Killer Compassion

SOMERSET, N.J. — Father Florian Gall's friends grieved when he died of cardiac arrest in a New Jersey hospital earlier this year.

They're grieving again after news reports that Father Gall, the 68-year-old episcopal vicar for Hunterdon County in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., might have been murdered.

Laboratory tests show the heart medication digoxin was used in a potentially lethal dose in an “unauthorized external administration of the drug, probably either by injection or drip-bag,” the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office said. Digoxin is used to regulate the heart rate by slowing the pulse.

A 43-year-old nurse, Charles Cullen, has confessed to killing as many as 40 patients during his almost 20-year nursing career. In talking to law-enforcement authorities, Cullen admitted to being guilty of killing many critically ill patients to put them out of their misery, according to media reports.

When he heard the news that his friend, who was the longtime pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Whitehouse Station, N.J., had been murdered, Father Douglas Haefner's first reaction was anger.

“He was a very good priest,” said Father Haefner, the pastor at St. Matthias Church in Somerset, N.J. “He was, in the best sense of the word, holy. He was a well-integrated man. Prayerful. The Eucharist was the main focus of his life and spirituality.”

He was also a shy man who didn't hold grudges, Father Haefner said.

“I think Florian would want to see justice served in this case,” he said, “to punish the crime but to forgive the sinner. He would truly be a man of the Gospel.”

Cullen is being held in a psychiatric hospital near Trenton, N.J., while investigators in Pennsylvania, where Cullen also worked, and in New Jersey were evaluating his claims and re-examining the deaths of patients in the medical facilities that employed and often fired him.

“There is something wrong with a belief system and a society that says that the way you eliminate suffering is to eliminate the one who suffers, the sufferer,” said Sister Patricia Talone, a moral theologian and the vice president of Mission Services for the Catholic Health Association of the United States.


Dr. Michael Brescia is the executive medical director of Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., which takes care of cancer patients near-ing the end of their lives. He views suffering — and the one who suffers — in a way quite different from Cullen.

“I have patients who no have faces,” he said. “It's as if a bomb blew up their face. The tumor has taken away their face. It's disfigured. They're in agony.”

He said oftentimes the patient wants to die. There's also a constant battle with the insurance companies to beg them for the money to continue caring for the patients, he said.

“Culturally, this is what the Pope meant when he talked about there [being] a culture of death,” Brescia said. “Whenever things get very tough, very difficult, when the solutions seem very hard, when it's economically difficult, then you choose the easy route.”

But at Calvary Hospital there's a different culture at work — a culture of love, he said.

“We believe that no one has the power to kill someone because they're suffering,” Brescia said. “What we choose, rather than euthanasia or assisted suicide, is love. We believe that if you love your patients enough you can relieve their suffering by having competent, courageous and compassionate staff — not to unnecessarily and purposely prolong suffering but rather to treat it in a way in which the patient, the individual, does not suffer.”

“The problem,” he continued, “is that some people are misguided. When they see someone suffering, rather than taking the route of love, they take the route of death. They choose death over love.”

Brescia's philosophy is in tune with Catholic theology. According to the U.S. bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” life is “a precious gift from God,” and humans “are not the owners of our lives and hence do not have absolute power over life. We have a duty to preserve our life. … Suicide and euthanasia are never morally acceptable options.”

Conventual Franciscan Father Germain Kopaczynski, the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, said many physicians today do not even take the Hippo-cratic oath, which offers an ideal of how doctors should treat patients.

The center has come up with its version of the oath, which includes a passage that prohibits the administering of a lethal dose of medicine — even if a patient asks for it — or performing or omitting any act with the “direct intent to end a human life.”

“The Hippocratic oath has nothing to do with the Christian religion and has everything to do with human reason, coming to a conclusion that killing people, whether at the beginning of life or at the end of life, is unacceptable in a truly human society,” Father Kopaczynski said. “And of course we've lost sight of that once we let in the floodgates of abortion. We had to expect that we would want to kill at the end as well as in the beginning and pretty soon it will be in the middle, too.”

The majority of nurses are respectful of life and of people, said Diana Newman, the past president of the National Association of Catholic Nurses. But sometimes there are people who “buy into” killing someone else as a way to assist them, she said.

“Unfortunately, it's just the devaluation of life,” she said, adding that people sometimes take the view that they're in charge of life and not God. “That's an unfortunate point of view, which can infiltrate our profession.”

Carlos Briceno writes from Seminole, Florida.