First reported 10/6/2009 1:46 p.m.
Most of the drama at a recent health care forum at Ascension Catholic Church in Oak Park took place before the event.
The forum, a Sunday afternoon event on Sept. 20 called Under the Doctors’ Microscope, was originally sponsored by Ascension’s Peace and Justice Committee along with two political groups: Organizing for America, an offshoot of President Barack Obama’s election campaign, and the Democratic Party of Oak Park. But the political groups were removed as sponsors when the Archdiocese of Chicago weighed in after a parishioner at St. Edmund’s Church complained about the forum.
Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and in the church’s Pine Room, the forum went on as otherwise planned. About 250 people attended and heard a panel of doctors discuss options for health care reform. A formal question-and-answer session, such as you’d see at a League of Women Voters event (questions submitted on note cards), followed. Within the week, on Saturday evening, Sept. 26, another health care forum was held at St. Giles Catholic Church. That forum, which was sponsored only by two committees in St. Giles Family Mass Community, did not arouse controversy.
Chicago Catholic News identified Susan Jordan as the parishioner at St. Edmund’s who called the archdiocese to complain about political sponsorship of the Ascension forum. But the Rev. Larry McNally, the pastor at Ascension, said he was already in the process of removing the political groups as sponsors before the archdiocese got involved.
“If St. Edmund’s would have kindly called me I would have told them that, instead of running downtown, which really annoyed me,” McNally said. “It was all taken care of behind the scenes. I just wish their pro-life committee would have just called me. I would have said that we’re fixing that. I’m really just frustrated she didn’t call me because I would have told her that, you know, things were being corrected.”
Catholic Church policy prohibits partisan political events. McNally said that he agreed that the Democratic Party of Oak Park and Organizing for American should not have been sponsoring an event at his church.
“They told me after the flyers were printed,” McNally said. “They weren’t trying to hide things. Communications just kind of broke down.”
The idea for the forum developed when Jerry Delaney, the committeewoman for the Democratic Party of Oak Park, and other local activists came up with the idea of organizing a health care forum after attending a state of the district address by U.S. Danny Davis (D-Chicago) at Malcolm X College in early September.
There she ran into Margaret Fulkerson, an Organizing for America activist, who like Delaney was an active volunteer in Obama’s presidential campaign, and others who were interested in putting on a forum on health care reform.
“We were very concerned about getting health care reform passed,” Fulkerson said. “It’s a critical time.”
Fulkerson and a friend, Dr. John Tulley of the University of Illinois Medical Center, took the lead in organizing the forum.
Tulley invited four doctors to be on a panel: Dr. David Scheiner, Obama’s former personal physician and an advocate of a single-payer health care system; Dr. David Ansell, chief medical officer at Rush University Medical Center; Dr. Larry Goodman, president and CEO of Rush University Medical Center; and Dr. Linda Murray, chief medical officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health.
Delaney suggested holding the forum at Ascension’s Pine Room, an auditorium in the basement of Ascension School.
“Oak Park has an absence of meeting places where you can have large groups,” Delaney said. “The Veterans Room is really about the only place in the community to do that, and that was already booked,” she said, referring to the second-floor space at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library.
Delaney, a former nun, said she thought it would be appropriate to have the event at Ascension because the Catholic bishops have issued a letter strongly supporting health care reform. The Democratic Party of Oak Park paid for 1,000 flyers to publicize the event.
Attempts to contact Jordan for this story were unsuccessful. Jordan is the coordinator of Respect for Life, an anti-abortion group at St. Edmund’s. She is out of town, according to office staff at St. Edmund’s.
On the Monday before the forum, Fulkerson said she heard from John Owens, of Ascension’s Peace and Justice Committee, that the archdiocese told McNally that the forum could not be held at Ascension unless the political groups were dropped as co-sponsors. Fulkerson and the rest of the organizers chipped in about $40 to print new flyers that mentioned neither the Democratic Party of Oak Park nor Organizing for America.
The public relations department of Rush University Medical Center wanted to send someone to the forum to write about it, but that was not permitted.
“Father McNally said no,” Fulkerson said. “He didn’t want any press coverage. Then we were told we couldn’t have any press coverage and that was very upsetting because we had already sent out press releases … We were very disappointed not to have press coverage.”
Wednesday Journal had received notice about both the Ascension and the St. Giles forums. Because of scheduling considerations, a reporter for Wednesday Journal attended only the St. Giles forum.
McNally said it was his decision not to allow the press.
“I just didn’t want any more attention and pressure and conflict,” McNally said. “This was supposed to be something that was very positive and it was caving in. That was my call.”
Not allowing Davis to speak at the forum was a joint decision.
“I called the archdiocese and we made the decision together basically because he’s running for office and we wanted no political involvement at all,” McNally said.
McNally said he told Davis when he arrived that he would not be allowed to speak. That, he said, was not an easy thing to do. Davis stayed, was introduced to the audience, sat in the front row and took copious notes.
Davis’s reaction to not being allowed to speak? “He was very gracious about it,” McNally said.
Some weren’t happy about the decision.
“We were very unhappy that he was not allowed to speak,” Fulkerson said.
Another person who attended the forum had a similar reaction.
“How unfortunate that Rep Danny Davis was treated so inhospitably by an
Irishman in his home/parish,” said Mary Rose Lambke, an Oak Parker who belongs to neither church but who attended both the Ascension forum and the St. Giles forum. Lambke is a member of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park.
Another member of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation who attended both forums is Diane Scott, who also is with the Oak Park Single-Payer Action Network. Scott doesn’t want the partisan controversy to be what’s remembered about the forum at Ascension, which she said was full of so much good information.
“Obviously, the ‘respect life coordinator’ who filed the complaint wanted to give more focus to the Catholic bishops’ stand against abortion in health care reform. … As an ex-Catholic myself, I am always amazed at how much attention the Catholic bishops give to the unborn and how little attention they give to the living,” said Scott, detailing the points covered that she says should be of concern:
“How will I pay for health care if there is a mandate? How will I find health care with a pre-existing condition? Will my government-run Medicare program change? What options will I have if I lose my job and lose my health care?”
Fulkerson denied that the forum was partisan. She said that the doctors on the panel expressed a range of views. Mostly, she said, the doctors just answered questions.
“They were all in favor of some sort of universal health care, but there was quite a range about how to do that,” Fulkerson said.
“It wasn’t in any way a Democratic, liberal kind of thing,” Delaney said. “There were some disagreements among people whether the public option was the way to go. I wouldn’t say that any of them would go over with Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.”
McNally was pleased with the forum itself.
“I would do it over again,” McNally said. “There were 250 people there and I thought people really spoke with their feet by showing up. I thought it was very well received. My personal opinion is that I thought it was very fair. I didn’t feel we were promoting anything other than answering questions from folks. I thought it was very good. I really did. I thought boy this turned out to be terrific. It was just an emotional two hours. It was a very positive experience.”
Melissa Suran contributed to this report.