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An Interview with Karen Clifton

By Gordon Nary

Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as Executive Director of The Catholic Mobilizing Network ?

Karen: My primary job is to promote the mission of educating Catholics on the Church’s teaching on the use of the death penalty and promote the need for restorative justice within our criminal justice systems. Catholic Mobilizing Network strives to walk with people on their journey through the use of education, advocacy, and prayer so that healing and forgiveness is possible. I have the privilege of seeing where justice and mercy meet in the stories of those who are affected by violence and choose to work for healing rather than vengeance. In collaboration with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB and inspired by the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph, I am honored with the work of advocating for the dignity of ALL life, and inspiring Catholics to live with mercy towards all who are adversely affected by harm.

Gordon: What initially interested you in advocating for the elimination of the death penalty?

Karen: I was born in Houston and lived there until 2006.  My bishop, Archbishop Fiorenza constantly said “someone needs to do something about this (the death penalty)!”  Harris County alone has produced more EXECUTIONS than any other state besides Texas.

I met Sr. Helen Prejean, in the late 1990’s in Houston.  I was fortunate enough to host her in Houston numerous times and listen to her persuasive talks and conversations over the years. When we moved to DC ten years ago, Sr. Helen came to town and Catholic Mobilizing Network was initiated.

I am a pro-life Catholic and believe in the dignity of ALL life. My desire is for all people to understand that even someone who has done a heinous crime has the right to life, which in turn would lead them to believe that the unborn, the handicapped, the aged,...ALL human life has the right to life.

Gordon: Could you comment  on the importance of the Catholic Bishops of the United States statement on The Church's Anti-Death Penalty Position?

Karen: This statement by the USCCB reinforces the teaching proclaimed in our Catechism and that of our last three popes: the death penalty is cruel and unnecessary.  The United States has the means through our prison system to protect society.  The Bishop’s statement is an affirmation of our pro-life mission - that ALL life has dignity, and ALL life is made in the image and likeness of God. All Catholics are to heed this message and work to end to the use of the death penalty and create a more restorative criminal justice system. 

The Magisterium of the Church is to be taken seriously. The Catechism progresses under the careful guidance of the Magisterium.

Gordon: Your Press Release Catholic Mobilizing Network Hopeful Despite Losses in Death Penalty Referendums details some of the challenges that all of us face who believe in the infinite values and dignity of human life. Yet, this year, we had the lowest  number of executions since 1971 ​and ​ the lowest ​death sentences given out ​since the death penalty was reinstated. What can pro-life leaders in the states listed in the release help to address the challenges in their states?

Karen: The work to end the death penalty is challenging. This year’s referendum votes are an example of just how difficult this task can be. Yet, this year we had the fewest number of executions in a quarter century and the lowest number of new death sentences given out in modern history. The death penalty is coming to an end; this is a measurable trend, and one that must continue. Threats still exist, and the need to keep fighting for an end to the death penalty is great. Catholics will need to be at the forefront of this fight. We need to strengthen our pro-life message and call for the dignity of ALL life to be upheld. We are called to take the messages of our last three popes to heart and unify in the name of life. Catholics across the country need to be active and informed participants in this debate and raise up the voice of life. Only through the efforts of each and every Catholic can we bring and end to the death penalty and create a more restorative criminal justice system.

Gordon: The Catholic Mobilizing Network recently concluded The Summit on Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in Washington DC. Could you comment on the relationship between mental illness and crime?

Karen: The need to support and bring about the passage of Severe Mental Illness (SMI) exemption bills is central to our call to uphold the dignity of ALL life. Our sisters and brothers who struggle with severe mental illness are disproportionately affected by the death penalty. A year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center revealed that in 2016, at least 12 of the 20 people executed and 11 of those sentenced to death had evidence of severe mental illness. Additionally, it is often the case that those affected by mental illness are the victims of crime, not the other way around. As a nation we should be focusing on why people commit crimes in the first place, which many times can be avoided by treatment and rehabilitation. As Catholics we are called to uphold the dignity of all life, and supporting a Severe Mental Illness (SMI) exemption bill is a vital part of our call to live where justice and mercy meet. 

Gordon: In closing, I recommend that all of our viewers read Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty.

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