NEW YORK—When the Church in New York gets its message into the public arena, the voice often heard is that of Public Policy Network head Edward Mechmann, a former federal prosecutor and Harvard Law School graduate, who has placed his talents in service of the Gospel.
And what talents they are. “He's filled with ideas and energy and excite-ment,“said Kathleen Gallagher, associate director of the New York State Catholic Conference. “He's a brilliant legal mind and a good Christian man. He doesn't have to preach his faith. It comes out from him, from his manner.”
As a lawyer and a spokesman, he has fought side by side with the archdiocese and Cardinal John O'Connor. Mechmann opposed New York City public school demonstrations of condoms and its materials advocating homosexual practices for elementary students. He lobbied against partial-birth abortion in Albany. And he lobbied to keep Church teaching about homosexuality “legal” in Westchester, when the county was deliberating legislation that he claims would have labeled such teaching as “discriminatory speech.”
But he wasn't always a big gun for the Church. First, he was a big gun for the state — until he was inspired to leave it all behind.
He spent six years in the Manhattan District Attorney's office, and three years in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn. In time, he “was getting tired of putting people in jail,“and decided to drop out of mainstream law and seek God's direction.
In 1993 he and his wife, Peggy, moved with their two children to West Virginia and worked with the Passionists volunteers in Appalachia. Living and laboring for a year with poor people in simple surroundings changed his attitude toward money and career goals.
“It was life-changing for me, for us,“Mechmann said. “To share meals [with the poor] and connect with them on a personal level gave me a whole new perspective on the dignity of the human person.”
Baptism by Fire
At the end of a year, with a third child on the way, he began seeking employment to support his family and heard that the New York Archdiocese was looking for someone to head up a new department. He took over the Public Policy Network in the fall of 1994 and walked into a maelstrom of controversy over the public schools’ curriculum.
On behalf of the thousands of Catholic parents sending their children to public schools, the archdiocese was lobbying against an AIDS program that required condom demonstrations in classrooms and a “Children of the Rainbow“course in “tolerance” that included books promoting homosexual lifestyles such as Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate. For Mechmann, it was baptism by fire.
“We would speak at public school board hearings, and homosexual activists would stand up, chanting slogans and throwing condoms at us,“he recalled. “My experience had been in the courtroom, where the atmosphere was controlled and civil. We would really fight it out in court but always maintain a level of professionalism and respect.”
Working with Msgr. John Woolsey, director at the time of the Family Life Office, Mechmann helped devise a strategy that won widespread public support and convinced a majority of school board members. Condoms and the offensive curriculum were removed from the classrooms, though the victory was not complete. Students can still visit school-based health clinics to receive condoms.
“Our argument before the school board was not specifically Catholic; we knew that message would not be heard,“ said Mechmann. “We said basically that if you're going to teach our children anything about sex in the classroom, teach them healthy values that will help them lead virtuous lives.
“There is no place in the schools for teaching values that are contrary to the majority of parents and against all religious traditions. From a health standpoint, we pointed out that condoms don't work well in preventing AIDS. In the end, most people agreed that this was a bad idea, a dangerous idea that was misleading our children, whom we should be challenging to be chaste.”
Successes — and Failures
Gallagher said that her office, the policy wing for New York's bishops, consults regularly with Mechmann.
“We have our own legal counsel, but I'm still on the phone with him almost every day,“ she said. “He knows the civil law inside out and is very aware of the legal and political realities in New York State. He is always searching for ways to introduce the Church's view within those strictures.”
Father John Bonnici, present director of the Family LifeñRespect Life Office, said, “He brings with him a great deal of experience in the legal world and has a keen understanding of the operations of public policy and how the teachings of the Church can be brought into that forum. I have come to rely on him in many respects.”
Mechmann is realistic about his efforts. “We win some, but sometimes we get clobbered,“ he said.
Especially frustrating is the failure of the state Legislature in the past two years to move a ban on partial-birth abortion out of committee. With the shooting death of Buffalo abortion doctor Barnett Slepian last year, the tide has turned even more against pro-life efforts, and Republican Gov. George Pataki is supporting a clinic access bill that threatens to keep pro-lifers far from clinic doors.
Regarding a parental-notification bill for minors seeking abortion, he said, “We busted our brains trying to get it passed but it was killed in the Assembly.”
Despite these setbacks, Mechmann sees hope in pushing the ban on partial-birth abortion, which he says is slowly turning the tide of public opinion against abortion.
“The deception at the heart of the heart of the other side's argument is exposed by the partial-birth abortion issue. They are cornered into defending the indefensible, the killing of a fully developed baby already coming out of the mother's birth canal,“ he said. “We can use this as an example of one abortion procedure and show that it differs little from any other earlier abortion.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.