By Ray O’Hanlon
The pastor of St. Sebastian’s Church in Woodside, Queens, delivered an apology to parishioners at every Mass last Sunday following an appearance in the parish center two days earlier by President Clinton and Rep. Charles Schumer.
The Friday visit, which Msgr. Joseph Finnerty had understood to be a form of town meeting to address the concerns of senior citizens, turned into something more akin to a campaign stop for Schumer, who was engaged in a no-holds-barred U.S. Senate race with incumbent Alfonse D’Amato.
The meeting, first requested by retiring Democratic Rep. Tom Manton, also prompted a critical statement from the bishop of Brooklyn, Thomas Daily.
Finnerty, whose parents came from Galway, was subjected to threats after the event, apparently because both Clinton and Schumer take a pro-choice position in the abortion debate.
Finnerty alluded to the threats in his talk to parishioners. Speaking to the Echo, he dismissed the threats as the actions of "outsiders." He confirmed that one individual had actually assaulted him but stressed that he had been unhurt.
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Finnerty said it was "unfortunate" that the Friday event had become "overtly political." He added that he had been approached by Manton and asked to make the parish center available so that Clinton, during a visit to New York, could address concerns of senior citizens around the country with regard to issues such as Social Security and Medicare.
Woodside has one of the highest concentrations of senior citizens in the U.S. and several hundred make regular use of the St. Sebastian’s center.
Finnerty, pastor at St. Sebastian’s for the last eight years, said that he had first welcomed the idea of the president addressing issues of concern to seniors.
"Besides," he said, "it’s difficult to refuse the president of the United States."
Finnerty said he was unaware of what he described as a "hidden agenda" behind the president’s visit.
"We didn’t know that it was going to turn into a campaign stop for Schumer," he said. "We did not know that he was part of the program until the last minute."
When it became apparent that Schumer was also going to address the packed meeting, Finnerty let it be known that he was uneasy with the turn of events.
However, he said, it transpired that both the president and Schumer confined their statements to the senior citizen concerns. D’Amato was not mentioned.
The Daily News did report the president as saying that he hoped "we can get a little more balance in this Congress."
The only other issue to clearly surface was Ireland. A number of people expressed gratitude to Clinton for his role in promoting peace in the North.
"The seniors were happy enough to be part of the event. They take politicians with a pinch of salt. They listen and they make up their own minds," Finnerty said.
Nevertheless, he still felt it necessary to deliver an explanation to parishioners at Sunday masses.
"When I first spoke to the diocese about the visit, they agreed that it would be difficult to refuse to welcome the president for such a topic. The visit of the president turned out to be something else. It was not just a talk for senior citizens about social security but it was a campaign stop for a political candidate.
"This I regret because it gives the impression that the parish might be seen to endorse the position of a candidate, especially in regard to life issues. If I knew this, I would never have agreed to the visit."
Bishop Daily, in his statement, said he joined Finnerty in his disappointment because "the event might give the message that the diocese of Brooklyn supports the position of a specific candidate on certain issues, namely, and most importantly, abortion and that most egregious manifestation of it which is correctly called partial-birth abortion."
Bishop Daily said he was also distressed because the event tended to violate the church’s longstanding acknowledgment of IRS regulations that assert that church buildings cannot be used for partisan politics.
"If the politicization of this event has any redeeming aspect, it is that it gives us another opportunity to teach about life, about its sanctity, and about how violating God’s creation is a despicable act that diminishes society," Daily said.
The event, not surprisingly, received widespread media coverage. There was a front page photo in Saturday’s New York Times with a story in the paper’s metro section.
The Times report described Woodside as "a heavily Irish, Democratic neighborhood" that had supported both Clinton and D’Amato in past elections.