By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
The new bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, Robert J. Baker, has been at the forefront of the capital punishment issue in several areas in Florida for years. He has ministered to the first man to be executed in that state following the reinstatement of the death penalty there, and done the leg-work on a soon-to-be implemented victim assistance package that has already been looked upon as a national model even before its approval by the Sunshine State’s bishops.
The bishops of Florida said in a 1990 pastoral statement, Protection, Punishment, But Not Death: “The abolition of the death penalty would help to break the cycle of violence. It would manifest belief in the unique dignity of every individual and the sacredness of human life. It would acknowledge God as the Lord of Life and it would be more consonant with the Spirit of the Gospel.”
As a member of the Florida Catholic Conference (FCC) Committee on Capital Punishment, Bishop Baker is credited for helping to establish a statewide victim assistance advocacy program that ministers to families affected by murder as well as the families of those people on Death Row.
According to Lauran Stroffolino, associate for Respect Life for the FCC, Bishop Baker was one of the first priests to understand the victim advocacy concept. While at the Cathedral-Basilica in St. Augustine, he worked with a police officer whose brother was killed while on a ride-along with law enforcement. Stoffolino said Bishop Baker was able to see what the Church was lacking in reaching out to victims of violent crime. The brother of the murdered man even compiled a proposal of things the Church ought to be doing in ministering to victims, said Stroffolino.
However, Bishop Baker also reached out to those accused of these violent acts. While working in campus ministry at the University of Florida, he served as chaplain to Catholic inmates on Death Row at the Florida State Prison in Starke. “He got people in Gainesville to stand up in opposition to the death penalty,” said Stroffolino.
She added, “A remarkable number of pastors across the state were influenced by Bishop Baker. A lot is now being done — funding, training, helping people — reaching out to victims. Bishop Baker has been working for years, gently having an effect. His words are carefully drawn.”
According to a longtime friend and successor at St. Augustine Catholic Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville, one of Father Bob’s legacies during his pastorship was his opposition to capital punishment. “He was among the leaders in symbolic protests and leading prayer vigils outside the prison up until the time of the executions,” said Father John Gillespie, present pastor at St. Augustine. “He held workshops and led panel presentations about the protest. He also made his protests against capital punishment an ecumenical concern.”
Referring to the bishop as a historian, Stroffolino said the new prelate of Charleston has knowledge of the capital punishment issue in Florida that no one else possesses. “He’s been there from the beginning.”
Bishop Baker’s “a gentle teacher like Christ would be. He’s ministered to people on both sides of the issue. Even when the death penalty is gone, we’ll still have victims,” said the Respect Life director.
She also referred to the new South Carolina ordinary as “a calming influence on the committee (on Capital Punishment). He’s been my rock.”
The group is a part of the FCC, which represents the Florida dioceses and Miami Archdiocese with the secular community, including the state and federal governments. It works with the state and federal legislatures and administrative agencies, as well as other non-Catholic groups. It has acted in many policy areas, including social and welfare matters, such as migrants, housing, welfare, criminal justice reform; educational matters, including parochial and public schools; right to life issues, including abortion and euthanasia; and in matters affecting human sexuality, marriage and the family unity.
The conference is the statewide coordinating body for activities assigned to it by the bishops. It operates through four established commissions and their various committees, 10 existing ad-hoc committees and other occasional task forces.
Stroffolino, as associate for Respect Life, coordinates activities of the FCC on life issues, including abortion, assisted suicide, and capital punishment. She’s responsible for study and analysis of proposed legislation dealing with life issues and proposed administrative rules related to these areas. She also handles lobbying responsibilities related to this work, including providing testimony on abortion bills.
The Respect Life Commission of the FCC coordinates diocesan activities and parish development in three major areas: pastoral care, education and public advocacy surrounding life issues.
The commission includes the Committee Against the Death Penalty, State Pro-Life Coordinating Committee, the Task Force Against Assisted Self-Murder, the Task Force on Human Sexuality, and the Committee Against Pornography.
Recently, at the end of June, the bishops of Florida sent an open letter to Gov. Jeb Bush urging commutation of the death sentences for Thomas H. Provenzano and Allen Lee Davis:
Governor, we appeal to you to commute these sentences to life imprisonment and to begin a review of the entire question of the death penalty. The recurring question of innocence, the exorbitant cost, the inconsistency in sentencing, and the capriciousness of who is executed, each calls for reexamination,” the bishops stated. “As we pray for the victims and survivors of these crimes, we pray also for you, as well as for those on Death Row, that we all will acknowledge God as the Lord of Life, and that we all may learn, not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also to revere it.
Prior to the bishop’s comments, D. Michael McCarron, executive director of the FCC, expressed dismay at the governor’s signing of death warrants for the two condemned men.
“Society must be protected, and Florida’s laws allow an alternative to life imprisonment with no chance for parole. In this day when we are desperately seeking solutions to an increasingly violence culture, the death penalty perpetuates the cycle of violence,” wrote McCarron. “By promoting vengeance as a solution and legitimizing killing through state action, what message do we send? We need a better way.”
“We’re to speak out wherever life is threatened. We speak for the ones people don’t care about, those who’ve fallen through the cracks,” said Stroffolino.
Bishop Baker, she said, “has been an instrument in teaching other priests about life issues. He’s been appreciative of all we’ve done. He’s spoken out lovingly and compassionately. He’ll be a perfect bishop. He’s a bridge builder.”