The Interview:
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 today’s 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.

He’s 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 doesn’t 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 become—in his humble estimation—a “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 of Evanston.

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 I’d 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 weren’t 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 hadn’t given it a lot of thought. Sister Miriam and Father Larry Craig, director of Kolbe House, were strongly against the death penalty.
Then the next execution in Illinois: John Wayne Gacy. And I’m told, “It’s your role as director of advocacy to speak out against the execution of [serial killer] John Wayne Gacy.” And I’m saying, “Wait a minute. We’ve 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 didn’t 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 Gacy’s 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 wouldn’t 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?
DGB: God.
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 God.
When Andrew Kokoraleis was executed [March 17, 1999], Gov. Ryan’s people said to the media that he agonized over the decision. I was very cynical of those reports. Since that time, I’ve gotten close to member of the governor’s 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. It’s pretty hard to come up with another answer other than God.
The “people in the pews,” the Catholics that I knew, didn’t 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 don’t want to believe that.

CNW: Because you work with and within the system?
DGB: Well, I want my streets safe. But if we’re locking up innocent people…I want my courts to be fair. I don’t want prosecutors to be concealing evidence. I don’t want the police beating people up to gain confessions.
Gov. Ryan has said it repeatedly, if this abuse happens in death penalty cases—the most closely watched of all cases—then 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 doesn’t seem to be the same amount of support for this issue as you’ll find for other respect life issues. Why do you think that is?
DGB: It defies logic. It defies the principles of our faith. I can’t explain something like that. Look at Cardinal Bernardin’s “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 it’s not just the death penalty, it’s 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 penalty.

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 that’s 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 O’Callaghan [current Respect Life director] has done the same. They’re 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 people’s hearts.