RAYMOND LEE STEWART met his Maker last Wednesday. He was not alone at the end. Stewart had the rare and priceless privilege of spending his final hours in the company of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago and one of the most admired church leaders in America. The cardinal prayed with Stewart and blessed him. He gave him a holy card bearing the words of the 23d Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." Because Stewart was not a Catholic, Bernardin could not administer last rites, but his presence must have been a source of extraordinary comfort and reassurance.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
Millions of Americans would willingly pay any price to have a cardinal -- a prince of the church -- by their side at the hour of death. What had Raymond Lee Stewart done to merit such an honor?
He murdered six human beings in cold blood.
On January 27, 1981, Stewart -- a career armed robber and thief -- entered Fredd's Grocery Store, a tiny market in Rockford, Ill. He murdered the 54-year-old owner, Willie Fredd, and a 20-year-old stock boy, Albert Pearson. When the police found them, each had been shot five times in the head. The next day, Stewart pulled into a nearby Clark gas station and murdered Kevin Kaiser, a teen-age attendant. At the E-Z Go Service Station down the street, he murdered again one day later, emptying his gun into Kenny Foust, who was 32. On February 2, Stewart struck at a Radio Shack just over the Wisconsin border in Beloit. He killed Richard Boeck and Donald Rains, both in their 20s, with gunshots to the head.
There was never any doubt about Stewart's guilt; he was quickly caught, convicted, and sentenced to death. At his trials, he jeered the victims' relatives. He threw excrement at jail guards and smeared it on the walls of his cell. For 15 years, as his lawyers filed one meritless appeal after another, he expressed no word of remorse or sorrow. Not until earlier this month, with his execution date finally set, did he offer a reason for butchering six innocent people.
In what the Chicago Tribune called "a 15-minute recorded diatribe," Stewart ranted about the assassination of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, and said that he had embarked on his killing spree "to get back at Caucasians for what they had done." How that must have comforted the victims' families. Especially those of Fredd and Pearson, who were black.
Stewart lived a vicious and evil life. He was unrepentantly guilty of the most heinous crime a man can commit -- multiple murder. Why would Cardinal Bernardin reward such a monster with a visit? Why would he bless him? How could he show compassion to a cutthroat so cruel and savage? What compassion has he shown to the parents and children and wives of those Stewart massacred? How many hours has he spent with them in the 15 years since their loved ones were slaughtered?
No one doubts that Bernardin, who has been diagnosed with incurable cancer, is a decent, godly man. When he was wrongly accused of a terrible crime two years ago, he publicly forgave and privately counseled the man who had leveled the false charge. That was a sublime example of Christian charity. It made real and vivid the words of the Lord's Prayer -- "as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Cover of a 1999 book about mass murder Raymond Lee Stewart
But it is no part of godliness for us to forgive those who trespass against others. On the contrary. The Scripture whose message Bernardin has devoted his life to spreading forbids showing mercy to the likes of Raymond Lee Stewart. "Your eye shall not pity him," it says of a murderer condemned to die. "And you shall burn out the evil from your midst."
The cardinal says he has written to the victims' families to express his condolences. He also says he plans to write to the murderer's mother. "I don't want her thinking I excuse the state for her son's death," Bernardin told reporters. Such even-handedness. Kind words for the families of the slain; kind words for the family of the slayer. Does the cardinal really perceive no difference?
Perhaps Bernardin is borrowing a page from New York's Cardinal John O'Connor. In 1989, after a woman was savagely raped and beaten in Central Park by a gang of young sadists, O'Connor visited the victim and her family. Then he decided to visit the rapists and their families. "I didn't want to be seeming to single anyone out," he explained. He offered to "make myself available to do anything that I could do to help them."
A society is far down the road to decay when its religious leaders show as much tenderness to murderers and rapists as to their victims. Compassion for everyone amounts to compassion for no one. There is only one moral response to a serial murderer who shoots six unarmed strangers, or a rapist/batterer who leaves his bleeding victim for dead: Repugnance and the severest punishment allowed by law.
Cardinal Bernardin's doctors think he has only months to live. There are so many people who need his love, his blessing, his time. Practicing kindness to the cruel is no way to spend the short while he has left. It is no way to spend the short while any of us has left.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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