Columnist’s views on death penalty, convicted priest

After reading Sacramento Bee columnist Marco Breton’s hang ’em high column yesterday regarding the death penalty, I decided to reread three columns he wrote on the Rev. Uriel Ojeda in 2012 and 2013. I did this because I recalled a tone of empathy and sadness in those columns for a 33-year-old priest who committed despicable crimes upon a 13-year-old girl.

The three columns  dwell on the downfall of a popular, charismatic Catholic priest. The headlines say things such as “Human flaws test devotion”; “Former ‘rock star’ priest facing trial as solitary figure”; and “Priest’s downfall a tragedy of faith, delusion and denial.”

Ojeda was charged in late 2011 with sexually abusing a girl beginning when she was 13 years old. The abuse began, according to the girl’s family, when he was a guest at their home and a parish priest in Woodland. It continued over a period of years. Ojeda was sentenced last July to an eight-year term and sent off to prison.

When the charges were announced, many parishioners loyal to Ojeda flocked to the courthouse to show their support and decry the persecution of their beloved priest. Some sang and chanted on a street corner near the county jail in hopes Ojeda would hear them, Breton noted.

Breton also acknowledged that he special feelings for Ojeda because the priest prayed over Breton’s father the night before he died. “The moment Ojeda spent with my family will remain sacred with us forever, irrespective of his legal fate,” Breton wrote.

In a July 2013 column, Breton points out the attorney Jesse Ortiz, “who represents Ojeda and is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Sacramento, is seeking to have Ojeda’s statements to diocesan officials barred from evidence as privileged information.”

Breton exhibits here none of the disdain he extends in yesterday’s column toward death-penalty lawyers whose “frivolous legal delays” and “legal manipulations” make the death penalty system flawed, in his view.

While understanding toward Ojeda’s frailties, Breton turned a blind eye to the plight of his victim, who surely was being ostracized by the congregation. He made no effort to tell her story of abuse and exploitation and possibly “acts that cannot be detailed in a family newspaper.”

Contrast that indifference with Breton’s denunciation of the “unspeakable crimes” committed upon a Yuba City boy in the mid-1990s, crimes “too gruesome for a family newspaper” and ones committed by a serial predator Breton views as evil and beyond rehabilitation.

While one could debate where to place Ojeda’s actions on a scale of depravity, it’s instructive to note that some lawmakers view the death penalty as appropriate in cases of sexual abuse of children.

The view of evil gets so darn arbitrary it’s hard to know where to begin or with whom. Breton envisages reforming the death penalty “so it stops being arbitrary and inefficient,” but would he be so enthusiastic if some prosecutor thought Ojeda’s crimes deserved the ultimate punishment? Ojeda already got the short end of the arbitrary stick when he became one of the few convicted priests to get a prison sentence.

Maybe when evil hits closer to home, one comes to understand the complexities of human beings and our flawed justice system. Still, Breton would do well to look beyond his acquaintances and ponder the inequities of our entire social system, one in which the poor and uneducated are targeted for death row far more than the upper classes. They deserve equal protection under the law, and all the time that takes.

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Ducks, geese and teenage girls along seedy stretch of river

I don’t know what to make of the two teenage girls in skimpy attire I saw last Friday afternoon. They were  wading in the lower American River. A minute later, a girl with a small dog came out of the woods and walked ankle deep in the river a hundred feet upstream. 

I saw them when I stopped on the bicycle bridge over the river just off Highway 160 north of downtown Sacramento. I was doing my regular 11-mile loop bicycle ride from my Land Park home in Sacramento. I like to take a break on the bridge and check out what’s going on in the river. Usually, I see a few ducks and geese and occasionally a heron or egret. Friday I wondered whether salmon might be cruising upriver as early arrivals on the annual spawning run.

Then there’s the human element. The bridge overlooks a thickly wooded area frequented by a variety of down-and outers, from grizzled old men pushing shopping carts to bare-chested guys in their 20s and 30s on bicycles to the occasional bedraggled woman. The woods on both sides of the river are dotted with homeless camps. Not so long ago, a sprawling homeless encampment on the south side of the bridge gained nationwide notoriety.

On my bike rides, I pick up the American River bike trail in Old Sacramento, follow it through Discovery Park and pedal out about three miles to the Del Paso Boulevard crossing. Just after this point, I usually turn right onto a spur of the bike trail that leads over the bicycle bridge and into midtown. This less-traveled section makes me a little uncomfortable, as it has for more than 30 years.

In the old days, I used to run along the bike trail and dip into the horse trails that go through the woods close to the river. I loved the opportunity to get off in the woods for a good workout and come upon deer, pheasant and quail. Twice I saw coyotes and once a fox.

I had no serious trouble with the folks I saw camping in the woods. Being 6 feet tall and 200 pounds probably helped. Occasionally, I got some heavy stares and was thankful my New York City youth had taught me how to return hard eyes. Once, someone smashed the window of my car, which I had parked at the Del Paso Boulevard crossing. The cops were there when I returned from my run. “This is no place to leave your car,” they said as though I were a middle-class slummer.

Which I was and still am. I wonder what it must be like to live in this world and what has happened to put these people there. What goes on when the sun goes down? What do old guys do when chest pains strike them? How do they protect themselves in this jungle? Bodies are regularly found in these woods.

And then there are the teenage girls in their shorts and halter tops wading in the river. Do they live in the nearby trailer parks or ramshackle houses? Are they runaways living in the woods? Do they get a kick out of walking on the wide side? Are they reveling in the belief they’re invulnerable? Are they stupid? Naïve?

I took a long drink of water and start pedaling back toward home.



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Get gays in the church door and then what?

Once upon a time, I covered religion and ethics for the Sacramento Bee. I was assigned to this task by the managing editor who felt the Bee should try to explore the often contentious intersection of religious belief and the secular culture.

I was put on this beat in the mid-1990s not because of any deep religious convictions but because I was, in his words, a “thoughtful guy.” He considered that a good trait to have when dealing with the complexities of religion and the community’s religious leaders, who didn’t always see the “liberal” Bee as their ally.

I quickly learned that the powerhouse Protestant religions of the 1950s and 1960s – Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans — had been eclipsed during the Reagan era by the fundamentalist Christian evangelical movement. Charismatic pastors with impressive oratorical skills, business acumen and social savvy had built “megachurches” across the nation, drawing thousands to Sunday services in churches with generic names like Willow Creek Community Church and Fellowship Church.

 These pastors preached sermons of inclusion and acceptance rather than fire and brimstone and established many social, recreational and outreach ministries to tap into a wide audience.

 “Get them in the door before you scare the hell out of them,” said one smooth-talking local pastor in explaining his approach to building his congregation.

Given this background, I wasn’t shocked to read a Bee story Monday in which the Rev. Rick Cole, spiritual leader of the 7,000-member Capital Christian Center, said he has been reaching out to gays. Cole has been pastor of the Assemblies of God church since 1995, when he took over from his father, the late Rev. Glen Cole.

“I’ve adopted a love for gay people from my own heart, and we have a really great dialogue about faith and how we can encourage one another along the way,” Cole said. “Our church has gone from where we wouldn’t know if we had any gay congregants to where we know we have at least several dozen, and instead of being afraid to come here, God wants us to make this a safe place for people to grow.”

In the article, headlined “Pastor builds interfaith bridges,” Cole talks about finding more common ground with gays, as well as Jews and Muslims, in an effort to break down barriers and biases.

“There are so many things that divide us ethnically, socioeconomically, spiritually,” Cole said. “Part of my role and goal is to unify and honor people, bless people and affirm people.”

I think Cole is to be commended for adopting a civil, respectful tone in regard to gays, but I doubt that his idea of personal growth would match that of most gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.

 When he says “homosexuality’s still a complex subject,” he is speaking from the point of view of an Assemblies of God pastor. His church believes that homosexual conduct is both a sin against God and mankind. It also believes sinners go to a literal hell.

“Homosexuality is sin because it perverts the created order of human sexuality, the heterosexual fulfillment of both man and woman (1 Corinthians 7:2-5),” according to a document approved by church’s Commission on Doctrinal Purity and the Executive Presbytery. In addition, “homosexual acts are unnatural because of their high correlation with major illnesses and terminal disease.”

In case the point isn’t clear, the document further states: “Clearly on every front, whether it be moral, spiritual, physical, or psychological, the practice of homosexuality has proven itself devoid of any individual good or social benefit. Furthermore, the historical record shows homosexuality as detrimental to the well-being of the individual participant, the extended family, and society at large.”

Peruse the Assemblies of God news website and you’ll find articles on gender conversion therapy, homosexuals in the schools and workplace, and the damage inflicted on children by same-sex parents.

The Rev. Cole’s brand of tolerance may get some gays and lesbians in the door, but God only knows what may come after that.


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NBA pushes to exploit young players even more

When NBA executives start talking about protecting the youth of America, you know, especially if you’re a Sacramento taxpayer, they’re talking about protecting their own self-interest at someone else’s expense.

The last time former NBA Commissioner David Stern came to River City, he played local politicians to the tune of $300 million for a new Kings arena. Now Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, and his assistants are leading the charge to raise the eligibility age for incoming pro ballplayers to 20 or two years out of high school from the current 19 or one year beyond high school.

“I think it is clear that two years of pre-NBA experience would be better for the players and better for our game,” said Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s senior vice president for basketball operations, in a New York Times piece Sunday.  “The players would be more mature, better equipped to contribute on the court and adapt to life off it. The drafts would be better, with teams having additional opportunities to evaluate talent and make more informed decisions about important picks. The college game would be healthier, with some of the world’s most gifted young players spending another year on campus and giving their fans another chance to watch them chase a national championship.”

What’s missing in Vandeweghe’s presentation is the sordid manipulation and exploitation of talented young players and the corruption of ethical values at big-time colleges that profit from the NBA’s policy. Teenage stars who could be making millions of dollars as NBA rookies are funneled into college training grounds for a one-and-done year. They risk injury for a pittance, while the universities use their talents to collect big bucks from television revenue.

A two-year eligibility rule would benefit the NBA for the reasons Vandeweghe gives while further enriching the colleges. Of course, these respected institutions of higher learning would have to find ever more creative ways of keeping their athletes academically eligible during this period of indentured servitude.

In a meeting with the league’s owners last spring, a meeting that just happened to include NCAA president Mark Emmert, Silver said: “If we’re going to be successful in raising the age from 19 to 20, part and parcel in those negotiations goes to the treatment of players on those college campuses and closing the gap between what their scholarships cover and their expenses.”

Wow! Such generosity from a league that saw revenue hit $4.6 billion for the league’s 30 teams last year, according to Forbes online magazine. One wonders how the league and the players’ union got the right to decide when young athletes could participate in the American job market.

As sports agent Arn Tellem noted in a Times’ article recently: “Gifted high school basketball players should not be denied access to the job market in their sport. Turning pro is, after all, a career choice for only a select few. The longer a player is kept out of the draft, the greater the risk of a career-threatening injury.”

If the NBA really cared about young players, many of whom have no interest in college, it would use its own resources to create an appropriate minor league system or expand the NBA Development League. But then the league wouldn’t be using other people’s money and assets for its own profit — and that’s the NBA game plan.



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Home improvement: One change begets others


A new fence and weed removal provide a promising start.

In the beginning there was a mess.

In the beginning there was a mess.











I could have squandered a lot of time at Home Depot the other morning trying to figure out which of the various types of ready-mix concrete was best for my latest yard project. How much difference could there be between concrete meant for fence posts and concrete for driveway slabs?

If I were building a house foundation, maybe I would have rounded up a clerk to give me a lesson on the properties of concrete. I was planning to put concrete in a dirt hole to support a post for a clothesline that my wife, Carol, assured me would save us money on utilities and be environmentally friendly.

Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled at the request for a clothesline because I had an emerging vision of how to beautify the project area — a narrow 50-foot long strip between the house and the neighbor’s driveway. This area had received little attention over the years. The 30-year-old sagging fence was largely supported by the stumps of privet shrubs. A large mock orange tree blocked out sunlight into our bedrooms. Weeds failed to hide the struggling 18-year-old air conditioner.  The best that could be said for the area was that it didn’t require any watering.

I finally decided to grapple with this mess because of the primary law on home improvements: improve one area and you realize how tacky nearby things look. In this case, it’s the anticipation of getting of new windows to replace the decades-old casement windows that don’t open because they’ve been painted over repeatedly.

The prospect of new windows made me realize that I might actually open the shutters in my study to let in fresh air. That would mean looking at the mess outside. Did I want to do that for the rest of my life, or at least until moving into an assisted-living facility? No, I didn’t. And what about the aging carpet and walls pockmarked by nail holes in my study? Carol had already registered a minor complaint.

First, I repainted the study and had new carpet and floor molding installed. Then I found a colorful art-deco ceiling lamp and risked electrocution by putting it up myself. After that, I chatted with my neighbor about a new fence. He agreed to split the cost. But before that could be done, the mock orange tree had to come down and a stump grinder had to be called to remove nine privet stumps and heavy roots along the fence line.

My stepson and friend built a fine redwood fence and gate. I applied three gallons of semi-transparent gray-green stain. I consulted several of my books on Japanese gardens. A vision of beauty began to take hold. Then Carol requested a modest clothesline, even just a summer-only one. Perhaps I could install a removable post and put a hook on the gate, she suggested.

At Home Depot, I decided to waste no time figuring out which variety of concrete to buy. More important was deciding among bags weighing 50, 60 and 80 pounds. How much of a he-man dare I be at 68? Sixty-pounds bags would be just fine and could serve as my weight-lifting for the day, along with 50-pound bags of sand and a pile of bricks for a walkway I envisioned.

After that, who knows? Change one thing and get ready to tap into your savings.



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