Oregon Department of Corrections photo
Gary Haugen
Oregon Department of Corrections photo
Gary Haugen
Oregon’s first execution since 1997 has been put on hold and Catholic leaders in the state are again making the case that capital punishment is a moral misstep.  

"When we mistake vengeance for justice and kill those who have devalued human life, we become complicit with killers," says Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland. "As Americans, I believe that we are better than that."

Gary Haugen, 49, was slated to undergo lethal injection Aug. 16, but the Oregon Supreme Court last week ordered a better psychological evaluation. Haugen, who murdered a fellow inmate in 2003 while serving a life sentence for the 1981 beating death of his ex-girlfriend's mother, refused to appeal his death warrant.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, the only person with the power to commute Haugen's sentence, has said he is looking closely at the issue. He favors a repeal of the death penalty, but did not stop executions in 1996 and 1997 during his earlier terms in office. Those two inmates decided to halt their appeals, as Haugen has.

The church has a tradition of accepting the death penalty if it is the only means for protecting the public. But Pope John Paul in 1995 said such cases in modern times are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” In 1999, the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote a statement making the same case, with Portland's Archbishop John Vlazny taking part in the process.   

Meanwhile, about half the Catholic voters in the U.S. say they favor the death penalty.  

Matt Cato — who directs the archdiocese's office that promotes dignity of life, social justice and peace — says Catholics are called to "compassion to the absolute end."

Cato tells the story of St. Maria Goretti, an Italian 12-year-old who in 1902 was mortally wounded by a 20-year-old neighbor man who intended to rape her. On her deathbed, St. Maria forgave the attacker, Alessandro Serenelli. In prison for decades, Serenelli had visions of the girl, bringing him flowers. Decades later, he was freed and sought the forgiveness of the family. He attended St. Maria's canonization in 1950.

Catholics, said Cato, place high value on repentence and reconciliation and the death penalty blocks the possiblity of God's action in a prisoner's life.

"The person should have an entire life to convert," Cato says.  

On Oregon's death row, inmate Jeff Tiner has quietly become a Catholic evangelizer. Tiner writes letters to promote causes like the work of Canossian Sisters and Carmelite nuns. He has donated his own money for a Catholic youth center in Mount Angel and writes regularly to Bishop Kenneth Steiner.   

Ron Steiner, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem and board chairman of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says he has studied the system of capital punishment and finds it "unfair, biased and flawed."

"It went against my Catholic beliefs that God is in charge of when we die," Steiner says. He explains that he opposes a death sentence for a man who wants to be killed because "we, the people, are doing the killing."

"My objection to this execution, like all state-sanctioned killing, is based on my belief that killing another is wrong," Steiner says. "It is about us."

Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty also cites practical reasons for opposition, like the cost. Oregon spends about $20 million per year on capital cases.

The state enacted the death penalty in 1864. It was repealed in 1914 and reinstated in 1920. Another repeal passed in 1964 but voters reinstated executions in 1978.

There are now 36 men on Oregon’s death row.

In 2000 and 2002, efforts to repeal Oregon’s death penalty failed because organizers could not gather enough signatures to reach the ballot.  

Organizers say it’s a new day, taking hope from recent bans enacted in New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois.

Unlike states where the death penalty has been turned back recently, Oregon has capital punishment ensconced in its constitution. That means overturning it would take a vote of the people.

Efforts to limit the death penalty in Oregon fizzled in this year's legislature. One lawmaker who backed the limits, Rep. Lew Frederick of Portland, blames crime drama and news for whipping up irrational fear.    

"There is a basic revenge and vindictiveness theme we have seen in our culture over the past 40 years," Frederick said earlier this year at a forum held at St. Andrew Church in Portland. "Until we see that change, there will be no political will on this issue.”