Death penalty opponents across the country received a boost when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops began a renewed push to abolish executions throughout the nation.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Washington archbishop, said Catholic tradition and teaching allow for the use of capital punishment, but noted that Pope John Paul II and other Catholic leaders increasingly say the state "should forego this right if it has other means to protect society."
The bishops also released surveys from November and this month showing adult church members, once supportive of the death penalty, are now evenly divided on the issue.
In Indiana, where Catholicism is the state's largest Christian denomination with 770,000 registered members, Monday's announcement was viewed as a boost to anti-death penalty efforts here.
"It obviously gives added emphasis to an issue that the (Indiana) Catholic Conference has been working on for quite a while," said Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the government lobbying arm of Indiana's five Roman Catholic bishops.
Earlier this month, Donald Ray Wallace became the 12th inmate executed by Indiana since it reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Wallace was put to death for the 1980 slayings of an Evansville family.
The Indiana Catholic bishops, however, did not get involved in Wallace's case, respecting his wishes not to seek clemency, Tebbe said.
"Our concern is always the same: We prefer that there not be capital punishment invoked and there not be executions," Tebbe said. "If the church can be helpful in helping others come to that conclusion, we will."
But supporters of the death penalty say it is necessary in some cases. It also provides a needed tool in plea bargains, which resolve about 98 percent of all criminal cases, said prosecutor Carl Brizzi.
"The death penalty is only sought in the most heinous cases and only when the guilty of the defendant is beyond all doubt," Brizzi said. "There are some crimes that deserve the ultimate sanction."
Gov. Mitch Daniels recently said he has mixed feelings about the death penalty. He belongs to a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which opposes capital punishment and in 2000 called for an immediate moratorium on all executions.
KEN KUSMER Associated Press