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Deacon hailed for pulpit blast at Higgins Anti-abortion group says he 'did his job'

The Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee on Wednesday hailed a deacon who criticized Rep. Brian Higgins during Sunday Mass in St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.

Deacon Tom McDonnell's rebuke of the Buffalo Democrat for voting for federal funding for embryonic stem cell research led Higgins to walk out of the church during his sermon.

"God bless the deacon a thousand times. He did his job. If every bishop, every clergy member of all faiths did their jobs, we wouldn't have the shedding of innocent life in our country," said Stacey Vogel of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee.

The anti-abortion group's position was in stark contrast with the phone calls and e-mails at Higgins' Buffalo and Washington offices, which were running in his favor by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio, according to a staff member.

Higgins said his relationship with St. Thomas Aquinas Church, where he was baptized and married, is "very deep, very meaningful and very long." He apologized earlier for the congregation's having to be subjected to criticism of him during the morning Mass.

"The lesson here is that the Catholic Church has enough problems and should take greater care before allowing nonpriests to use the church as a forum to advance what clearly was a political agenda," Higgins said.

"I think the letters and e-mails speak for themselves and show the inconsistencies in what the church leaders have said."

One of the callers to his office, Marie Fitzgerald, a 45-year member of St. Thomas Aquinas parish, told The Buffalo News she was appalled by what happened.

"I think it was terrible the way [the Mass] was done. It's an embarrassment to Brian and to a lot of a parishioners who were there," Fitzgerald said.

She said she held the Rev. Art Smith, the church's pastor, partly responsible.

"I think he's the boss, and I think he should have put a stop to it," Fitzgerald said.

She also said McDonnell owes parishioners an apology.

"I think he should make a public apology to all of us and to Brian in particular," Fitzgerald said.

Vogel said she did not understand why anyone would be rallying to the congressman's side.

"You shouldn't care so much about Brian's feelings so much as Brian's salvation," Vogel said.

She also said the clergy owed McDonnell an apology for any criticism of him for "doing his duty" and said her committee would be giving him an award at its fall dinner.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com