on military cases, and the Justice Department has yet to respond to Specialist Hall’s lawsuit.

“Even if it doesn’t go through, I stood up,” Specialist Hall said. “I don’t think it is futile.”


Sunday, April 20, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor found guilty of abuse

Twelve criminal convictions for abusing members of his former flock hit ex-Baptist pastor Royden Wood of London Ontario like a shot to the gut.

"Needless to say, we're stunned," Wood, 57, former senior pastor of the now-defunct Ambassador Baptist Church, said on the steps of the London courthouse yesterday, his wife Linda at his side.

"For those who wanted revenge, may they be blessed in their revenge," he added.

Superior Court Justice Lynda Templeton ruled yesterday Wood was guilty of 12 of 13 charges. They included nine involving physical assaults on three boys, members of the conservative church's alternative school from 1985 to 1987, and three sex-related charges involving two female congregants.

The decision came after a bizarre trial in which the former church leader defended himself without a lawyer.

Asked outside court if he thought he was guilty, Wood replied "I absolutely do not."

"Once they get a roll on, you know, some people have to hurt people," he said.

The trial sometimes appeared to take on the feeling of an investigation on what was happening inside the church at Adelaide and King streets.

"It is Mr. Wood on trial, not the Ambassador Baptist Church, notwithstanding to some, the two entities may have seemed to be one in the same," Templeton said in her decision.

Templeton said she didn't believe Wood's denial that he pulled the bra up over a teen's breasts twice, or grabbed the breast of another woman and commented on its size.

And she said she didn't believe Wood when he said the physical assaults on the boys were merely horseplay and part of a program to teach self-control and discipline.

She called the program "behaviour modification through violence" that was "both shocking and criminal."

"I fail to understand how any method of treating a child akin to a punching bag can, in any way, be interpreted as reasonable in the process of enhancing the child's self control and self esteem," she said.

Now men, the boys -- Richard Howell, 34, Norman Howell, 36, and John Milonas, 35, -- were 12 to 14 when the "self-control program" started.

They described running around the block numerous times, and standing at attention for hours at the school.

Most alarming were the descriptions of having hair pulled out of their upper lips with pliers, the use of knuckles, then pliers, to endlessly tap on their shoulder blades, hits to the solar plexus, arm locks and the "basement treatment" -- punches to the stomach.

Templeton said she believed them and rejected Wood's assertion it was "a program of discipleship not discipline," similar to military or football training.

"This was not a game, this was not a sport," she said.

Wood was acquitted of a charge of assault on Richard Howell with a belt.

Templeton said Wood was teaching the boys a lesson "about his authority, power and control" rather than "the benefits of self-control."

When reviewing the sexual charges, Templeton said there was unusual behaviour at the church among young women who undid each other's bras and grabbed each other in play with what was called the "Ambassador handshake."

Templeton noted the testimony of one woman who said Wood "always made light of breasts" and wanted girls to know their breasts "were not taboo."

Wood flatly denied touching the women.

"I do not believe Mr. Wood," Templeton said.

Richard Howell, speaking for all three men, said they were "extremely happy" and "greatly thankful" for Templeton's decision.

"Having a family of five myself, what he's done is absolutely wrong. I would never in no way harm my kids in the way he harmed myself."

Lead London police investigator Cons. Glenn Hadley said the trial was stressful for the witnesses.

"At the end of the day, they were very satisfied with the outcome and there is going to be a lot of weight off their shoulders now," he said.

Wood said he never thought he was breaking the law, and that money and lawsuits motivated the charges.

"It's behaviour that I don't understand. I guess maybe lawsuit money means that much to people," he said.

And plucking hairs out of a lip, he said, is no big deal. Women do it "all the time."

"I guess every adult now can't horse around with anybody under 14 unless they have a written statement or something. I don't know what else to say," he said.

Wood said he had no regrets representing himself because a defence lawyer would have cost him $100,000 to $150,000 and wiped him out financially.

But members of the church said Wood re-mortgaged a house the church owned for $100,000 and the church was paying the mortgage until it closed last fall.

Wood has no plans to appeal. "I'm just going to take my lumps," he said. "If they send me to jail, great I'll rest."

Wood said he's "struggling very badly with depression" and won't be able to work unless a new medication is found. "So none of this hurts me much anyway," he said.

Wood is to be sentenced June 13.


Saturday, April 19, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Youth pastor convicted for soliciting sex from a minor

The jury in the Troy Deal online predator case began to hear the words on Wednesday.

For several hours, Calhoun County Circuit Court jurors heard explicit testimony from transcripts which prosecutors allege were from conversations between Deal, 35, of Battle Creek, and people he believed were 14-year-old girls.

The girls were actually undercover officers from the Office of the Michigan Attorney General and the Wayne County Sheriff Department.

Over several months before he was arrested in July, Deal allegedly used his computer to suggest performing various acts with the young girls, including threesome sex, bondage and submission.

"I like a slut to do what she is told and like doing it," Deal wrote on April 10, 2007, according to James May, an agent for the AG's office. "Do you like being collared. You will be my submissive slut. I will just call you slut until you earn another name."

Deal, at the time of his July arrest, was the director of youth ministries at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Battle Creek. He is charged with 11 counts of using a computer to solicit a child for sexually abusive activity, distributing sexually abusive material and communicating with a child for immoral purposes. If convicted he faces up to 20 years in prison.

May and two other investigators corresponded for months with someone who used the computer identification CZAR401.

May, the first witness called in the prosecution case, testified he followed records from Yahoo and Comcast and determined Deal was chatting on a laptop computer at the church. May also testified he found on Deal's computer the non-pornographic pictures of young girls the officers had used as part of their personas and sent to CZAR401.

Testimony, including cross examination of May by Defense Attorney Susan Mladenoff, continues today before Circuit Judge Stephen Miller.

Assistant AG Kelly Carter told the jury in her opening statement that Deal solicited the undercover agents, thinking they were young girls, for sexual acts.

"It was the nature of the communication that gives rise to the criminal case," Carter said.

But Mladenoff told the jurors "you cannot punish the words alone. He was not looking for younger girls and had no interest to do anything with underage minors."

In the transcripts read by May, Deal describes several types of sexual acts he wanted to perform.

"I want to see a pic(ture) of you," he wrote. "I want to have my way with you," suggesting in other messages that they have intercourse, and oral and anal sex.

"I would love for you to bring a friend," he wrote later. "Would you like to try another girl?"

May said after Deal was arrested, he admitted he wrote the chats but never tried to meet one of the girls.

"I am not that stupid," he told May.

Sunday, April 06, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Representative tries to put the fear of God in atheist

Did you hear about the state legislator who last week blasted a Lutheran minister during a committee hearing for spewing dangerous religious superstitions, and then attempted to order the minister out of the witness chair on the grounds that his Christian beliefs are "destroying what this state was built upon?"

Of course you didn't, because it didn't happen and would never happen. Not to a Christian, not to a Jew, not to a Muslim or to anyone who subscribes to any faith.

Such an attack would rightly be considered scandalously out of bounds in contemporary society.

But you probably also didn't hear about what actually did happen:

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony Wednesday afternoon before the House State Government Administration Committee in Springfield and told him, "What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!

"This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God," Davis said. "Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon."

Apparently it's still open season on some views of God.

Outside of the Chicago Tribune story below, which posted a transcript and the audio, Davis' repellent, un-American outburst received no attention whatsoever.


Rep. Monique Davis to atheist Rob Sherman: `It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!'

The following exchange between atheist activist Rob Sherman of Buffalo Grove and Ill. Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) took place Wednesday afternoon in the General Assembly as Sherman testified before the House State Government Administration Committee.

I know from experience that many of you will side with Davis (update -- apparently I was wrong! ), but I ask you to consider what the outcry would have been if a lawmaker had launched a similar attack on the beliefs of a religious person.

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy -- it’s tragic -- when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.

I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court---

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

Sherman didn't budge, continued his testimony related to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's oddly misdirected $1 million grant intended for Pilgrim Baptist Church, (story) and later told me he "felt like Rosa Parks."

Here is the audio, courtesy of the Illinois Information Service.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

In reason we trust

By: Sajia Hall

As an organizing member of AHA, the UW-Madison organization for Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, Nick Jikomes hears arguments against atheism all the time. One of the most common is that atheism requires belief and is therefore a religion.

Jikomes, however, has an answer. “There’s a common witticism that saying atheism is a religion is like saying bald is a hair color,” he said. “What people often mean by that is that atheism requires faith, which is just not the case. Atheists believe in reasoned arguments, and evidence is our basis for establishing whether something exists.”

Jikomes, a second-year genetics major, regularly organizes meetings and lectures on atheism-related topics. “I can’t be 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist—to say so would be absurd, because you can’t disprove anything with absolute certainty,” he said. “I can’t disprove the Christian, Muslim or Hindu gods. I can’t disprove the Roman or Greek gods, or even the Smurfs. But it doesn’t take a leap of faith to deny the existence of such things.”

Be fruitful and multiply

Atheists and agnostics are a significant—and growing—section of the population. In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey found that 14 percent of the U.S. population indentified as having no religion, which is nearly double from 8 percent in 1990. For young adults between the ages of 18 and 29, that number increases to 35 percent.

These numbers are no surprise to Annie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison-based association representing over 12,000 atheists and agnostics. “This new generation is much less religious than previous ones,” Gaylor said. “We’re very pleased about that, it’s a good sign.”

Likewise, AHA serves an important function on campus for both non-religious students and people questioning their faith.

“We get a lot of people who just aren’t quite sure where they stand, or religious people who want to hear different viewpoints. It’s not an exclusive group,” Jikomes said. “AHA is important because most non-religious students grew up in religious households, and before college, never had a place where they could go and discuss [such] things. In AHA you can hear views and discuss things you might never have been able to.”

Andrew Wier, a second-year law student and a leading member of the Christian legal society, believes that having AHA on campus is a good thing.

“Any people have the right to organize. I think it’s great that we have a country where people can get together and discuss things,” Wier said. “I disagree with them fundamentally when it comes to religion, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have some great friendships and discussions.”

However, according to Jikomes, it’s not always easy being an atheist. Despite the growing numbers of non-religious people, misconceptions and stereotypes linger. “It’s a common misconception that atheists are hedonistic nihilists, who are bitter and unhappy people,” he said. “Many would say that we are inherently immoral, which is not true.” Another common misconception about atheism is that atheists have extreme left-wing political views.

“Being a non-religious person doesn’t necessarily entail a political stance,” Jikomes said. “Prominent atheists, both liberal and conservative, have been supporters of the [Iraq] War.” Nevertheless, the Pew Forum, an organization which studies religion and public affairs in the United States, found that people who identify as having no religion are more likely to belong to the Democratic Party.

Not just for the left

One reason for this political persuasion is that atheism is closely related to secularism, the belief that government institutions should be separate from religious beliefs.

“People are free to believe whatever they want,” Jikomes said. “The problem is when they apply their religious beliefs to society at large. This is the reason the Constitution says that Congress shall make no law affirming or denying religion. We don’t make laws in our modern society based on religious belief.”

Wier disagrees. “If you believe that religious beliefs should not be present in government then you reject a great deal of morals. I think that’s a double standard, that one person’s worldview would be more acceptable than others’ as the basis of laws.”

Wier is not alone in this perspective; according to the American Religious Identification Survey, 75 percent of American adults describe their views as religious, while 16 percent identify as secular.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is a firm supporter of secularism—as an organization, they promote the separation of church and state and regularly file lawsuits toward that end. In 1984, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the UW-Madison, attempting to remove a question regarding religious preference from the registration forms. In response, the university ultimately decided to remove the question.

“What has already happened in Western Europe is finally seeping into our culture: an increased respect for secularism and a fear of theocracy,” Gaylor said. “Students today are choosing progress. They are choosing Darwin over Genesis and choosing to use their minds, rather than see our country become any more dumbed down.”

Todd Brogan is a junior communication arts major and a member of the Baha’i religious organization on campus. The real problem, Brogan said, is not with religion, but with beliefs that are violent and intolerant.

“There are atheist states, like communist China, and religious ones, like Iran, which kill people every day,” Brogan said.

Atheists turn the other cheek

Ethics, like politics, are another point of contention. Jikomes believes that humans, rather than an external deity, determine ethics.

“I think that saying ‘Well, God says so’ is an easy and shallow way of determining right from wrong,” he said. “Secular ethics isn’t about doing something because you were told to. It’s about doing good for its own sake, because it is, in itself, the right thing to do.”

Wier has a different view. “[Christians] treat people well because they are creations of God. It’s harder to find reasons that don’t rest on pragmatism without that foundation,” he said. “Ethics should be about treating people well, and not just because you feel like it.”

Nevertheless, despite differences in beliefs, both Weir and Jikomes believe that religious and non-religious people can find common ground. “It’s possible to lead an ethical life as a law-abiding citizen and to treat people well regardless of whether God exists,” Weir said. “It’s in the philosophical underpinnings that the reason for this ethics becomes different.”

Jikomes agrees. “What’s really important to atheists and non-religious people is that we have good reasons and evidence for believing the things we do,” he said. “Atheists aren’t looking to ride on the street and destroy religion. Anyone is entitled to believe what they want, and they should exercise that freedom.”


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Abuse was common in religious orders

A tainted legacy

While the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland reached a $56.4 million global settlement in 2005 with the victims of childhood sexual abuse by its priests, one religious order opted for a different tactic.

The Salesians of St. John Bosco, whose Western Province is based in San Francisco, has been the most aggressive church group fighting lawsuits against its priests, said Rick Simons, a lawyer who handled many cases against the diocese and religious orders.

The order said one victim fabricated stories and had other cases dismissed -- not because its priests didn't commit abuse, but because the Salesians didn't have "notice" of the abuse, Simons said.

For the order to be held liable in a civil trial, they had to know that abuse was occurring and not take preventive action, according to California law.

"They are far and away the worst," Simons said of the Salesians. "They are the largest order, but they are also the absolute worst when it comes to taking responsibility for what happened in the past and for trying to locate and identify both perpetrators and victims. They have shown really no sense of responsibility for this issue at all."

Salesian officials said in a statement that in the vast majority of cases, they were unaware of allegations against their priests and that the order has strict policies in place to ensure children in their care are safe.

Religious orders operating within the diocese, such as the Salesians, accounted for 40 of the 64 clergy members accused of abuse -- more than 60 percent -- a MediaNews examination of thousands of court documents has found. Two additional religious order priests were reported to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, but they could not be independently verified through court records.

These orders, operating independently from the diocese, saw the same widespread problems of abuse, denials and cover-ups that plagued the diocese itself.

In many cases, the orders were worse. Court records revealed:

# Clergy members from 11 religious orders within the diocese were accused of abuse.

# Salesian personnel files contained no record of complaints for multiple priests known to have committed abuse, including one convicted of a felony for child molestation.

# The Salesians allowed one priest to continue working with children while his civil trial took place in 2006; he was removed after a jury awarded his accuser $600,000. The order also promoted and moved another priest in the 1970s after a complaint arose.

# Another order, the Dominicans, simultaneously housed at one Oakland monastery seven priests known to have committed abuse.

Nine Salesian priests and brothers who served at Salesian High School in Richmond were accused of abuse. Six were accused at the school -- the largest number at any school or parish in the diocese -- and three at other locations outside the diocese.

The Salesian order "acknowledges that mistakes were made in the past in the handling of some individual cases and wishes that these isolated incidents could, and should, have been handled differently," according to a statement released by the order. "These incidents have no relationship with the present or future of the Salesian Society or any of the schools associated with the Society."

Religious orders are part of the Catholic Church family, but they operate independently. The orders within the Oakland Diocese that had priests accused of abuse -- including the Salesians, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Christian Brothers and six others -- do not answer directly to the Bishop of Oakland, as diocesan priests do.

The religious orders have separate systems of governance. Nearly all order priests are supervised by a provincial office instead of the diocese. The orders also have national and international governance systems that are distinct from the larger Vatican hierarchy.

Because of this, some reforms made by the diocese weren't implemented by the orders.

When Bishop Allen Vigneron held services from 2004 through 2006 apologizing for 12 priests within the diocese who had committed abuse, none of the orders' accused priests or brothers was named.

"They (religious orders) did not give permission for their names to be used," said the Rev. Mark Wiesner, a diocese spokesman. "Members of religious orders who have been accused are the responsibility of the religious order."

Absence of information

When Joey Piscitelli began his freshman year at Salesian High in the early 1970s, he was befriended by the Rev. Stephen Whelan. But quickly, Whelan's friendliness went too far, as the priest masturbated in front of Piscitelli and molested him several times at the Salesian Boys Club, Piscitelli testified in a court deposition and lawsuit.

Piscitelli sued the Salesians in 2003, but Whelan and Brother Sal Billante, who Piscitelli said watched once as Whelan masturbated, said Piscitelli made the whole story up. During the trial, Whelan remained an associate pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco, celebrating Mass, helping at a boys and girls club and contributing to a weekly online column, "Ask the Fathers.''

Only after a jury awarded Piscitelli $600,000 in 2006 was Whelan removed from ministry. But the Salesians have appealed the case -- one of the few in the diocese that went to trial -- and it will be decided by the appellate court in the summer, Simons said.

While Piscitelli successfully sued the Salesians, two accusers of the Rev. Richard Presenti had their lawsuits dismissed.

Presenti worked in the infirmary at a Salesian boys camp in Middleton, attended by students from the Richmond high school. There, according to allegations in a lawsuit, Presenti masturbated and had oral sex with boys who stayed overnight in the infirmary.

That lawsuit and another naming Presenti -- by accusers who said they were abused in 1962 and 1972 -- were dismissed by a Los Angeles appeals court in January because the plaintiffs could not prove the Salesians knew Presenti posed a threat.

Presenti admitted in a 2005 deposition to molesting the accuser and two other boys between 1970 and 1973, though he denied the 1962 molestation, Simons said.

When the victim from 1972 complained to another priest at the camp shortly after the abuse occurred, the Rev. Harry Rasmussen, a priest in the Salesian provincial office, was called in to investigate, court records show. Rasmussen visited the victim's family, who asked that Presenti be removed from Salesian High School, according to the records.

One year later, Presenti was transferred to St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower and promoted to school principal.

Rasmussen testified in a deposition that he didn't tell anyone in Bellflower about the complaint against Presenti and that no record explaining the reasons for the move was placed in his personnel file.

"I'm not sure I knew it was a crime," Rasmussen testified regarding the abuse.

Simons said the Salesians were able to hide behind a legal defense of "no notice" because no record of the child's complaint or Rasmussen's investigation was created.

"You have a guy like Father Presenti, who everyone agrees was the subject of a report in 1972, who everyone agrees had the order come out and inquire about it, and yet there isn't so much as a handwritten note in his personnel file," Simons said.

Salesians lawyer Steve McFeely said that the Salesians were simply following the law in fighting the cases because such notice was required for clergy lawsuits.

But Simons said the records kept by the Salesians were severely lacking.

"We don't have any way to know whether that was because as a practice, at the time these events were occurring, they never put anything in writing, or whether it was because whatever was put in writing is gone or taken out," Simons said. "But the absence of that information allowed the Salesian order to hide behind the legal defense of no notice."

The Salesians said in a statement that they never shifted alleged abusers or tried to hide their actions and that they did not know about most cases of abuse. The order declined to comment on details of cases and refused requests for interviews with Salesian officials and accused priests.

'Denial, denial, denial'

In the case of Billante, notice wasn't an issue after a 181-count criminal indictment was filed against him in 2002. Police arrested the Salesian on suspicion of masturbating, orally copulating and sodomizing several children younger than 14 in San Francisco, but the charges were thrown out after the Supreme Court in 2003 overturned a California law extending the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.

According to Billante's own estimate in a 2004 deposition, he had sexual relations with about 15 children during his time at Salesian High School and Corpus Christi in San Francisco. The police report on which his indictment was based said he molested at least 24.

In 1989, Billante was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for child molestation, serving four years at San Quentin before being released.

The Salesians settled two lawsuits involving three victims naming Billante, in which he was accused of taking pornographic photographs of boys, Simons said.

The Rev. Bernard Dabbene, who served as principal of Salesian High School in the late 1970s, was arrested in 2000 when he was found in a car in San Francisco with a 17-year-old boy, both with their pants unzipped, according to police reports.

In a plea deal, prosecutors dropped felony charges, and Dabbene pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor child molestation, on condition he undergo rehabilitation and register as a sex offender.

George Stein, who accused Dabbene of committing abuse in 1959 at what was then the Salesian seminary in Richmond, wrote a letter in 2003 to Dabbene and the Salesian provincial, the Rev. Nick Reina, asking for a letter of apology from Dabbene.

"I can truthfully say I have no recollection of ever having hurt you or others during my assignment at the seminary," Dabbene wrote in response. "Nevertheless, I wish to sincerely and deeply apologize if I ever did anything to hurt you or anyone else."

Michael Perry, who entered the Salesian seminary in the late 1950s but left before becoming a priest, said abuse was so widespread at Salesian High School that at a recent 40th high school reunion, nearly half of those attending who he talked to said they had been abused, including himself.

Perry filed a police report in 2002 against Brother John Vas and the Rev. Larry Lorenzoni in which he accused the priests of committing abuse at Salesian and a Watsonville seminary school. Charges were not filed against Vas or Lorenzoni because of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling.

Vas' wife of 38 years, Edna, said in a phone interview that her husband "has said that these accusations, as far as he can remember, never took place."

Perry, who now works as a sex therapist in Los Angeles, said he wasn't interested in suing the order.

But he said he was troubled by the response he received from the Rev. Nick Reina, who was then superior at the Salesian provincial house.

Reina said in an e-mail, "From my limited knowledge of the law concerning past abuses, I know that it had to be something that continued over time, that it involved some kind of penetration and another person who can either verify that it happened or another person to whom it happened."

When Perry later offered to provide sex education for the order, something he's professionally trained to do, he said the Salesians told him they were not interested.

"The Salesians are not terribly interested in fixing it. The core issue is their whole culture and being in denial about any sexual abuse at all," Perry said. "Weeding out a couple of predators after the fact is not the answer. It's all denial, denial, denial."

St. Albert's Priory

Other orders also had accused clergy serving in the diocese.

While no reports of abuse occurred at St. Albert's Priory, an Oakland monastery run by the Dominican Order of Catholic Priests, seven priests accused of abuse were housed there in 2004.

In all, nine accused priests have served at St. Albert's.

As first reported by ABC7 in 2004, the Dominicans moved abusive priests from the Western United States to St. Albert's without telling neighbors or the schools nearby.

One former seminarian told ABC7 he was instructed in 2002 that "the young men training to be priests should tell no one" about the abusive priests coming to St. Albert's.

Of the seven priests at St. Albert's in 2004, only one had been accused of abuse within the diocese. The others were transferred in from Southern California, Oregon and Idaho.

"When we learned of an alleged instance of abuse, we took immediate steps to ensure that no children were in danger and undertook a thorough investigation to determine whether the allegation was credible," the Western Dominican Provincial said in a statement after the ABC7 story.

Most of the priests accused of abuse arrived at St. Albert's in 2003, according to ABC7. Several, such as the Rev. Terrence Reilly, who was called a "serial pedophile" in a Los Angeles lawsuit, had multiple complaints against them.

Roberto Bravo was a priest at St. Albert's who had been accused of abuse at Antioch's Holy Rosary parish. He was investigated in 1999 after reports of inappropriately touching six teenage girls, but the case was dropped when the girls refused to testify, according to ABC7. Bravo left the order and St. Albert's in 2005.

The Rev. Leo Tubbs, who was accused of committing abuse to a teenage boy about 20 years ago, took an unauthorized, unaccompanied trip to Thailand, despite having restrictions placed on his movement while living at St. Albert's, according to a statement released by the order.

The order said the abusive priests were placed in St. Albert's because they wouldn't have to interact with the public, and more than 40 Dominican priests lived there, providing the abusive priests with supervision and support, according to a Dominican news release.

A Dominican provincial official said the order is not discussing any issues of sexual abuse with the media and refused to comment for this story.


For the seven accused Franciscan priests, abuse was reported in other dioceses either before or after they served in the East Bay. Four served in Oakland at St. Elizabeth's parish, which includes St. Elizabeth's High School.

Three of the seven Franciscans -- the Revs. Chris Berbena, Mario Cimmarusti and Martin McKeon -- were accused of abuse in Santa Barbara. Berbena and McKeon were part of a $28 million settlement, which included 25 victims and eight priests, reached by the Franciscans in Santa Barbara.

Berbena left the Franciscan order to become a diocesan priest in 1997. Last month, the Diocese of Oakland returned him to active ministry after a review board determined the single accusation against him in Santa Barbara could not be substantiated.

In Tigard, Ore., the Rev. Melvin Bucher failed a lie detector test in 1993 about having sex with minors, according to the Oregonian newspaper. Bucher was sued in 1994, but the case was not settled until it was about to go to trial in 2001, just a year before the priest scandal broke in Boston.

Bucher came to St. Elizabeth in 1974, five years after he left Tigard, according to church records.

The Franciscans also had priests accused of abuse in Idaho, Arizona and Portland, Ore., who served in Diocese of Oakland parishes, according to court and church records.

Other orders

Eight other religious orders each had at least one priest accused of abuse serving in the Oakland Diocese.

At De La Salle High School in Concord, three Christian Brothers were accused of abuse. The order reached a $6.3 million settlement in a 2004 case involving three victims and three brothers serving at De La Salle.

One victim said he was abused on a school-sanctioned ski trip, another said a counselor abused him at a Napa retreat center, and a third said a counselor repeatedly abused him off campus.

The third victim, who said he was molested by Brother Joseph "Jesse" Gutierrez, was given $4 million in the settlement.

The Christian Brothers had transferred Gutierrez to Concord from Berkeley, where he'd had relationships with students that had "sexual overtones," according to a 1968 memo by the order's provincial, Brother Bertram Coleman.

A fifth Christian Brother, Brother Francis Verngren, was accused in a 2003 lawsuit of molesting a child more than three decades earlier at St. Mary's High School in Berkeley, where Verngren had served as principal.

Simons said the Christian Brothers, unlike the Salesians, were quick to settle their cases and move forward.

"They recognized what had occurred and recognized something that should never occur again and took steps both within the administration and with victims to try and heal and prevent," Simons said.

At Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, a man who is serving a 15-years-to-life prison sentence for murdering his wife in 1983 has accused two Congregation of Holy Cross clergy members of abuse.

David Dutra said he was abused by Brother Donald Eagleson and the Rev. Gordon Wilcox as a Moreau student in the early 1970s.

Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh came under fire in 2005 when it was revealed he had suspended Eagleson in 2002 after learning of the suspected abuse but didn't tell the parish's congregants, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Eagleson died of leukemia in 2004.

One other Holy Cross brother was accused of abuse: Brother Lawrence O'Brien, who served at Moreau in the 1970s and '80s, was sued in 2004.

The lone Jesuit accused of abuse in the Diocese of Oakland was the Rev. Jerold Lindner, who was named in a 2003 lawsuit by a girl who said he molested her at Corpus Christi in Piedmont while he was serving at St. Ignatius Prep School in San Francisco.

The lawsuit contends that from the 1950s to the 1980s, Lindner "abused and molested his 5-year-old nephew in Arizona and Berkeley," "sodomized and molested two brothers, ages 4 and 7," "orally copulated and sodomized his 11-year-old nephew" and "molested three nieces."

Lindner has been accused by 10 men and women in Southern California, Phoenix and the Bay Area, the Los Angeles Times reported. Lindner has denied the allegations, but he was part of a secret $625,000 settlement in 1997, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The son of a founding member of St. Alphonsus Liguori parish in San Leandro said he was sodomized when he was 5 years old by Redemptorist priest Cornelius Leehan. But when Russ Marley told his father he was abused, he was instructed to "tell no one," Marley said in 2004, the year he sued the diocese.

Accused clergy members from four other orders -- Society of Precious Blood, Society of the Divine Word, Society of Mary and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate -- also served in the Diocese of Oakland.

Moving forward

When Piscitelli's lawsuit is resolved later this year, his legal battle with the Salesians will end, but the Martinez resident plans to keep fighting.

Piscitelli is the director of the Northern California office of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support and advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse.

He said victims of sexual abuse continue to come forward, and he wants to continue to help them.

On Feb. 28, Piscitelli held a news conference with a woman who says she is a victim of Brother John Vas. Rose Harper, 54, contacted Piscitelli after seeing news stories about the Presenti lawsuits.

Harper said Vas molested her at the school when her brother was a student. Her parents volunteered at the school and took her along, and Vas "would just follow me," she said.

Edna Vas said her husband has no recollection of Harper's allegation.

"Victims are constantly coming forward -- slowly," Piscitelli said. "I'm seeing that when there is publicity, and they read books and newspaper articles, there's people who are ready to come out who were molested 25 years ago. The average person who was molested, they get little reminders here or there, and they're not ready to surface for years."

In addition to his work with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Piscitelli is writing a book about his experience, "Destruction of a Catholic: My Battle with the Salesian Society and Cardinal Levada."

Piscitelli said he has a nearly complete manuscript -- all that's left is the ending.

"The book would be incomplete" if it were published before the Salesians' appeal is resolved, Piscitelli said. "If I win, it'll lift a great burden. It's like a David and Goliath thing. I beat the monster."