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Murder case leads to forgiveness, new life

Paula Cooper had good reason to think that June 17, 2013 would never come — at least, not for her. In 1986, when she was 16, Paula was sentenced to die, and with good reason: she had brutally murdered a 78-year-old woman in Indiana.  But Paula did not die, and, on June 17, after spending 25 years in prison, she began life anew as a free woman.
The story of Paula’s crime, and the unlikely friend she made because of it, illustrates one of the most challenging aspects of the Gospel —  Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.
Sr. Catherine Nerney, SSJ, author of RENEW International’s resource Lenten Longings, reflects on Paula’s story and this challenge of forgiveness.
“We behold the sacred mystery of God at work in Jesus’ dying and rising for the sake of the world’s salvation,’’ Sr. Catherine writes in the Lenten Longings faith-sharing book for liturgical year C. “God’s reconciling love is seen in Jesus’ suffering face and heard in his loving words as he hangs on a cross on Golgotha: ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ Does Jesus see something that we don’t? How is he able to look into a mocking crowd and see a people who don’t understand what they are doing? Is this vision, this attitude, available to us who live in Christ?’’
Sr. Catherine cited, as an example of Jesus’ attitude, Bill Pelke, the grandson of the woman Paula Cooper murdered.
Paul and two other girls, all then 15, had talked their way into Ruth Pelke’s house on the pretext of seeking Bible lessons. They robbed the woman of $10, and Paula, using a butcher knife, stabbed her multiple times.
Because of Paula’s  age, this sentence prompted protests and pleas for clemency, including a personal appeal to the governor of Indiana from Pope John Paul II.
At first, Bill Pelke thought the death sentence was just, that anything less would have demeaned the value of his grandmother’s life.
“However,’’ Sister Catherine writes in Lenten Longings, “in the months that followed, Bill underwent some difficulties in his own life, realizing ways that he had messed up. He began to think of this fifteen-year-old girl, Paula, on death row, coming to grips with what she had done. He began to pray for forgiveness for Paula, but he felt absolutely no love or compassion for her.
“Then, he realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that his grandmother would have had love and compassion for all her assailants, would have wanted none of them to die, and would have wanted someone in their family to have that same love and compassion for them.’’
Bill Pelke began to correspond with Paula, and the two developed a friendship, and Bill became an advocate against the death penalty, not just for juveniles but for anyone.
After a series of legal actions and court rulings concerning the age of a defendant, Paula Cooper’s death sentence was overturned, and she was given a prison term of 60 years.
By her own account, she was for a while a troublesome inmate, but eventually she accepted responsibility for what she had done; she determined to put her time in prison to good use and earned a bachelor’s degree.
Because of her behavior, she got credit for early release, and she left the prison on Monday, June 17, 2013 aiming — with Bill Pelke’s help — to lead a productive life.
Sr. Cathy NerneySr. Catherine, who teaches at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, has for many years incorporated the story of Paula Cooper and Bill Pelke into her course on Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
She presents Bill Pelke’s journey to forgiveness as a lesson for everyone:
“Such is the transformative power unleashed by Jesus’ action at the Last Supper,” she writes in Lenten Longings, “the power of take and bless, break and share. The same Spirit that led Jesus to give his very life over for the life of the world dwells in us also.’’
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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