Senate Committee Gives New Life to POLST Debate

The Pennsylvania Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously to advance Senate Bill 623 on December 12, 2017, kicking off the legislative process. There are many more steps before it could become law. The measure would codify the use of Pennsylvania Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) and is designed to clarify provisions regarding Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders.

POLST forms have been used in Pennsylvania for years without official legislative authorization. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association (PCHA) have been part of a group of stakeholders working to get statutory controls to govern their use.

Fundamentally, SB 623 would bring necessary regulation to POLST; but as proposed, the bill does not go far enough to safeguard human life. PCC and PCHA are asking for amendments that would assure that these documents are only used in appropriate situations.  The law should guarantee that a POLST would be used solely for patients with a qualifying health status, diagnosis and prognosis where their doctor would “not be surprised if they died within the next year.”

Amending the bill to clarify that POLST applies just to patients determined to be in the end stages of life would put important protections into the law. With the current practice, many facilities ask all patients admitted to a hospital, a long term nursing home, or other health care facility to sign a POLST, even without consulting a doctor.  There has also been an increase in POLST use in healthy patients presenting to primary care physicians for their annual wellness visit.   Patients and their families should pay attention to what they are signing and why. Anyone can and should sign a living will; but most patients should not qualify for POLST.

POLST and end-of-life decision making is complex. The PCC and PCHA consulted with Dr. Ferdinando Mirarchi, Principal Investigator of the TRIAD research series and Chief Medical Scientific Officer of the Institute on HealthCare Directives and the Founder of MIDEOTM (My Informed Decision on VidEO) to learn more. Here is a summary of his answers.

What is POLST?

The term POLST stands for the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment or locally, Pennsylvania Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In other states the form might have a different name such as MOLST or Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment.

POLST is meant to serve as a portable, standing medical order that specifies whether life-sustaining treatment is to be used or withheld for a specific patient in various circumstances.

Who uses a POLST and when?

By its true definition, POLST is not for healthy people or even those with chronic conditions. It is only appropriate for those with terminal illness who are expected to die within a year.

NOTE: PCC and PCHA have concerns because Senate Bill 623 has no such limitation. As written, there are no safeguards to prevent an uninformed young person, or the most at risk, a healthy older person from having a POLST.

Who decides if a POLST is appropriate?

When used properly, a physician in consultation with the patient or designated representative should determine when it is appropriate to have a POLST. Based on moral and ethical principles POLST is only appropriate if there is a diagnosis of advanced chronic, life limiting, or terminal illness. And it is only appropriate if the physician and the patient and/or the family or other representative have first had an in depth conversation about what POLST means. To date, both medical practice and research has shown that physician involvement and in depth conversations have been lacking or absent.

NOTE: Senate Bill 623, nor the companion bill, House Bill 1196, do not require a diagnosis nor impose any condition for appropriateness of POLST. The bills do not require a conversation with a physician or even the review of the patient’s medical records by the signing medical professional.

How is POLST different from a living will or a do-not-resuscitate order?

A POLST is an immediately actionable medical order that is different from a living will.  It may or may not contain a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order depending on how it is completed.

The orders outlined in this medical document are supposed to be followed by paramedics, nurses, and other physicians even though they may not have been involved in the creation of the initial medical orders.

The POLST form itself is to be honored in a facility such as the hospital and is transportable so it will also be honored in the post-hospital settings such as skilled nursing facilities or in the pre-hospital ambulance settings.

A living will is different from a POLST.  A living will is a legal document outlining a patient’s treatment preferences which can be honored when the patient cannot speak for him or herself.

A living will gives instructions and preferences, but should not obligate medical professionals to follow them. Consider how a typical last will and testament for your property is used.  Simply creating a will for your estate does not give your family the ability to take your assets.  The will has to be triggered and that trigger is your death.  At the time of your death, and only then, can the assets be divided up according to the instructions contained in your will. A living will is triggered when your health status prompts questions about your medical treatment.  The triggering events are when you are not able to consent for yourself and you have an end stage medical condition or have entered a persistent vegetative state.

A DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order (inside or outside a hospital setting) is different from a living will and may or may not be contained in a POLST.  In Pennsylvania, a DNR order is a medical order that pertains to one specific condition, cardiac arrest.  So if a patient agreed to a DNR order, then he or she wishes not to receive CPR in the event of cardiac arrest.

A significant patient safety risk is posed when patients are asked the question of DNR.  We know from years of research that patients with DNR orders are at risk to receive less than the expected medical care when not in a cardiac arrest situation.  We aggressively try to remind health care providers and patients families that a DNR order is not the same as a do not treat order.

Also, a standard living will and POLST are often misinterpreted as DNR orders regardless of what is documented in those forms.

A Patient to Clinician Video is another form of advance directive that is used increasingly.  This new technology allows you to do this on your own or through a trained physician.  However, be careful to understand that an un-scripted video can pose just as significant a patient safety risk as a vague living will or POLST.  There are definite benefits of video if it is “scripted.”    This is to ensure your wishes are not misunderstood by medical providers in your own community or when traveling.  There are a multitude of companies that have deployed video directives and an increasing number of other programs in development.  As such, if approached to consider this in the physician’s office or prompted via a “Do It Yourself” (DIY) app, consider seeking advice from a physician experienced in this field of medicine and be sure he or she is an expert in Patient Safety Advance Care Planning.

What questions about POLST should people discuss with their doctor or other health care practitioner?

Unless you have an advanced chronic, life limiting, or terminal illness, your physician should not even be asking you about POLST; however discussing an advance directive such as a living will is appropriate.

See Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney: What you should know about ADVANCE HEALTH CARE DIRECTIVES from the Bishops of Pennsylvania

If you are of advanced age and your doctor has advised you that you are high risk to die within the current year, then your spouse, children or whomever you have appointed as your health care agent should talk to your doctor.  Decide together:

  • How those who are treating you are going to be aware that you have created a POLST?
  • Will those treating you safely understand your choices if you use a POLST?
  • How will you be treated if you experience a sudden cardiac arrest?
  • How do you wish to be treated when not in cardiac arrest?
  • Will this POLST potentially place you at risk when not in cardiac arrest?

Am I required to have one? What if I refuse?

By law, no one is required to have a POLST form. It is to be a voluntary process. If you refuse a have a form completed and you feel pressured to complete a POLST form, you should ask to speak to the administration of that facility.  Be careful of what you sign when you enter a healthcare facility.  Many patients who have a POLST created are not aware that it is being created for them.  Also, if the facility is not honoring your concerns, then you should report the situation to the Department of Health. Call 1-800-254-5164 and visit to download a complaint form.

End-of-life decision making can be confusing from a secular and medical standpoint, but you may also wonder: what does the Catholic Church teach about POLST and end-of-life decision making?

As Catholics, we believe that we have a responsibility to preserve our life. Suicide and/or assisted suicide are always morally wrong. (Declaration on Euthanasia: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1980)

However, we also believe there are some limited qualifications to the obligation to attempt to preserve life, such as the refusal of overzealous treatment, including medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #22781995) It is morally permissible to sign a POLST if it follows the documented indications for use, and if it is determined that medical treatments would not offer reasonable hope of benefit or are disproportionately burdensome. “Disproportionately burdensome” means the treatments will impose serious risks or excessive pain to the patient, excessive expense on the family or the community, or other extreme burdens.

Death is not to be feared as the end of our existence, rather it is the doorway to our eternal destiny.

A decision to forego a medical treatment should not be made because a person’s life is judged as not meaningful. If you are approached to sign a POLST document, you should not feel compelled to sign it immediately.  You should discuss your health status with your family and your doctors and then decide if POLST is appropriate for you to complete. To simply complete such documents without knowledge of how they impact your care and treatment is a significant safety risk to you as well as to your family. The most important step in creating a POLST is having a conversation with your medical provider. Make sure your choices are informed and created appropriately for you as an individual.  Take care to outline your end-of-life wishes safely and right.

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Mid-Session Legislative Wrap Up

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is taking a mid-session break and will resume session late in January 2018. 2017 was a very busy year and more issues are on the horizon for 2018. Here is the status of the several high priority bills that are on the legislative agenda of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Bills That Made It Through

Several bills made it all the way through the legislative process in 2017. One bright spot in the difficult, prolonged budget debate was a $10 million expansion of Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) which will benefit more students in Catholic schools.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly took a strong pro-life stand to ban barbaric dismemberment abortions and abortions when the unborn baby is able to feel pain (20 weeks). Both the Senate and the House passed Senate Bill 3 with overwhelming majorities. Unfortunately, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the measure and there was no vote to override.

Governor Wolf did however sign House Bill 1139 into law. This law adds fire stations to the list of safe places where a newborn baby may be placed without penalty. Police stations and hospitals are also safe havens. Incubators will be placed in participating locations to hopefully prevent babies being abandoned in dumpsters or public restrooms.

The legislature reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but not without controversy. An amendment to correct regulations that allow coverage for sex reassignment surgeries for children was taken out of the final bill that went to the governor’s desk. The Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association and PCC will look for ways to address this again without compromising a valuable program that has given thousands of children access to health care.

Legislation to address the statewide opioid crisis was signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf. Senate Bill 446 establishes state-regulated minimum quality standards for the licensure of recovery houses that receive funding or referrals from government agencies. This new law is welcomed by the recovery houses operated by many Catholic Charities agencies within Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.

The governor also signed the “Right to Try” Act into law which will provide terminally ill patients the opportunity to try experimental treatments, such as investigatory drugs, biological products and medical devices. It will allow access to treatments that have not been fully approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Issues Left To Do

There is much more work left to do in 2018. Legislation to create Education Savings Accounts (ESA) is being considered. Senate Bill 2 would give families that live in the boundaries of a chronically underperforming school a grant in the amount of the average state funding per pupil if they withdraw their students from public school. The money could only be used for tuition and expenses in a participating private school, for tutors, or other education expenses. The money would come out of the local school’s state subsidy; any unused dollars would return to the local school.

Senate Resolution 174 and House Resolution 609 each condemn the practice of selectively aborting babies with Down syndrome. Although resolutions do not have the force of law, they are useful gestures for raising awareness. Another resolution, HR 519, condemns the free availability of pornography because of the public health hazard it causes to children and families across the Commonwealth. It passed the House Health Committee in November and should be taken up on the House floor soon.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association is reviewing legislation that would govern the use of POLST, Physician’s Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment. Senate Bill 623 and House Bill 1196 similarly outline how and when someone would use a POLST in an end-of-life situation. The concern lies in whether or not a qualifying condition must be present for a POLST order to be signed.

Beyond these moral issues, the PCC is tracking legislation that tackles social justice concerns as well. House Bill 1076 would create a land bank of blighted properties and transform them into safe housing for the homeless. With opioid addiction continuing its terrible toll on every community, more legislation will be considered including House Bill 825. This bill provides for a central registry of existing emergency drug and alcohol detoxification beds so health care facilities can better serve people with a substance abuse crisis.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of public policy issues that the Catholic Conference will review and advocate. Sexual orientation non-discrimination, access to health care, threats to religious liberty, and other proposals are all potential issues on the radar. For a list of the PCC’s positions on specific legislative proposals, log on and check out:

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Pennsylvania Abortion Numbers at Lowest Recorded Level

According to figures recently released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the number of annual abortions in the state is at the lowest level since being recorded.

In 2016, the number of abortions totaled 30,881, which is about 3 percent less than the previous year. That percentage translates into nearly 1,000 fewer abortions between 2015 and 2016.

The report also indicates that more than 80 percent of abortions in Pennsylvania occurred in the following four counties (with corresponding numbers)

Philadelphia               14,626

Allegheny                   6,080

Northampton             3,042

Dauphin                      1,504.

You can find a further breakdown of Pennsylvania’s 2016 abortion statistics by clicking here.

Pro-life legislation, which passed both the House and Senate chambers in 2017, was eventually vetoed by Governor Tom Wolf. Senate Bill 3 would have strengthened Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act by banning the cruel and brutal practice of dismemberment abortions and placing a ban on abortions from the 20th week on during a pregnancy.

Visit to join the Catholic Advocacy Network and add your voice to others speaking in support of the dignity of life.

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The Shining Light: Harrisburg Thrift Shop Serves as Beacon of Hope

““Karla”, 36, was recently released from prison, and was referred to Shining Light by Capitol Pavilion, one of our partner agencies. Trying to get back on her feet, and with limited resources, Karla needed basic clothing. Shining Light was able to provide her with several complete outfits, nightwear, shoes and underclothing. She can continue to obtain some additional free clothing over the next six months, as she seeks employment and establishes a household again. Her joy in selecting and “modeling” her “new” clothing touched us all!” – A Shining Light story

Treating all who enter our doors with dignity and respect. That’s the motto the Shining Light Thrift Shop has been operating in midtown Harrisburg since it opened its doors on September 9, 1992.

Today, the store is an outreach ministry within St. Patrick Cathedral Parish in the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. Donations and purchases help to fund the Shining Light, which serves the ongoing needs of over 1,000 economically disadvantaged individuals each year by providing free or low-cost clothing and domestic goods.

Gail Kline is the Shining Light’s store manager and says its mission is simple: “We are here to help people in need.” Over the years Kline recalls the store has helped individuals who have been released from prison, victims of home fires, and those who have lost their job to get back on their feet.

The Shining Light partners with nearly 50 local agencies that refer those in need to the store’s program. Individuals may get nearly $200 worth of clothing and household items over six months if needed. The store also helps those outside of the referral system by offering store discounts from 50 to 90 percent off of store merchandise.

As the Shining Light is closing in on its 25th anniversary year, Kline says it is during the holiday season that she sees the store shine a little brighter as a beacon of hope for those in need.

“This is the time of year we count our own blessings and, in turn, bestow those blessings upon those who need it the most. And that’s what the Shining Light does all year long.”

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Bill Setting Standards for Addiction Recovery Houses Signed Into Law

Legislation seeking to address the statewide opioid crisis that had strong support by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference was recently signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf.

Senate Bill 446, now Act 59 of 2017, will establish state-regulated minimum quality standards for the licensure of recovery houses receiving funding or referrals from the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs or another state, federal or county agency.

In a statement issued by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom McGarrigle (R-ChesterDelaware) said, “The addiction crisis is affecting communities in every region of Pennsylvania, and access to effective treatment is vital in turning the tide. People entering the recovery process have taken the crucial first step to a better, productive life. Approval of Senate Bill 446 sends the message that we will not let that journey be cut short due to lack of oversight.”

This new law is welcomed by the recovery houses operated by many Catholic Charities agencies within Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses. This is one of several important bills being considered by the General Assembly and monitored by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference to combat the growing epidemic of opioid abuse.

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Angel Tree Helps to Make Christmas Bright

This holiday season, students at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School have teamed up with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to help make Christmas bright for seven children within two area families.

Every angel on the tree is marked with information describing a child, their interests and what they would like to receive for Christmas if they could make a wish.

“It’s almost a random selection. You just pick an angel and you go and you just think about how happy it’s going to make that kid by receiving that gift,” said Morgan Kiesewetter.

Kiesewetter is a senior at Bishop Guilfoyle and chairs the Celebration Committee. The committee is responsible for gathering the gifts once all of the wishes displayed on the angels have been collected, wrapping them and as Kiesewetter describes it, “sending them on their way”.

She added that students enjoy making the wishes of the children come true and even though they will not meet the families, she would also like to send this Christmas message: “They’re always in our prayers; we’re always thinking of them. We’re trying to give a little part of us to them.”


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Pro Life Legislation Vetoed

Pro-life legislation, which passed both the House and Senate chambers, has been vetoed by Governor Tom Wolf.

Senate Bill 3 would have strengthened Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act by banning the cruel and brutal practice of dismemberment abortions in the state of Pennsylvania.

Sen. Michele Brooks (R-Crawford County), who sponsored Senate Bill 3, responded to the governor’s veto and said,  “I am extremely disappointed with the Governor’s veto and the misinformation that opponents have spread about the bill.  But my greatest disappointment is that we will be unable to protect so many babies in the future, who will never know the joy of living in this world.

“My prayers are with the governor that one day his heart will soften and he will understand how horrific the dismemberment abortion procedure is.”

The legislation also would have placed a ban on abortions from the 20th week on during a pregnancy.

Brooks noted that the bill would not have changed existing law in its application to cases of rape and incest.

Senate Bill 3 passed the Senate by a vote of 32-18 and the House by a vote of 121-70.



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Bill to Address Homelessness Set for House Vote

People who are homeless in Pennsylvania have new hope. House Bill 1076, legislation that would use collaborative relationships among municipalities to address the need for housing for the homeless across the state is now poised for a vote by the full House of Representatives.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, would form what are commonly referred to as ‘land banks’ at the municipal level, enabling municipalities to partner with private developers and others to convert abandoned and blighted properties into housing for the homeless.

“The House Urban Affairs Committee’s unanimous passage of House Bill 1076 today moves us one step closer to helping eliminate homelessness in Pennsylvania,” said Caltagirone. “I thank the chairman of the committee and the advocates and stake holders for helping get this bill moved, especially the PA Catholic Conference for their commitment and efforts to combat homelessness across the Commonwealth.”

According to federal estimates, the majority of the homeless in Pennsylvania are staying in emergency shelters, with the remainder living in cars, abandoned buildings or under bridges. If passed into law, this bill would create many more affordable housing alternatives all across the Commonwealth.


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Pro Life Legislation to Amend Abortion Law Passes


Legislation that would strengthen Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 121-70.

Senate Bill 3, authored by Sen. Michele Brooks (R-Crawford) previously passed the Senate by a vote of 32-18 and it passed both chambers in bipartisan fashion.

Specifically, the bill would completely ban the cruel and brutal practice of dismemberment abortions in the state of Pennsylvania.

The effort to pass the legislation in the House was led by Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-WarrenForest) who said, “God tells us specifically to choose life. This is innocent life.”

In addition, it would enact a ban on abortions from the 20th week on during a pregnancy.

“We must protect the dignity of each and every life as best we can,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) in a statement. “The passage of this bill is evidence of bipartisan and bicameral support to protect unborn children and mothers and demonstrates the Commonwealth’s commitment to promoting a culture of life. The bill is both constitutional and reasonable.”

Rapp, who faithfully wears a necklace depicting a child and mother, received it as a gift from her own daughter and wears it to remind her of the sacred gift: children.


Click here to find out how members of the Senate in your diocese voted.

Click here to find out how members of the House in your diocese voted.



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Pro Life Lawmakers Stand Together for Life


Lawmakers from across Pennsylvania joined at the state Capitol to stand in support of legislation that would strengthen Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act.

Specifically, Senate Bill 3 would completely ban the cruel and brutal practice of dismemberment abortions in the state of Pennsylvania.

In addition, it would enact a ban on abortions from the 20th week on during a pregnancy.

Taking a stance in support of this pro-life legislation was:

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny)

“A life should not be something that you can just so quickly dispose.”

Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Crawford/Forest)

“To the reasonable, common man, when you say dismemberment you instantly have an image in your mind of what dismemberment is. Every reasonable, common man does not need a poster because the image comes to our mind very vividly.”

Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich (D-Lackawanna)

“We (my wife and I) experienced it in both adoption and birth. When it’s time to leave this earth, I can stand before God and say I was 100 percent pro-life.”

Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny/Washington)
“This is still a pro-life state. Pennsylvania is solidly pro-life. People should let lawmakers know they support Senate Bill 3.”

Urge your state representative to stand up for life and support this legislation. Send a message here through the Catholic Advocacy Network.

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Pro-life Lawmakers Stand Together for Life


Lawmakers from across Pennsylvania joined at the state Capitol to stand in support of legislation that would strengthen Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act.

Specifically, Senate Bill 3 would completely ban the cruel and brutal practice of dismemberment abortions in the state of Pennsylvania.

In addition, it would enact a ban on abortions from the 20th week on during a pregnancy.

Taking a stance in support of this pro-life legislation was:

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny)

“A life should not be something that you can just so quickly dispose.”

Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Crawford/Forest)

“To the reasonable, common man, when you say dismemberment you instantly have an image in your mind of what dismemberment is. Every reasonable, common man does not need a poster because the image comes to our mind very vividly.”

Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich (D-Lackawanna)

“We (my wife and I) experienced it in both adoption and birth. When it’s time to leave this earth, I can stand before God and say I was 100 percent pro-life.”

Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny/Washington)
“This is still a pro-life state. Pennsylvania is solidly pro-life. People should let lawmakers know they support Senate Bill 3.”

Urge your state representative to stand up for life and support this legislation. Send a message here through the Catholic Advocacy Network.

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Fifth Consecutive Pope Francis Challenge, Just in Time for Thanksgiving

At Pope Francis’ first World Youth Day, he challenged all the young people to go home and do something inspiring.

The students of Bishop Guilfoyle High School listened.

In the heart of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the students have completed their fifth consecutive Pope Francis Challenge, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Tessa Crider is a senior at Bishop Guilfoyle and calls the challenge a humbling experience and “the biggest thing we do here at B-G.”

And big it is. The ‘challenge’ is posed to the school’s approximately 300 students, who are encouraged to collect 50 items to donate to those who need them most. Students collect food, personal hygiene items and other household supplies.

Patrick Donoguhe, who is also a Bishop Guilfoyle senior, simply calls the experience “fulfilling”.

The collected items were loaded by students onto trucks and the boxes were then delivered to six local charitable organizations across all faiths.

Bob Sutton teaches Theology at Bishop Guilfolye and works with the students on the challenge. “There’s no book that could teach them this.”

2017 Pope Francis Challenge by the numbers:

–          Over 18,000 items were collected

–          1,100 full-sized boxes of cereal set a new school record

–          One seventh-grade student collected 250 items

–          One twelfth-grade student collected 400 items


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House Committee Approves Measure Condemning Child Pornography

The Health Committee within the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has approved a resolution which condemns the free availability of pornography based on the public health hazard that it presents by harming children and families across the Commonwealth.

“It’s a public awareness resolution,” said Chairman Matt Baker (R-Tioga).

With the resolution, Pennsylvania joins nineteen other states that have passed or introduced a similar measure.

“Most people understand pornography is bad, and child pornography is particularly bad,” continued Baker.

The resolution cites that due to advances in technology, young children are now exposed to pornography at alarming rates, with as many as 27% of older millennials reporting that they first encountered explicit pornography before even reaching puberty.

“As someone with two small daughters, I think that it’s something we owe a certain amount of time and effort to look at,” said Rep. Eli Evankovich (R-WestmorelandAllegheny).

House Resolution 519 also encourages a three-pronged approach to confronting this issue with education, prevention and research and policy change at the community and social levels.

Prior to the vote, Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia) stated that her intent is to “make sure that families are aware of this issue, that it is a concern and it can become, if it not already is, a public health crisis.”


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Patriotic Club: Doing small things that make a big impact

“We are a group of students who care about our government, our veterans, and our country as a whole. And we’re doing small things that make a really big impact.” – Nate Roppelt, Sophomore, Holy Redeemer High School


A few summers ago, 12th-grader Ben Smith was working at a Scranton-area Veterans’ Administration (VA) Hospital. While there, he noticed veterans were receiving donations of personal care items, however, he didn’t think they were getting enough.

Smith belongs to the Holy Redeemer High School Patriotic Club. He brought the issue to the attention of the club, and as he describes it, it took off from there.

“They need our help,” says Smith.

The club, currently in its third year, seeks to honor and serve past and current members of the U.S. military.

Throughout the school year, students collect items such as shampoo, shaving cream, socks, toothpaste and toothbrushes. They have received an overwhelming response in toiletry collections so they have expanded the donation list to include board games, puzzles and other items that could be a source of entertainment for the veterans in the hospital.

“I think it makes them feel happy that they are not forgotten, and I think this club helps them to know that,” says Mary Grace Eckert, who is in her second year with the club. 

Students collect the items throughout the school year and traditionally deliver them to a local VA hospital in May.

Teacher Joseph Szewczyk advises the club and recalls a time he was dropping off the supplies with the students, who were in another section of the hospital at the time: “One of the veterans came up to me, and he saw everything that was going on and all he said to me was two simple words: ‘thank you’.”


In their own words. . .

“The word is equality.” – Patrick Zarola, Junior, Holy Redeemer High School

“As Catholics, we have a moral obligation to help people.” – Thomas Hjakowski, Junior, Holy Redeemer High School

“No matter if you’re Catholic, Jewish, or anything else, it’s good to help people out because they’re all part of our nation.” – Roppelt


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“Right to Try” and Pediatric Cancer Bills Signed into Law

Two pieces of health care-related legislation were recently signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf.

Act 33 of 2017, dubbed the “Right to Try” law, will provide terminally ill patients the opportunity to try experimental treatments, such as investigational drugs, biological products and medical devices. It will allow access to treatments that have not been fully approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The legislation received overwhelming support by Pennsylvania lawmakers, illustrated by unanimous passage in both the House and Senate chambers.

Rep. Robert Godshall (R-Montgomery) introduced the legislation and upon its enactment stated,” Faced with certain death, terminally ill patients do not have the luxury of time and have likely exhausted all other available options.”

Read more about Rep. Godshall’s effort behind the making of this law.

Additionally, Act 39 of 2017 was also recently signed into law. It will establish a check-off box on state income tax returns, allowing Pennsylvanians to voluntarily make monetary contributions to pediatric cancer research.

The funding would then be allocated to institutions in Pennsylvania that are working on cutting edge research to develop better treatments and drugs in the fight against cancer in children.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks), calls this a “needed-step forward”.

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Know Before You Vote – Election Day 2017

Election Day is here again. On Tuesday, November 7, 2017, Pennsylvanians will elect candidates to many local municipal positions and will cast their ballots for these judicial candidates: Justice of the PA Supreme Court, Judge of the Superior Court, Judge of the Commonwealth Court, and Judges of Common Pleas Courts.

Electing qualified, capable local officials and value minded judges is just as important as electing the right governor or lawmakers.

Local officials are responsible for corrections and law enforcement, resources to educate our children, public health and safety, human services for people in need, and more. We interact with local government programs every day.

The role of the courts is to preserve the rule of law and guarantee the rights and liberties of citizens.  Judges make decisions that affect everyone, including who has a right to life, what is marriage, when should religion be protected, who can adopt children, and many other important questions.

The challenge with municipal and judicial elections is finding information about the candidates on which to base your voting decision.  Although a federal court clarified that candidates can talk about issues, out of fear that their comments might prejudice future court cases, candidates for judicial office often do not share their personal positions on controversial issues.  However, many special interest organizations do evaluate candidates based on their record or other public evidence of their philosophy.  These groups often endorse one candidate over another.

We can understand a lot about candidates by reviewing their lists of endorsements.  Catholics might be interested in a candidate’s stand on human life, marriage, social justice or other issues.  An endorsement from a pro-life group (for example Life PAC) or a pro-abortion group (like Planned Parenthood) gives us a clue about whether a candidate is pro-life or pro-abortion.  The support of public education associations or taxpayer watchdog groups could, although not absolutely, shed light on how a candidate might feel about school choice.  Endorsements from other like-minded political leaders who do speak out about issues can also provide insight into the philosophy of the candidate.  It is said a person is known “by the company that he or she keeps.”

Every voter should take time to research the candidates.  Many non-partisan organizations such as the Pennsylvania Bar Association or your local newspaper publish voter guides, often including endorsements.  The Pennsylvania Family Institute publishes a voter guide that touches on many issues that are also important to Catholics.  But the most effective way to research is to contact the candidates themselves.  Most local and judicial candidates have their own websites or social media sites which proudly list the endorsements they received.  See who’s on the ballot in your county at

Who we elect to city hall or the bench sets the stage for how rights, liberties and justice will be upheld in public policy.  We have a responsibility to elect local leaders and judges who will be fair and responsible, and will uphold the values that make Pennsylvania great.


NOTE: The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference neither supports nor opposes any candidate for public office.





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Thousands of Pa. Catholic School Students Unite

“Small change. Just holding the door open for someone, making peoples’ day. There are a lot of sad people in the world and just one person can make their day a lot brighter.” – Maura Budd, Sophomore , Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls

 Over 5,000 students from all 17 high schools within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently gathered at Temple University to celebrate the 2nd annual METANOIA rally.

METANOIA stems from the words ‘to change’.

Father Christopher Walsh, pastor of Saint Raymond of Penafort parish in Mt. Airy, served as emcee of the rally and described the event as a “taste of what the Church really is.”

At the rally, students were given the opportunity to learn about the multi-dimensional outreach of the Catholic church by meeting with chaplains of prison, hospital, college and homeless ministries.

Maura Budd, a sophomore at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, was surprised by what she learned, saying, “We think our lives are difficult and hard and to see that other people are struggling even more than we are, I think it’s pretty eye opening.”

A Mercy Cross, built by students of Mercy Career Technical High School, united archdiocesan students as it was adorned with 6,000 colored ribbons symbolizing their intentions. They were asked to pray for victims of human trafficking, Syrian refugees, and children starving in Africa and the Catholic Relief Services workers who serve them.

“I think that’s part of the metanoia, to get out of your own bubble, to get out of your own little world and to know that many of their peers across the world are not as blessed as they are,” said Father Walsh.

Camrin Rodriguez, who attends Mercy Career Technical High School, says, for him, the message is simple: “Everybody can change in their own way.”






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Education Funding Bill Needs to be Signed into Law

As part of Pennsylvania 2017-18 state budget, lawmakers approved a $10 million increase for the expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. That is great news; however, Governor Wolf has yet to sign the bill into law. In fact, he has threatened to veto the legislation that would provide for the increase.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has sent a letter to the governor urging him to sign the education funding bill into law, noting that this bill would allow for more scholarships for students to attend the school that is best for them.

You too can send a letter to Governor Wolf urging him to sign the education funding bill into law today!





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Expanding Educational Opportunity

The Senate Education Committee votes to approve the ESA bill.

At its core, school choice is about improving education and supporting families in educating their children. The Pennsylvania Senate is currently considering legislation to expand educational opportunities for students across the state.

Specifically, Senate Bill 2 would create state-funded, flexible, spending accounts for individual students. Parents could use the funds to pay for Department of Education-approved educational expenses such as non-public school tuition, higher education tuition, textbooks and curriculum, testing and industry certifications. Unused funds would roll over from one year to the next, and unspent ESA dollars could even be used to pay for college.

This is a plan to empower children with educational opportunity, especially those who currently attend the lowest-performing public schools in the Commonwealth.

“These are the children that have no other option,” said the bill’s author, Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin).

Ensuring students receive the education that is right for them is vital to Pennsylvania’s future, which helps us all in every corner of the state. A good education helps children grow up to be good citizens. Growing as many good citizens as we can will help ensure a better and brighter future for all of us. Citizens who care about Pennsylvania’s future should support school choice.

Tell Pennsylvania Senators to vote YES on the education savings account plan!





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Homeless Family Gains a New Beginning through Catholic Social Services

David and Nancy Pennay of Jessup, Pa., with their children, from left, Kaitlyn, Nathan and Kayla.

One evening, David Pennay took a bad step and fell down the stairs at home. The next day, he felt a stab of excruciating pain, his legs went numb and he fell to the floor.

Doctors told him a blood clot from the fall put pressure on his spinal cord and damaged vertebrae. “I don’t know if I’ll ever walk again,” said David, who also has epilepsy.

Prior to his accident, David worked as a meat cutter in a processing plant. His wife Nancy was working on an associates’ degree. After the accident, she had to give up her education. David’s epileptic disorder means he can’t be left alone with the children.

Unable to work, unable to pay the rent, David was evicted along with his wife and their children – son, Nathan, then age 4, and twin girls, Kayla and Kaitlyn, age 2. A friend found a place for them in a condemned bar.

“We were living in the pool room,” said David. “We had to cook on little burners. My wife washed dishes in the rest room sink…The bar was dark and dingy.”

That was February of 2015. This past spring, the plight of the Pennay family came to the attention of Lori Bowen, case manager of Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton, Carbondale Office. Lori immediately opened a Homeless Assistance Program (HAP) Intensive Case Management file to help meet this family’s many needs, the foremost being housing. The family would soon be evicted from the bar where they took refuge.

Said Ms. Bowen, “We got very blessed with the timing. A handicapped accessible apartment was available in Jessup and this family was accepted.

“When I first met them, the family felt hopelessness. They didn’t feel anyone could help them,” Lori explained.

“Lori, our case manager, really fought tooth and nail to find a place for us that was handicap accessible – these things are almost impossible to get,” David added. “We wouldn’t have a home without Catholic Social Services or Lori Bowen. My children wouldn’t have it, I wouldn’t have it, my wife wouldn’t have it.”


Published in the September 28, 2017 edition of The Catholic Light, the newspaper of the Diocese of Scranton.





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What Legislation Matters Most for Catholics?

EITC, OSTCThe 2017-18 Legislative Session is nearing the halfway point. During each two-year session, thousands of bills are introduced in the Pennsylvania House and Senate.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association are tracking a number of different legislative proposals that are important to Catholics in the state. The bills range from supporting school choice, preserving programs for those most in need, respecting human life, and protecting religious liberty.

See the full list of bills and find out how you can help take action with us.




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Pennsylvania Bishops Offer Statements Following Settlement in Federal Religious Liberty Lawsuit

Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik

Bishop Zubik

I am grateful to God that we have reached an agreement with the government that secures and reaffirms the constitutional right of religious freedom. The Diocese of Pittsburgh’s 5-year challenge to the HHS mandate provisions of the Affordable Care Act has been resolved successfully.   Our Catholic Charities and other religious organizations of different denominations will not be required to facilitate insurance coverage or practices that are morally unacceptable to them.

The settlement follows the recent release of new federal regulations that provide religious organizations with a full exemption from covering items that violate their core beliefs.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh joined more than 70 religious organizations represented by the law firm of Jones Day in filing an initial challenge to the government’s regulations in May 2012.  The diocese objected to the government’s definition of a religious organization. The federal government had exempted houses of worship from covering morally objectionable items in their health insurance plans but insisted that other religious institutions which are not houses of worship must facilitate such coverage against their sincerely held beliefs.   This rule was based on the faulty premise that religious organizations, such as Catholic Charities, were not religious enough to qualify for the exemption.

Read Bishop Zubik’s full statement.


Diocese of Erie Bishop Lawrence T. Persico

Bishop Persico

The Diocese of Erie celebrates its religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment and secured today by the United States government.

This agreement allows faith-based organizations to uphold our religious mission in a di-verse society. For that, we are deeply grateful.

We have maintained from the beginning that the government cannot force anyone—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or other—to do something that violates their sincerely-held religious beliefs. The government has finally acknowledged that there is a reasonable path to ac-complish its goals while also respecting the core beliefs of our faith.

Although we had to go through significant litigation, in the end, I find it heartening that through the wisdom and direction of the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal government signed an agreement acceptable to our diocese and other dioceses and religious organizations. Let’s hope it sets a good precedent.

Read Bishop Persico’s full statement.


Diocese of Greensburg Bishop Edward C. Malesic

Bishop Malesic

We are extremely pleased with the favorable settlement that has been reached between the Diocese of Greensburg and the Department of Justice.

This permanent injunction solidifies an exclusive agreement between the government and the diocese. It holds that the Department of Justice will not enforce the HHS mandate, its accommodation, nor its narrow religious exemption on the Diocese of Greensburg. Additionally, this agreement will hold firm in the event of any future regulatory changes that may occur with HHS legislation.

I am deeply grateful to my predecessor, Bishop Emeritus Lawrence E. Brandt, who began work on this extremely important initiative several years ago. And I am appreciative of the highly competent work put forth by Jones Day, our legal counsel who diligently worked on our behalf.

This is a positive and substantive victory for every religious institution espousing that religious and moral beliefs must be supported by the fundamental right of religious freedom as envisioned by the founders of our great nation.



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Senate Committee Approves Bill to Reauthorize CHIP; Maintains Funding is Used for Intended Purpose

The Pennsylvania Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted 14-1 in favor of House Bill 1388 which would reauthorize the Pennsylvania Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which is set to expire on December 31, 2017. The measure would allow CHIP to continue through December 31, 2019.

Additionally, the committee adopted an amendment to the bill, sponsored by Sen. Don White (R-Armstrong) that would guarantee CHIP funding is used for its intended purpose of providing health care for children, not to pay for sex reassignment surgery and services.

“I don’t think in any way, shape or form that covering sex reassignment surgery should be part of the CHIP program that we set up years and years ago and is one of the model programs in the country that has been duplicated,” said White.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati said before the committee, “This goes far beyond what the CHIP program was designed to do. I will not accept, and I will reject the notion that we are discriminating against anybody.”

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association have been proponents of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, since its inception.

Across the nation, CHIP currently covers 9 million children with health insurance. More than 176,000 Pennsylvania children are covered by CHIP’s comprehensive, effective and affordable coverage.

Although CHIP remains a popular and valuable health insurance tool, it must be reauthorized in order to continue offering coverage.

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Advocates, Lawmakers Stand up for “Safe Harbor” at State Capitol

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is a strong supporter of the proposed “Safe Harbor” bill.

“Human trafficking is a crime against humanity. We must unite our efforts to free victims and stop this crime that’s become ever more aggressive, that threatens not just individuals, but the foundational values of society.” – Pope Francis

Standing united on the steps of the state’s Capitol, advocates and lawmakers renewed the call to stand up for the dignity of young lives being destroyed by human trafficking.

Specifically, they urged House passage of legislation, introduced by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery/Bucks), which would provide specialized services to victims of sex trafficking under the age of 18 instead of facing charges in the juvenile justice system. The bill would establish a statewide protocol to provide local services including safe and stable housing, access to education, employment and life-skills training, counseling, treatment for addictions, health care, and more. Rather than facing delinquency charges for prostitution, these children will get the help and support necessary to break free from enslavement.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, who served as assistant public defender for seven years, led the call for action to protect the real victims of human trafficking saying,” There are children in Pennsylvania that get prosecuted. It’s crazy that they get prosecuted when they are the most vulnerable children.

“If these children are protected they can help us really be able to find out who are the traffickers, where they are. They can point us and lead us in the right direction while getting the support they so desperately need.”

Senate Bill 554 was unanimously passed by the state Senate on April 25, 2017. It is currently under review by the House Judiciary Committee.

Urge your local lawmaker to support a better life for sex trafficking victims by voting YES on SB 554.

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Surviving the Death Penalty

Ajamu joins members of the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition at a recent event recognizing its 10th anniversary. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is a member of the coalition and a long-time supporter of legislation to repeal the death penalty.

In August 1975, a jury found Ronnie Bridgeman (who has since changed his name to Kwame Kamau Ajamu) guilty of murder and a judge sentenced him to death.

“I was marked for death.”

He lived nearly 40 years of his life as Number 150.

Almost four decades later, a witness who was 12 years old at the time recanted his testimony and an Ohio judge cleared Ajamu of all charges, exonerating him.

To date, over 150 individuals have been exonerated from death row, Number 150 being one of them.

This is his story of survival, perseverance and healing.


“The miscarriage of justice that eventually leads to someone  being put on death row – that destroys families. We look at the men and women on death row – a lot of us miss the wife, the mother, the sister, the father, the brother, the children who have been pulled away in a sense. No one thinks about them.”

Ajamu was just 17 when he, along with his older brother, was incarcerated and sentenced to death.

“My mother was the only one there for me.”

“When I got a five-year continuance from the parole board, it was on a Friday. I thought I’d call my mother after the weekend.”

The call was never made; Ajamu’s mother passed away that Friday.


“You cried, ‘I didn’t do it’ the first day.” After that, Ajamu was determined to prove his innocence through action.

While incarcerated, Ajamu focused on educating fellow inmates as a way to cope with his sentence. He and five other inmates started an education system within the prison by establishing a cooking school.

“On my watch thousands of men got all the way from ABCDEFG to a Bachelor of Science degree because I was the one who would keep making them go.”

He would leave prison as the administrative clerk for the educational department for over 20 years and with one mark on his parole paper: Outstanding  Program.


“It has become a quest of mine to visit as many places as I can to promulgate these words:  end the death penalty.”

Today, Ajamu lives in Ohio and serves as Board Chair to Witness to Innocence, which is the only organization in the nation comprised of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their families who are dedicated to abolishing the death penalty in the United States.

“I’m not just a hired employee, I am a death row exoneree.”

“I think that anyone who comes into the particular situation as I have will realize that first and foremost you have now been given a platform and this platform is specifically geared toward death penalty abolishment.”

Ajamu acknowledges that his speaking engagements will never fully erase the scars of being wrongfully incarcerated; they serve as a form of healing and help to affirm his dedication to helping others – to help them helps him.

“We’re talking about human life.”


On February 13, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf announced he would grant reprieves  on all executions in Pennsylvania, in effect establishing a moratorium while he remains in office. Currently, 169 men and women are sitting on death row in the state.

Furthermore, Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) and Rep. Christopher Rabb (D-Philadelphia) have introduced Senate Bill 703 and House Bill 1466, respectively, to completely repeal the death penalty in Pennsylvania.


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