Death row confirmation affirms life

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Deacon Tom Gornick accompanies his boss, Archbishop Alexander Sample, when the latter administers the sacrament of confirmation across the Archdiocese of Portland. But it’s the confirmation on death row that he will never forget.

Deacon Gornick was there to witness one of Oregon’s most notorious prisoners, Gary Haugen, receive the sacrament. Haugen was convicted and sentenced to death in 2007 for murdering a fellow inmate while serving a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend’s mother. It’s the mantra of many a death penalty supporter: even in prison these guys are so dangerous they need to be killed.

Yet here we have Gary Haugen “with tears streaming down his face,” Deacon Gornick told me, requesting confirmation into the Catholic Church.

For the ceremony, Deacon Gornick and Archbishop Sample were led into a dreary room with a small folding table and four steel cages about the size of phone booths. The cages made the anointing and reception of communion awkward.

“The men turned their heads sideways to be able to receive the host,” Deacon Gornick recalled.

Haugen and three other Catholic death row inmates arrived shackled and cuffed, each escorted by two guards. Before they could be locked into their separate cages, Haugen made a dramatic gesture.

“Gary knelt down and prostrated himself on the floor before the archbishop,” Deacon Gornick recalled.

Then the inmate said, ‘“I am not worthy to be here,’” Deacon Gornick said. “My heart was pounding like it’s going to jump out of my chest.”

Some Alaskans may remember Deacon Gornick. When I worked at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage, our parish invited him to present a week of reflection. He’s the director of evangelization for the Archdiocese of Portland, and unofficially directs the prison ministry there as well.

He serves on a state religious council, which helps ensure that prisoners’ religious beliefs are respected. Consequently, Oregon is the only state in the nation that provides a sweat lodge in every prison for Native Americans. It also avoids problems like the local sheriff who refused to allow a priest to bring hosts into the prison for Mass because they were “food.”

So, what prompted Haugen’s conversion? We’ll never know, of course. It could have been the influence of his sponsor, Catholic death row inmate Jeff Tiner. Perhaps it was his long coming to terms with life and death, in which he dropped his appeals and asked to be executed. He had a date set in December 2011, but Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber put the execution on hold and later suspended all executions during his term as governor.

One thing is certain: it helps to have good prison ministry, and an archbishop who becomes transformed himself when he enters the prison.

“Archbishop Sample becomes the perfect model of a priest to prisoners,” Deacon Gornick said. “When he goes in there he’s a pastor to those men in a way that is visibly profound.”

The archbishop told the men, “Christ knows where you are, because he was there once – a tried and executed man.”

According to Deacon Gornick, Archbishop Sample is “absolutely opposed to the death penalty” and never reluctant to speak publicly about the church’s views. The recent death row confirmation will no doubt make him all the more willing to “take the banner to the state legislature,” Deacon Gornick added.

That’s music to my ears. Leadership is important to help us understand that life has dignity, whether the lives of innocents or of sinners like the rest of us, even the worst of us. No bars can separate us from the Holy Spirit.

The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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