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Pulpit barb prompts walkout by Higgins Deacon, at Sunday Mass, faults congressman for vote favoring embryonic stem cell research

A deacon upbraided Rep. Brian Higgins during Sunday morning Mass in St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church for voting in favor of embryonic stem cell research, prompting the congressman and his family to walk out during the sermon.

The Rev. Art Smith, pastor of the South Buffalo church, said he felt "horrible" about the Higgins family's departure on "Respect Life Sunday" and offered an apology from the pulpit after the congressman had left.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo later issued a statement also criticizing Deacon Tom McDonnell's action.

"I can't tell you how terrible I felt," Smith said Tuesday. "While we have to always uphold the church's teachings regarding life, I don't think it's ever fair to publicly criticize someone who serves our community and our parish so well."

Added Kmiec: "The pulpit is not the appropriate place for confronting a member of the congregation. It is my belief that in situations like this, we are more effective when we have substantive, one-on-one conversations with individuals outside the context of the Mass."

Higgins, who was baptized and married in that church, apologized for walking out with his wife, Mary Jane, and son John.

"I want to apologize to the good people of St. Thomas Aquinas Church," Higgins said. "They should not have been subjected to that, and they deserved much better."

Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said the family was on hand primarily because the Mass was being said in memory of Shirley Higgins, the late wife of close friend and former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins.

"People were there because of Tom and his family and his wife," Higgins said. "And to use this as a forum to ruin that remembrance Mass was very, very unfortunate. I apologized to his family."

The congressman was less conciliatory toward the deacon.

"What he was doing here was trying to drive a wedge, and it was a cheap shot," Higgins said. "But it's what I do. I take hits [as a politician], and I accept that."

McDonnell declined to comment on the incident.

Noreen Curr of South Buffalo was among the congregants who considered the criticism out of bounds.

"I thought what was said was inappropriate, because [Higgins] was there for other reasons," Curr said. "I felt bad that he left."

McDonnell's sermon called attention to a Jan. 11 vote in Congress, which Higgins supported, that would authorize research using embryonic stem cells. McDonnell noted that Higgins was in attendance and suggested that congregants could talk with him about his vote.

The bill would allow federal funding for research involving stem cell lines derived from surplus embryos created in fertility clinics, of which 400,000 are frozen and otherwise would be thrown away as medical waste, Higgins said. Instead, he said, they can be used to promote potentially lifesaving research.

Smith, pastor of the Abbott Road church, said that there have been several phone calls expressing "disappointment and embarrassment" over what happened.

Smith said he spoke with McDonnell and planned to talk with him again. "I'm hoping the deacon will somehow express his regret," Smith said. "He could have done the whole [sermon] without publicly embarrassing Brian."

However, the deacon also took a swipe at Higgins over the same stem cell vote the day before in a 4 p.m. Mass, with Smith in attendance.

Smith said he felt uncomfortable over the deacon's remarks then, too. But he said he didn't expect McDonnell to repeat his criticism with Higgins in attendance Sunday.

"This is not my way of doing things. It really isn't. I feel caught in the middle, because I want to be supportive of both [Higgins and McDonnell]. I just feel so bad that it happened."

At a reception in Thomas Higgins' house after Sunday Mass, Smith was turned away at the door. "What happened was atrocious," Thomas Higgins said. "It wouldn't have done any good for him to come into the house, because people's feelings were so hurt."

Smith said he regrets that the congressman was not treated the way Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was when she attended a Labor Day Mass in the church in 2001 and was warmly welcomed by Bishop Henry J. Mansell despite her pro-choice position on abortion.

"What happened is so painful, so hurtful," Smith said. ". . . I wish that [spirit] would have prevailed on Sunday."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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