Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stealing Your Identity

Back in the spring, UPMC grudgingly announced that "a few dozen" of its employees were the object of identity theft by person or persons unknown, hacking into the health care giant's computers.  Then the number grew, to 300.  Then to several thousand.  By the end of May, UPMC admitted that all 62,000 of its employees were at risk of identity theft, with at least 800 known cases of fraudulent federal tax returns caused by the hacking.

I became one of the statistics this morning to a variation on identity theft, when I received within a few minutes four text and email messages, marked URGENT, from the bank of my main credit card.  Four purchases overnight were made on my credit card, and (for some reason) not approved by the bank.  The bank was contacting me, to determine if I had indeed purchased $61.30 from "Register A" company, $500 from a computer programming company, $499.97 in women's accessories (ME???) from "BAGZ", and $1,190.30 from "Tokyo GM Shokai Company" sometime during the night.  


I called my bank within an hour of the text messages as requested, went through the usual identity questions, and confirmed that I had not made any of these purchases.  As a result of this my card number was immediately shut down and that account closed.  A new card, and a new number, will be sent to me very shortly.   

My first thought was practical.  What accounts automatically used this credit card number?  Within hours I caught the blowback.  A purchase I made on Amazon.com about a week ago, of a few books, was stopped because -- surprise to them, not to me -- my card was no longer valid. Amazon.com was seeking payment!  A phone call to them, I think, will give me a few days to allow me to give them a new credit card number.

My next one is EZ PASS.  It automatically debits my account $35.00 when I go below $10.00.  No tolls for me for the next week.

But then I began to think, what did I do to cause this theft?  Or did I do anything to cause this theft?  Was my set of numbers picked out by Russian hackers from a Target purchase (oops, guilty), or some other retailer who's been hit by hackers, or just by random access? 

According to Wikipedia, credit card theft only hits 0.1% of all U.S. transactions, and has been trending down over the past six years.  But that's 0.1% of 12 billion transactions, about 10,000,000--one out of every 1,200 transactions.    

I am glad that some algorithm in the fraud protections unit of the credit card computers picked up the unusual behavior (for me) on my account and acted to prevent payment.  Up to now credit cards were a pleasant and effective way to pay for things at stores and online.  But now I have become another statistic, and a victim of theft, just as if a pickpocket had done his work.  


Coping with Suicide

The suicide by Robin Williams yesterday has brought to public light again a very sad reality.  Many people unfortunately take their own lives.  Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 38,000 Americans annually commit suicide. (This is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.) Over  the past twenty years the rate has varied from a low of 10.4 per 100,000 to 12.3 per 100,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which the rate is reported.

More than pity has been the awareness that despite Robin Williams' comic genius, there was real illness in his life.  He achieved sobriety for more than twenty years, then relapsed.  He dealt with drug addiction and depression.  

From news reports I've guessed that the most prevalent age group for suicide is teens/young adults.  But facts and figures from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention show that the most likely age group is 45-64, by white males.  The next age group, again, surprisingly, is persons 85 and older.  Men are far more likely to commit suicide than women, by about a ratio of 78% to 22%.  Estimates are that for every reported death by suicide, another 12 persons harm themselves probably with the desire to kill themselves.  These are estimates, because it is hard to distinguish intentional suicide attempts from non-intentional self-harm behavior.  

Perhaps the death of the great comedian will also give priests and minsters and pastors the opportunity to talk openly about the facts.  The Catholic Church wisely changed its behavior towards one who committed suicide.  We understand now that most of the time, whether observable or not, there are mental disorders at work in the person.  We should not try to judge the person who attempts suicide; rather, prayer, love and support are necessary.  The Catholic Church will bury someone who committed suicide, with a Mass of Christian Burial, and prayerfully commend their soul into the hands of our loving God.  We are also called to offer support to survivors and family members.  

I unfortunately learned this years ago when my Uncle Tony committed suicide.  I did not understand it.  Neither did his family.  But we all grieve, to this day, his death.

For more information visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  ( www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org ) or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( www.afsp.org ).    The Knights of Columbus also publish a fine resource, "Coping with Suicide:  Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Response," available on their website.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Prayers for Persecuted Christians in Iraq

The chairman of the Committee of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked his brother bishops to invite the people of their dioceses to pray for peace in Iraq this coming Sunday, August 17.  Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, made the request on Wednesday, August 6.  He also sent to the bishops a prayer composed by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, His Beatitude Louis Rafael Sako.  

Yesterday Patriarch Sako said, "The Christians, about 100,000, horrified and panicked, fled their villages and houses with nothing but the clothes on their back."  He described the scene as "a real via crucis" or Way of the Cross.

It has been much in the news over the past few days that the Islamic State has been persecuting Christians in northern Iraq.  Iraqi Christians were forced to flee the city of Mosul with only the clothing on their back.  Churches have been occupied and turned into mosques, the property, homes and businesses of Christians have been confiscated.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has given Christians in Mosul and other towns a terrible choice:  convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face death.  

A parish priest, Father Boutrous Moshi, in Qara Qoosh, a Christian area southeast of Mosul, said to a reporter for The Guardian, a British newspaper, "If Isis stays, there is no way the Christians can return.  It is up to God whether we return or not.  They have not burned the churches but they did set fire to the pictures and the books and broke the windows."

Again according to The Guardian, monks at the 4th century Mar Behnam monastery, a major pilgrimage site run by the Syriac Catholic church, were allowed to take only the clothes they were wearing.  Another Christian said, "There is not a single family that left [from Mosul] and was not robbed.  They took our money, gold, even the earrings from the women's ears.  They have taken our houses."

On July 22 Chaldean Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona of Mosul said what is happening is "a crime against humanity--religious cleansing.  It is an ugly word but it is what happened and is happening."  Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad, in an interview with Catholic News Service, said, "There are no words to describe [the Islamic State fighters].  They have no conscience, no religion.  Even though they talk about God, they don't know God."

Islamic State forces were also persecuting Muslims and members of other religions.  Shiite mosques were also demolished and all Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs were destroyed in Mosul.  

Yesterday, President Obama directed that American military carry out airstrikes against the Islamic forces, who were evidently overwhelming the small Kurdish military attempting to protect their cities.  Obama also directed that air drops of food and water be given to patches of Kurdish people fleeing from the Islamic State.

Christians in Iraq trace their heritage to the Apostle Thomas and other Apostles of Jesus.  They are among the longest line of Christians in the world.  Father Drew Christiansen, S.J., a noted expert on the Middle East, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, "The persecution and expulsion of Christians from northern Iraq by the Islamic State is the latest, most organized, highly destructive blow to hit the Christians of the Middle East in more than a century...Not since the Nazis' war on the Jews has there been such complete depredation of a people."

Pope Francis has repeatedly asked for Christians around the world to pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters.  Two days ago he also called for coordinated international action.  Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, "The pope is making a pressing appeal to the international community to take initiatives to put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, to take steps to protect those involved and threatened by violence, and to ensure the necessary aid for so many displaced people whose fate depends on the solidarity of others."  Father Lombardi said the pope was appealing to the conscience of all people and every believer in God.

Here is the text of the prayer offered by Patriarch Sako:

the plight of our country
is deep and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening.
Therefore, we ask you Lord,
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.
Lord, peace is the foundation of life.
Grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.
Glory be to you forever.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Big Book about a Big Topic

The older I get the fewer books I read.  I say this with real sadness, because one of the great great pleasures of life is to read.  When I was in grade school and high school, my dad would drive me to the Carrick branch of the  Carnegie Library about every two or three weeks.  There I would wander around and take out (FREE!) four to eight books.  Some I would read, some I would return and check out again to read later, some I just perused.  But the opportunity to read, especially in the slow summer months, was pure delight for me.

I especially like big books.  That is to say, long books.  One of my long ago achievements was to read the two volume biography (published 1955) of James Cardinal Gibbons by Msgr. John Tracy Ellis--all 1,600 pages of it.  Gibbons was a great Catholic churchman and a great American.  Another was the "magum opus" of theologian Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith.  I determined that it took me one hour to read just ten pages of his dense, translated-from-the-German, theological prose.  That's 45 hours for a 450 page book.  And, I remember, there were no typos, not one, in the entire volume!

On a lighter note, I have read all 21 novels by John D. MacDonald of his Fort Lauderdale beach bum character Travis McGee about six times.  And I am making my way this summer through the "alphabet series" by Sue Grafton of Santa Teresa private investigator Kinsey Milhone.  I'm up to "R is for Richochet."

A more recent big, and important book, is Eric Schlosser's Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.  Schlosser first came to national and international attention with his Fast Food Nation (2001), an expose of the fast food industry.  But this is an incredible achievement.  In one book, he manages to capture with detail and engagement the personal effects of "the Damascus Accident," in the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980, the science of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and the "science" of preventing an accidental detonation of a nuclear devise by their handlers, the military branches of the United States.  I say "science," in quotes, because the key word in the long book title is "illusion."  We thought--we still think--we (the United States military and the United States government) control these weapons.  Schlosser shows us otherwise.

The most chilling quote comes near the end of this tale.  After forty years of SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) which governed nuclear weapon policy for the U.S.A., General George Lee Butler managed to end "mutually assured destruction" as the one political response to any attack on our country.  He said in 1991, "With the possible exception of the Soviet nuclear war plan, this [SIOP] was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life.  I came to fully appreciate the truth...we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."

Butler can say this, after he learned of the long long list of "broken arrows," code word for accidents with nuclear weapons, over the decades since the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in the New Mexico dessert on July 12, 1945.  The list is frightening in the extreme.  Schlosser received a copy (through the Freedom of Information Act) of one document "Accidents and Incidents Involving Nuclear Weapons" from 1957 to 1967.  It ran 245 pages.  There were missiles accidentally released from fighter planes, missiles crushed in the elevator of an aircraft carrier, two missiles which fell out of a B-52 and landed in the backyard of a South Carolina family as they were enjoying a barbecue, missiles burning in Greenland and the United Kingdom, and safety problems galore.  Another report, detailing the period from 1950 to 1968, offered at least 1,200 "significant" incidents and accidents with nuclear weapons.  

The book personalizes this history of nuclear craziness with the real life stories of ordinary Air Force technicians, and what happened when one man dropped a wrench down a 9 story silo against the thin skin of a missile--which caused the Titan II rocket fuel to explode 15 hours later in the Arkansas countryside.  One died, several were severely injured, and the credibility of our military and political leaders fell again.

The author also describes the almost impossible "always/never" demand which nuclear weapons bring:  they must always work when they are launched or fired; they must never work when stored, transported or carried in time of peace.  

This history affects each one of us.  Though the Cold Ward ended a generation ago, we live in a world of too too many nuclear weapons.  Schlosser reports that today the United States has approximately 4,650 nuclear weapons.  About 300 are assigned to long-range bombers, 500 deployed atop Minuteman III missiles, and 1,150 are carried by Trident submarines. Anther 200 are stored in various NATO countries, and another 2,500 are stored in reserve, near Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We will spend about $180 billion (with a "b") over the next 20 years to maintain these nuclear weapons, run our weapon laboratories, and upgrade our uranium-processing facilities--and hope we never have to use them.

One nuclear weapon on the face of the earth is too much.

But we are not alone.  Russia has about 1,740 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and perhaps 2,000 tactical weapons.  France, Great Britain, China, Israel, possess nuclear bombs.  North Korea and Iran aspire to join that club.  That terrorists desire to possess these frightening weapons is not just the stuff of paperback writers. 

Schlosser maintains an admirable level of objectivity to this account.  He backed up his writing with 130 dense pages of notes and bibliography.  Only at the end of the book does he break his reserve and admit his fears--which should be ours.

"Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, literally out of sight, topped with warheads and ready to go, awaiting the right electrical signal.  They are a collective death wish, barely suppressed.  Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder.  They are out there, waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial--and they work."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"I thought we were all done with this"

The title above was the first thought I had when this story broke on Monday morning, August 4.  But the truth is, we are never "done" with this.

On Monday the news media reported that Bishop David Zubik sent a letter to all parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Conway, Beaver County, advising them that their pastor, Father John "Jack" Fitzgerald, was being placed on administrative leave immediately.  A person had come forward within the past couple of days and accused Father Fitzgerald of sexual abuse.  According to the diocese, the abuse allegedly occurred in Allegheny and Lawrence counties in the late 1990s.  The diocese followed its policies and immediately reported the allegations to the district attorney's offices in both counties.

The bishop also said that when Father Fitzgerald was informed of the accusation, he "vehemently denied any acts of sexual abuse."  Father Fitzgerald is 66, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1974.  Prior to this, no other allegation of sexual abuse against Father Fitzgerald had come to the diocese.

Administrative leave means that a priest is moved to a temporary residence, away from his assignment.  He is not allowed to carry out any public priestly ministry,  cannot administer the sacraments, dress in clerical attire, or identify himself as a priest.  According to the bishop, "If a determination is made that Father Fitzgerald did what he is accused of, those restrictions will become permanent.  If it is determined that the allegation is unfounded, all that is possible will be done to restore Father Fitzgerald's reputation and return him to active ministry."

Over his clerical career Fathe Fitzgerald served as a parochial vicar in Braddock, Butler, McCandless, Etna, Swissvale, and Ross.  He was administrator of St. Anthony Parish (now part of Christ the King Parish) in Bessemer, Lawrence County, from 1991 to 1995, when he became fulltime chaplain at Pittsburgh International Airport.  He has been pastor in Conway since 2009.

Some people, hearing this news, might be angry at the media:  Why do they persecute the Catholic Church?  Some might be angry at the alleged victim:  Why didn't he or she come forward sooner?  Why now?  One or two people might say, wrongly:  Well, we know that the bishops and priests are liars, and all of them are perpetrators of the young.

Here are some facts:  In 2002, the United Stated Catholic bishops promulgated "The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."  They issued a "one strike and you're out" policy.  If a deacon or priest has one credible accusation against him, he will never serve in ministry again, anywhere.  All clerics, seminarians, employees and volunteers undergo training in the protection of children and young people, and undergo background checks.  Every diocese has an audit of its performance by an outside national agency.  Since 2002 over 3,000,000 U.S. Catholic have gone through this training, "Protecting God's Children," and undergone state and F.B.I. background checks.

But the terrible fact is, sexual abuse still continues in our country.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse, usually by someone they know well.  Self-reporting studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.  

The Catholic Church, every religious body, every family, school, sports program and agency which helps children have to constantly be vigilant to protect young people from abuse, and to respond compassionately when abuse is reported.  Preventing child sexual abuse, and reporting it when when know about it, is every adult's responsibility.  If you know any child who has been abused, or anyone who has been harmed by someone who represents the Catholic Church, I urge you to call the diocesan victim assistance hotline at 1-888-808-1235.  Or call the Pennsylvania state abuse hotline at 1-800-932-0313.  

In 2002, the Catholic bishops of the U.S.A. made this promise:

We  pledge most solemnly to one another and to you, God's people, that we will work to our utmost for the protection of children and youth.

We pledge that we will devote to this goal the resources and personnel necessary to accomplish it.

We pledge that we will do our best to ordain to the priesthood and put into position of trust only those who share this commitment to protecting children and youth.

We pledge that we will work toward healing and reconciliation for those sexually abused by clerics.

Each year, as the bishops receive and review the annual audit report on the implementation of the Charter, the bishops renew this pledge.

Let us pray for all victims.  Let us pray for the accused, Father Fitzgerald.  And let us pray for one another, as Bishop Zubik said in his letter to parishioners, so "our words, our deeds and our prayers always reflect the healing love of Jesus."

St. Vitus BIG Festival!

Tonight begins the St. Vitus Big Festival.  All are welcome to come each evening from 6 to 9 p.m. for food, fun, entertainment, and more food.  The cooks are preparing wonderful food: 

  • steak, sausage, meatball and eggplant sandwiches
  • pizza
  • the famous New Castle pepperoni puffs
  • pasta fagioli
  • cavatelli
  • chicken on a rod and lamb on a rod
  • fried dough
  • spiral fries and
  • fresh baked desserts.

A new feature is the nightly food specials (while supplies last). 
  • Tonight, Wednesday is fried peppers and eggs with onions on Italian bread
  • Thursday, ditalini with peas in garlic sauce with Italian bread
  • Friday, fried greens and beans with sausage with Italian bread
  • Saturday, polenta with sausage in red sauce with Italian bread.

Each evening there is local entertainment.
  • Tonight, Wednesday, listen to the Lawrence County Band, and later, The Faiellas
  • Thursday, singer Gino Romano, the Red Coat Band, and at 9:00 p.m. The Baby Doll Dance
  • Friday, the Lawrence County Brass, and later, The Tonellis
  • Saturday, the Butch Nichols Band

Saturday evening at 10:00, our festival concludes with a New Castle tradition:  FIREWORKS by Pyrotechico!

We have a larger Kiddie Land with rides and games for youngsters. 

All are welcome!  The church grounds at 910 South Mercer Street, on the South Side of New Castle.  Come and see!