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Episode no. 1138

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Coming up — the Texas child custody battle — the Court of Appeals says state officials were wrong to take into custody more than 460 children in a polygamist sect. What comes next?

And Tom Monaghan, the Domino’s Pizza billionaire who has now founded a new Catholic university. He calls it a saint factory.

TOM MONAGHAN (Chancellor, Ave Maria University): I can’t think of anything more important that I can do with my resources.

ABERNETHY: Plus, a priest who blesses motorcycles at a special Mass for bikers. And he’s got his own Harley.

Father MARK GIORDANI (Rector, St. John the Baptist Cathedral): Just exhilarating, the sense of freedom, the sense of enjoying the beauty of God’s creation.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us. Charitable organizations in the U.S. are reporting a phenomenon they call “donor fatigue.” Experts say the global food crisis and natural disasters in Asia have overwhelmed potential donors. So far, Americans have given far less to relief efforts to help survivors of the Myanmar cyclone and the Chinese earthquake than they’ve given after previous overseas calamities. Philanthropic organizations say the weak economy may be discouraging giving, but they also say the drop in contributions fits a pattern of what happens when Americans are faced simultaneously with more than one far-away tragedy.

Meanwhile, aid groups say the needs remain urgent. In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, there are two-and-a-half million survivors who need help. But aid workers may soon have more access to them after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with leaders of the military dictatorship and said the government has pledged to allow all aid workers into the country.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: In China, a three-day mourning period for the victims of the earthquake. More than 80,000 people are dead or missing, and international relief workers have joined a massive Chinese government and volunteer effort to help the millions left homeless.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: In Iraq, the U.S. military apologized for the actions of a soldier who used a Qu’ran for target practice. Officials asked tribal leaders for forgiveness. Iraqis found the Qu’ran riddled with bullets and with graffiti scrawled on its pages. The military said the soldier, who also apologized, has been disciplined and removed from duty in Iraq.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: In London, the British Parliament agreed to allow researchers to use hybrid embryos, embryos that combine animal eggs and human DNA. The vote came after a lengthy public debate over the research that supporters say may lead to medical breakthroughs. The Catholic Church has been one of the staunchest opponents. Church officials called it a, quote, “monstrous attack on human rights.” In the U.S., the creation of hybrid embryos is allowed but cannot receive public funding.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: In Texas, the Court of Appeals this week said state officials were wrong, did not have enough evidence to justify removing more than 400 children from the compound of a polygamous Mormon sect. The state had done this last month and dispersed the children to foster homes. Some of the mothers then sued to get their children back.

Wade Goodwyn has been covering the story for National Public Radio and he joins us now from Dallas. Wade welcome. Why did the Texas judge think officials had to take all the children away from their parents?

WADE GOODWYN (Correspondent, National Public Radio): Well, because the state brought forward evidence that it claimed that they had numerous, underage pregnant teens or underage teens who had already given birth a few multiple times. And they said that they believe there was widespread sexual abuse in this — at this ranch. And the judge agreed and seized all the children.

ABERNETHY: And then what did the Court of Appeals say?

Mr. GOODWYN: The Court of Appeals said, “Not so fast, Judge Barbara Walther.” The Court of Appeals did not believe that the state had proven that each individual child was in immediate danger of physical abuse. And the Court of Appeals said unless the state can prove that, the children have got to go back to the mothers.

ABERNETHY: And so are they going back now? Will they go back now?

Mr. GOODWYN: Maybe. The Texas Child Protective Services is going to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. They have evidence of underage, pregnant teens. I think they’re going to want to try that evidence in a different court. And while that happens, I think the children will stay with the state.

ABERNETHY: Do the authorities know in all cases which children belong to which parents?

Mr. GOODWYN: I think mostly they do. It has been difficult for the state to find out who belongs to whom. There’s been resistance by the mothers and fathers and children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And, the state has done DNA testing, the court has done DNA testing and that will come back in about two to three weeks. But by at that time, it may be a mute point if all the children are back with their parents by then.

ABERNETHY: Now Wade, polygamy is against the law. Why doesn’t the state just shut the whole place down?

Mr. GOODWYN: Well, it is against the law. It’s a felony in Texas. But it seems that state officials in Utah, Arizona, and now in Texas, are reluctant to prosecute for polygamy. Sexual abuse of an underage teen is another issue. But, there seems to be a general feeling of “live and let live” among consenting adults because if the state wanted, I think, they probably could bring charges. Those are just charges that are hard to prove in court when no one wants to testify.

ABERNETHY: What have you been hearing around from people you talk to in the community? What do they say and think about what’s going on?

Mr. GOODWYN: Well, you hear everything. People are on all sides of this issue. It does not break down neatly into political lines. Conservatives feel both ways about it; liberals feel both ways about it. I think men in general tend to side more with the state being — seeing it that the state has been too aggressive. Women tend to be more concerned about the child’s sexual abuse. But, even inside of that, it doesn’t break down into neat groups anyway.

ABERNETHY: Wade Goodwyn of NPR news, many thanks.

Mr. GOODWYN: My pleasure.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: We have a story today from southwest Florida about a new town and a new university, both named Ave Maria and both founded by Tom Monaghan, a rich man who says his mission in life now is to help turn out men and women who will be faithful and effective Catholics. Monaghan also founded Domino’s Pizza, but he says his “saint factory,” as he calls the university, is more important than selling pizzas and making money. Phil Jones reports.

PHIL JONES: What was once tomato growing farmland in southwest Florida has grown into something dramatically different. A 100 foot-tall, $24 million-dollar house of worship has risen — the centerpiece for a new town with a population goal of 25,000 and a new university, Ave Maria, the dream of a very rich man, Tom Monaghan, who wants to produce more than diplomas.

TOM MONAGHAN (Chancellor, Ave Maria University): We don’t want to be a diploma factory. We want to be a saint factory.

JONES: Monaghan’s “saint factory” offers a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, including a doctoral program in theology. Its goal: to create the next generation of Catholic leaders. Enrollment now is fewer than 500. He wants 5,000 in 20 years.

Who is Tom Monaghan? Well, he’s as close to being a self-made man as any mortal can be. His father was a truck driver who died before Monaghan was five. Monaghan ended up in a series of foster homes and an orphanage. He dreamed of becoming a priest one day, or a ballplayer or an architect. Instead, he ended up selling pizzas and became a billionaire.

Mr. MONAGHAN: In the orphanage, I kept saying to myself, “Why’d my daddy have to die? Why’d my daddy have to die?”

JONES: For a poor boy who lived on a farm and went to school with manure on his shoes, life would get better — much better. Monaghan turned one pizza shop in Michigan into the nationwide Domino’s brand with 5,000 stores. He says he took pride in having his own jet, helicopter, luxury cars and big house. Then one day, he saw through his pride.

Mr. MONAGHAN: Pride is a source of all sins. And I figured I must be the biggest sinner in the world because I certainly got a lot of pride and a lot of ego.

JONES: Monaghan is no longer on anyone’s list of richest men. In the past decade, he says he’s committed at least $400 million dollars to Catholic higher education. Monaghan gives his own money and raises more, claiming to have more than 40,000 donors. And at fundraisers he talks about his “big” vision.

Mr. MONAGHAN (speaking at fundraiser): So fasten your seat belts. I don’t want anybody to get whiplash here. So, we’re going to go fast forward to 2077. We’ll probably have over 2,500 priests — and not just ordinary priests — good priests. A lot of those priests are going to become bishops. We’re going to have about 2,000 sisters that come out of Ave Maria. And how about this one — 45,000 great Catholic marriages!

JONES: There are three masses a day on campus — five on Sundays. Underage drinking is forbidden. So is premarital sex. Students live in single sex dormitories.

BILL WATERS (Freshman, Ave Maria University): Everyone thinks, “Oh it’s Ave Maria — you know it’s real closed. It’s like a bubble. You know, we don’t do anything. Everybody’s all home schooled; there’s normal people here.

LINA WILLIAMS (Sophomore, Ave Maria University): We have the foundation in faith here that I very much find important for me in my life. It’s good to come here and find the real truth, get grounded in that, and then go out and see what the world has to say.

JONES: But what about academic freedom — research, learning, teaching, free inquiry — no matter where it leads? Ave Maria’s mission statement says it is to be “an institution of Catholic higher education that will be faithful to the Magisterium” — the Magisterium being the teaching authority of the Church: the bishops and ultimately the Pope. But it’s not clear who has final authority over what is taught: the faculty, the local bishop or Tom Monaghan?

Mr. MONAGHAN: The Bishop has the final say on things to do with the liturgy and with the theology that’s taught here, and the spiritual leadership of our students, of our faculty and of our staff. He doesn’t have responsibility for the academics.

JONES: It remains to be seen just what academic freedom will mean at Ave Maria. The relationship between the university and the local bishop has been an uneasy one. For months, mass could not be said in this house of worship because Bishop Frank Dewayne had not consecrated it as a church. He finally came this spring, dedicating it as a “quasi-parish” where the sacraments can be performed, but not as a full “parish” with a pastor.

Bishop FRANK DEWAYNE (speaking at press conference): There were, I think, surprises along the way for the officials of the university when I said, “You know, the Church has to do it this way.”

JONES (during press conference): Who has the authority over this church right now? Does the church? Mr. Monaghan.? I mean, who is in charge?

Mr. MONAGHAN: (points to bishop and smiles)

JONES: In the town of Ave Maria, there are Catholic schools for kindergarten through high school. Non-Catholic public schools are coming. Some stores are open, but the sluggish economy has caused delays. Although there’s not a pharmacy yet, there had been controversy when Monaghan said the town drug store would not be allowed to sell contraceptives. He’s now backed away from that.

Mr. MONAGHAN: I never saw this is an exclusively Catholic town. I wanted, to the extent I could, make it family oriented — no massage parlors, no adult bookstores, pornography or things like that, that would be in my mind anti-family.

JONES: The housing bust has slowed residential development; only a few hundred homes have been built. The town’s private developer insists it will be independent of both the Church and Tom Monaghan.

BLAKE GABLE (Vice President, Barron Collier Company): The community will be whatever the residents and the people who live here determine that they want for their community. I mean that’s not something — I can’t impose my views on 25,000 people.

JONES: Jeanne Rush, who has opened a women’s fashion boutique, says she’s not been told what she can or can’t sell.

JEANNE RUSH (Boutique Owner): I have short shorts. I have tank tops. I have sheer tops. We’re all happy people enjoying the fruits of what Tom Monaghan inspired us to do in our lives.

JONES: Monaghan plans to move the Ave Maria Law School, now in Michigan, to the Florida campus. But some faculty members have taken Monaghan to court, alleging he reneged on a promise never to relocate.

The University is awaiting accreditation. And the bishop has yet to declare it a Catholic university. Observers say Ave Maria’s biggest challenge will come when Monaghan, who is 71, passes on, or runs out of, money.

RICHARD YANIKOSKI (Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities): At that point, the question will be is it attracting enough students? Is it financially capable of succession once Tom Monaghan passes from the scene? Is it going to be able to attract the quality of faculty over the long term? And, in his particular model, will the surrounding community that he has developed retain the character that it has at the time that it’s first inhabited?

JONES: A recent survey of U.S. Catholics found that no more than 12 percent support so-called “hard core, traditional, conservative” Catholicism. But that’s still a lot of Catholics and many of them, like Tom Monaghan, are committed.

Mr. MONAGHAN: I can’t think of anything more important that I could do with my resources, with the experience that God gave me and the 38 years of fairly intensive business experience — to use it for something that’s a lot more important than selling pizzas or making money.

JONES: Monaghan says that for him, the most important thing in life has always been to be a good Catholic.

Mr. MONAGHAN: I don’t want any legacy. I don’t even think about that. I just want to get a small air-conditioning unit when I get into purgatory, if I get there.

JONES: Monaghan describes his personal story as rags to riches to rags. The question yet to be answered: “Will Ave Maria eventually turn out to be the Promised Land he dreams of?”

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Phil Jones, Ave Maria, Florida.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: The Internal Revenue Service has concluded that the United Church of Christ did not violate U.S. tax laws when Barack Obama addressed the denomination’s 50th anniversary gathering last June. After an investigation, the IRS said Obama’s speech was not political campaigning that would jeopardize the denomination’s tax-exempt status.

The IRS also said a California Southern Baptist pastor’s endorsement of former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was personal and did not endanger his church’s nonprofit status.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, Obama was back in a religious setting this week. He visited a synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida, where he tried to address Jewish concerns about his foreign policy positions, especially regarding Israel.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Also this week, John McCain rejected the endorsement of two religious leaders. Texas megachurch Pastor John Hagee had already apologized for statements he had made about Catholics, then audio surfaced of him suggesting that the Holocaust was part of God’s will to help the Jews establish the state of Israel. Hagee said those statements were misconstrued.

McCain also rejected the endorsement of Ohio Pastor Rod Parsley for comments he made about Islam.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: The worldwide Anglican Communion has been on the brink of schism for years over issues surrounding homosexuality, and U.S. Episcopal leaders this week admitted an important meeting this summer will likely not offer any official solutions to the crisis. In a break with the past the Lambeth Conference, a once-every-decade gathering of global bishops will not hold any votes or issue any resolutions on controversial issues. Instead, U.S. leaders said the meeting will feature small group discussions.

Bishop KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI (Episcopal Presiding Bishop): It’s a global conversation. It’s not going to legislate. It’s not going to make final decisions about anything.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: This Memorial Day weekend, as happens each year, half a million motorcycle riders are expected in Washington, D.C., from all over the country. They call the event “Rolling Thunder.” The bikers will parade in honor of Americans who have died in war, or are missing or have been prisoners of war.

Earlier this month, in preparation for the riding season, several thousand bikers descended on Paterson, New Jersey, to have their bikes blessed by a Catholic priest who is also a biker and who ministers to all those who ride. Lucky Severson was there too.

LUCKY SEVERSON: They come to downtown Paterson, New Jersey, year after year the first Sunday of May, to this special motorcycle Mass to get their bikes blessed. It’s a diverse bunch, from all walks of life, some rough and tough — some you might not expect. Gloria Tramontin Struck, for instance, 83 years old, is the longest serving member of the “Motor Maids” women riders.

GLORIA TRAMONTIN: They think everybody is a Hell’s Angel. I’m a great grandmother. I go to church every Sunday.

SEVERSON: This year, as many as 2,000 bikers from all over the Northeast showed up, and like Johnny M. and Johnny B., they take the blessing very seriously.

(speaking to both men): Getting your bike blessed, is that important?

JOHNNY M: Very important.

JOHNNY B: Absolutely.

SEVERSON: Why?

JOHNNY B: Well, you’ve got to have God on your side, you know.

SEVERSON: The Mass is conducted by the man who started this tradition 39 years ago when Richard Nixon was president. That’s him, Father Mark Giordani, gliding in on his Harley Davidson Road King. As far as they’re concerned, he’s one of them but with much better connections.

Father MARK GIORDANI (Rector, St. John the Baptist Cathedral, praying at altar): Heavenly Father we ask you to bless us as we kick off the riding season. Father, be with us as we experience the thrill of the open road and the marvel of the motorcycle.

SEVERSON: Many who attend Father Mark’s bike blessing don’t attend church regularly or at all.

Fr. GIORDANI: But you know, they read the Bible. They say their own prayers. And they offer prayers for those who are sick, so there is a special connection with God in their own unique way. I mean, what does God really want from us? A loving, humble heart — so uncomplicated.

SEVERSON: The altar is on a flatbed truck parked between the Paterson County Jail and the St. John the Baptist Cathedral where Father Giordani is now the rector. He’s from Italy and when he first came here, he graduated from a Vespa motor scooter to his beloved Harley.

Fr. GIORDANI: It’s just exhilarating — the sense of freedom, the sense of enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. And it’s just a powerful and magnificent gift for me.

SEVERSON: For the bikers, Father Mark’s gift is the blessing he gives. David Bov� is a believer.

DAVID BOVÉ: I got blessed last year and a week later I had another motorcycle that I didn’t have blessed and I crashed. Tomorrow is going to be my first day back to work after a year after getting run over.

SEVERSON: After the Mass and Communion, Father Mark gets down to the business of blessing humble bikes as well as those that make a lot of noise. Eighty-one-year-old Frank Brown, Sr. is not a Catholic but it doesn’t matter.

FRANK BROWN, SR.: I go to all churches, you know. And when the holy water’s hitting me, it’s alright with me too. In fact, I move in a little closer so I can get a dash.

Fr. GIORDANI: Sometimes they ask for a double blessing. I say, “Well, you’ve been blessed already.” And they want more holy water.

SEVERSON (to Fr. Giordani): I thought you were pretty liberal with that holy water today.

When he first arrived in Paterson, he asked to be assigned to the poorest parish. Today his congregation has grown to 3,000, the majority Hispanic. He’s also the chaplain of the county prison, the Paterson police and sheriff’s office. And 10 days before 9-11, he became the chaplain to the New York/New Jersey Port Authority. And then there’s his motorcycle mission, which reaches people who sometimes feel unwelcome at church.

Mr. BOVÉ: We’re ostracized just for our hobby, our mode of transportation. And it’s nice to be in a group of people that kind of look like me. We all have the same mindset.

SEVERSON: Like Bruce Hazelman riding for 40 years.

BRUCE HAZELMAN: Bikers aren’t bad people. They’re just normal people that have a hobby and want to ride their motorcycle.

SEVERSON: Nobody loves to ride more than the biker priest. And it’s pretty clear that his “hog” belongs to an unusual rider.

(to Fr. Giordani): So, you’ve got the whole story of Christ on the fender of your Harley Davidson?

Fr. GIORDANI: Basically, that’s right. We have the Nativity. We have the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and, of course, the Holy Spirit on the tank which branches out to the saddle bags.

SEVERSON: Is this what Jesus would drive?

Fr. GIORDANI: I think if he were physically present here on earth today, definitely this would be his choice.

SEVERSON: Hard to imagine this machine would be an evangelical tool, but he says it has an impressive record, like the time he came across another biker in Nova Scotia who asked if he could confess.

Fr. GIORDANI: And then he ended up saying, “It was the most beautiful day of my life. I never felt such freedom, such peace in my heart. Why did I carry this garbage all these years? Why didn’t I make a connection with God before?”

SEVERSON: Father Giordani says he has been blessed by his association with bikers: the time, for example, 10 years ago when he was diagnosed with a rare tongue cancer. One biker set up an altar in his garage to pray for Father Mark’s healing.

Fr. GIORDANI: “God,” he says, “You know I don’t know why Father Mark is sick. He works for you. I could see me being sick, but you know, I know so much about you from Father Mark. And I’ve taught others about you through him. I’ve never asked a favor from you in the past –never. And I promise you, I will never ask a favor from you in the future. Oh God, I only want to ask you one thing: that you heal him; that you make him well because if you don’t do it, you are history.”

SEVERSON: And the rest is history. Father Mark’s cancer has been in remission for several years. And God willing, he will be back for another blessing next year. So will the bikers.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Paterson, New Jersey.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: That’s our program for now. I’m Bob Abernethy. There’s much more on our Web site, including more about religion in politics on our “One Nation” page. Audio and video podcasts of the program are also available. Join us at pbs.org.

As we leave you this Memorial Day weekend, scenes from Arlington National Cemetery where soldiers placed flags at more than 260,000 graves.

© 2008 WNET-TV. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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