For Brooks, pro-life means anti-death penalty
The Interview, a regular feature of The Catholic New World, is
an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or
ideas affect todays Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or
confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.
This week, Catholic New World staff writer Michael D. Wamble talks
with Deacon George Brooks, director of advocacy for Kolbe House.
Deacon George Brooks is a cactus.
Hes also just the type of strong-willed guy to appreciate that
as a compliment.
Like the cactus plants that rest on windowsills of Kolbe House,
an archdiocesan prison ministry outreach, he requires little maintenance
and doesnt mind standing tall, even when it means standing alone.
I can be prickly, said the former matrimony lawyer, laughing
at the comparison.
He has also becomein his humble estimationa poster boy for
a cause he believes in deeply.
It is the only rational case he can make for being honored as
Catholic Lawyer of the Year at the annual Red Mass, Oct. 1 at
Holy Name Cathedral,10 years after dissolving his firm.
As director of advocacy for Kolbe House, Brooks brought his tenacious
spirit rooted in law to his longest running case: his campaign
against the death penalty, in Illinois and across the nation.
He takes heart that Pope John Paul II and Cardinal George are
but a few of the many Catholic leaders who agree that the sanctity
of human life extends into prisons.
Brooks participated with anti-death penalty advocates Sept. 24
at Death Sentence 2000, an event organized by the Catholic parishes
While the deacon has long spoken out as a voice in the desert
against violence, he admitted candidly that being convinced intellectually
was less difficult in coming than his own conversion of the heart.
Catholic New World: How did you get involved in prison ministry?
Deacon George Brooks: I was in the diaconate program and saw among the list of areas,
jail ministry. I just figured this was an opportunity to get Matthew
25 out of the way. When I was in prison, you visited me. Hey,
seven weeks and Id be done with it.
Literally, from the first time I walked through Cook County Jail,
I thought this might be my ministry. I was so surprised how accepting
and warm and welcoming the inmates were. After my seven weeks
ended, [Benedictine] Sister Miriam Wilson, allowed me to do a
Bible study. Shortly after, I realized that God was calling me
to this ministry.
CNW: When did you become active in the anti-death penalty movement?
DGB: When I started here in 1991 as a volunteer, I never thought about
the death penalty. There werent any executions going on at the
time. The first in Illinois was Charles Walker in 1992. I became
director of advocacy. Okay, I oppose the death penalty. It was
as simple as that.
I still hadnt given it a lot of thought. Sister Miriam and Father
Larry Craig, director of Kolbe House, were strongly against the
Then the next execution in Illinois: John Wayne Gacy. And Im
told, Its your role as director of advocacy to speak out against
the execution of [serial killer] John Wayne Gacy. And Im saying,
Wait a minute. Weve got to talk about this.
I struggled with that. I knew it was my job and wanted to stay
involved in ministry, but I certainly didnt want to come out
against the execution of John Wayne Gacy. I had to reflect about
it, study about it, pray about it. Pray. Pray. Pray.
On the night of Gacys execution, I went out to Stateville prison
with Sister Miriam and Father David Kelly from Kolbe House. There
were about 100 of us out there doing a prayer service for Gacy.
There were about 2,000 people in support of the execution. They
had barbecue grills. They had coolers. They were drinking. They
were drunk. They were partying. It was like a [Chicago] Bulls
rally. It was a real carnival atmosphere.
We prayed silently, something I had originally opposed, but it
was genius. We bothered no one, but their group broke through
knocking into people like Sister Miriam, then in her 70s, and
other elderly females, mostly nuns, doing nothing other than praying
silently holding a candle. Father Kelly had to hold my hand in
our prayer circle tightly so I wouldnt do something foolish.
When the execution was over, people needed another sport, and
that group turned on us.
They backed us up to a snow fence. The police had to escort us
to safety. It was then that I saw I had only believed intellectually
that violence breeds violence.
CNW: What has caused the change in public opinion against the death
penalty, especially among Catholics?
Now, we can talk about any other reason we want to. We can talk
about Gov. Ryan and the problems he had with the [truck] licensing
and maybe there was some political cover there. Even some people
active in this cause who are agnostic believe that it had to be
When Andrew Kokoraleis was executed [March 17, 1999], Gov. Ryans
people said to the media that he agonized over the decision. I
was very cynical of those reports. Since that time, Ive gotten
close to member of the governors staff and they insist about
how deeply touched he was over this. I was down in Springfield
the week before Gov. Ryan made his announcement on Jan. 31, and
there was a moratorium bill in a [state] House committee. We were
a long way from accomplishing anything. We then heard that Gov.
Ryan was going to make some announcement in his State of the State
address and the rest is history. Its pretty hard to come up with
another answer other than God.
The people in the pews, the Catholics that I knew, didnt get
the message for about 13 innocent people being released from Death
Row. But you know, who wants to believe it? Who wants to believe
that the system is so broken? I dont want to believe that.
CNW: Because you work with and within the system?
DGB: Well, I want my streets safe. But if were locking up innocent
I want my courts to be fair. I dont want prosecutors to
be concealing evidence. I dont want the police beating people
up to gain confessions.
Gov. Ryan has said it repeatedly, if this abuse happens in death
penalty casesthe most closely watched of all casesthen it must
be happening throughout the system.
CNW: As Catholics, we are a pro-life people. We are a people who through
our faith respect life. However, there doesnt seem to be the
same amount of support for this issue as youll find for other
respect life issues. Why do you think that is?
DGB: It defies logic. It defies the principles of our faith. I cant
explain something like that. Look at Cardinal Bernardins seamless
garment. A lot of people seemed to reject that respect life extends
to the incarcerated in general. People will tolerate abuse of
prisoners. So its not just the death penalty, its a lot boarder
than that. I think it shows blatant racism.
The abuse and execution of prisoners is part of the blatant racism
in our society, even among Catholics. I am one of the vision
speakers for [Father] Tom Swade and Sheila Adams [director of
African American ministry, Office of Ethnic Ministry] race workshops
[on racial and ethnic sensitivity]. One of the things I mention
is Brothers and Sisters to Us All, the 1979 bishops pastoral,
and some people have never heard of it. Then you say, racism
is a sin and they look at you. You mean you just found out racism
is a sin? Come on, give me a break.
People are afraid. Fear plus media hype times racism equals death
CNW: Are there other reasons?
DGB: I think people see forgiveness, not quite in the scriptural or
Gospel context. I think they think you have to earn it or you
have to deserve it. So therefore you have innocent babies being
killed by abortion and guilty scumbags being killed by the death
penalty, and thats how a distinction is made.
But the Respect Life Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago has
been very, very supportive. Mary Hallan [FioRito, former office
director] would include us, Father Larry Craig, director of Kolbe
House, or myself, in her talks to Respect Life coordinators. Nora
OCallaghan [current Respect Life director] has done the same.
Theyre not doing it just to do it. They really are anti-death
penalty. I think as Cardinal George has said many, many times,
we really have to change peoples hearts.