Migrants in detention have right to spiritual care, speakers at Vatican say

VATICAN CITY – Migrants and refugees in prisons and detention centers have the same right to spiritual assistance as any other person, a U.S. bishop told a Vatican meeting.

Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, told the Vatican’s World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees that the growing number of people in U.S. detention centers has made the issue of access even more urgent.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Bishop Wester said, “the U.S. government has turned to the detention of immigrants as another weapon in the ‘war on terrorism.’“

The government has increased the number of beds in detention centers 200 percent since 2000, he said, and it “detains over 280,000 persons a year, more than triple the number of those detained just nine years ago.”

Increased security concerns combined with an “onerous law” on immigration passed in 1996 has meant, in effect, that the government presumes undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers “should be incarcerated rather than released” while awaiting hearings on their status, he said.

Catholic dioceses, organizations that care for foreigners and volunteers “have had some difficulty gaining access to detainees for pastoral purposes,” because different facilities have different policies, he said.

Representatives of Jesuit Refugee Service and others “have found that detainees in the United States do not have access to religious literature, such as the Bible or Quran,” he said, and they seldom have access to a religious leader from their own faith.

Bishop Wester said the church must insist on several things: that access to detention centers and detainees is provided so that sacraments can be administered regularly; that pastoral workers can ensure detainees are being treated properly; that detainees can receive spiritual comfort and counseling; and that church workers can inform family members about how the detainees are doing.

But, he said, the best way to deal with the problem is to enact comprehensive immigration reform, regularizing the status of millions of people and keeping them out of detention.

Monsignor Giorgio Caniato, inspector general of chaplains in Italy’s department of prison administration, focused his remarks on service to migrants serving time in Italy’s prisons and jails for reasons unrelated to their immigration status.

In 2001, he said, foreign prisoners represented 16 percent of Italy’s inmate population, while in 2008 the percentage had risen to 37 percent.

Monsignor Caniato said that many of the foreign prisoners are not Christian and almost all of them are poor, which led the chaplaincy’s pastoral council to seriously look at whether their mission was primarily pastoral or was more appropriately that of a social worker.

He said the conclusion was that because the prisoners – no matter their faith – are human beings, the church is called to bring the Gospel to them.

“The difference, diversity or absence of religion does not impede the chaplain from being an evangelizer, even for the non-Catholic or non-believer prisoners,” he said.

If a chaplain cannot lead the prisoner in worship or engage in catechesis, he said, “he evangelizes through charity – the fruit of the gift of grace – and the witness of Christian values.”

In addition, Catholic chaplains must lobby to ensure that those prisoners have access to spiritual guides from their own religious communities, Monsignor Caniato said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.