Category: Archive

Philadelphia center founder quits in honors row

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

The founder of the Philadelphia Immigration Resource Center has quit his position as director.

The center, in Upper Darby, is embroiled this week in a row over its decision to honor actor Martin Sheen and veteran anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan.

Tom Conaghan, whose name has been synonymous with the center since it was established in 1998 to help Irish immigrants in the Delaware Valley area, told the Echo that he had decided to leave in part due to the decision by the center’s board to honor the actor and priest, both well-known social activists.

Conaghan also revealed that he is planning to open a new immigration center in the Upper Darby area that would primarily focus on the needs of Irish immigrants.

Sheen and Berrigan will be feted tonight, Wednesday, at the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel in downtown Philadelphia.

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Both men have Tipperary roots and are being presented with the Dennis Clark Solas Award, a distinction that is named after both the late Dennis Clark — who chronicled the Irish immigrant story in Philadelphia in a number of books — and the Irish language word for "light."

However, a number of Irish American groups in the Philadelphia area have taken a dim view of the Resource Center’s decision to honor Berrigan and Sheen because of their apparent at least limited support for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted 19 years ago of gunning down an Irish American Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner.

A number of Irish-American groups, most prominently the Federation of Irish American Societies of the Delaware Valley and several AOH divisions in the area, including one named after Officer Faulkner, are boycotting the awards event.

There has also been a significant drop in support from the local Irish business community for this year’s awards dinner and a number of individuals have threatened to picket the event, during which about 400 guests will at one point join Sheen in viewing the season’s finale of the NBC drama series "The West Wing," in which Sheen stars as the U.S. president.

Anne O’Callaghan, who chairs the Resource Center board, told the Echo that the awards dinner is going ahead.

"I’m being accused of destroying the Irish community in Philadelphia," said O’Callaghan, who noted that she has received many calls of complaint, some of them abusive. "But everything is going ahead and we’re expecting a good crowd, close to 400 people."

However, O’Callaghan added that the number of attendees would have been far higher if not for what she described as the "huge rumpus" over the choice of honorees and a resulting "major boycott" resulting from the deep feelings over the Faulkner case.

O’Callaghan said she had given no thought to the to the case and the campaign for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal when the idea to honor Sheen and Berrigan had come up at a board member’s suggestion.

O’Callaghan said that the board, which last year honored Ireland’s president Mary McAleese, had voted 13-6 with two abstentions to honor Sheen and Berrigan, who celebrated his 80th birthday last week.

Only then, O’Callaghan said, did the Abu-Jamal case come into the picture. At that point two board members resigned.

"By this time I had researched what they [Sheen and Berrigan] had said about the Mumia case and it was clear that their position was only consistent with their long-held views on anti-violence and civil rights," O’Callaghan said.

She added that neither Sheen nor Berrigan had proclaimed Mumia’s innocence or had called for his release, although Berrigan was listed on a Daniel Faulkner website as a Mumia supporter because he had signed an Amnesty International letter to the New York Times calling for a new trial and as lifting of the death penalty in the case.

"This is America," O’Callaghan said, "and people can say what they think, but I fear there might be another agenda. Fr. Berrigan was honored at Villanova University last January and there wasn’t a word about it. Why are we being singled out?

"And it’s such a shame. We managed to raise $158,000 for the center last year."

Part of that sum was a $24,000 grant from the Irish government, which has supported the center since its opening.

O’Callaghan said that when the board first voted to honor Berrigan and Sheen, Tom Conaghan had been "just fine with it."

Conaghan said that his concern had grown as the deep feelings over the board’s decision had become apparent in the community.

"My main concern was that immigrants were increasingly shying away from the center," Conaghan said.

He indicated that while the Faulkner family had long and close ties to the Irish community in Philadelphia, the other side of the argument had more to do, he said, with "Hollywood types who really have not read the trial transcript."

"My concern and mission is the immigrants," he said. "They should have a place to go to where they feel comfortable. The Mumia controversy has been detrimental to the mission, has hurt the mission."

He said that he, along with others, are planning to set up a new center, also in Upper Darby.

"Working with new immigrants is very private and confidential. It does not need this controversy," Conaghan said. At the same time, Conaghan made it clear that he had his own feelings on the matter.

"What about justice for the Faulkner family. I am opposed to the death penalty, but I’m also opposed to a situation in which a convicted individual [Mumia] has such access to the internet, politicians and movie stars."

Anne O’Callaghan was doing her best to remain sanguine as the awards dinner loomed.

"I just hope that when the storm over this is over, the center will continue its work and we will find some creative way to heal the rift in this community," she said.

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