It's About Time a Bishop Was Indicted

As regular readers know, I've devoted considerable time to writing about the child-molestation scandal engulfing the Catholic church. The core of this story isn't that there are child abusers within the ranks of the clergy, but that their superiors within the church have consistently enabled and protected them by hushing up their crimes, failing to report them to the authorities, and continually moving them to new parishes where they could prey upon new victims.  As the saying goes, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up.


This is just what we should expect from an institution premised on hierarchy, secrecy, and unaccountability. The Catholic church still conceives of the relationship between itself and its parishioners as the relationship between a king and his subjects: the bishops and cardinals have complete power and make all their decisions in secret, and ordinary Catholics are expected to be quiet and obedient - or as the Pope once put it, to follow the church's decrees "like a docile flock." And even after all the lawsuits, convictions, and consent decrees, the church's higher-ups still think in this mold - that "avoiding scandal", or in other words, avoiding damage to the church's public image - is the most important factor, outweighing even the need to protect children from sex predators. Late last week, we had further appalling confirmation of that.

In Missouri, a grand jury has indicted Bishop Robert W. Finn, head of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, on charges of failing to report a pedophile priest to the authorities. According to the indictment, Finn knew last December that the priest, Shawn Ratigan, was taking pornographic pictures of young girls, but didn't tell the police until May. In the interim, the priest is said to have continued attending church functions with children and allegedly took more pictures of at least one girl. (When Ratigan was caught with the photos, he tried to commit suicide, which the church also covered up.) What this story devastatingly proves is that Catholic hierarchy can't be trusted. In June 2002, in response to the first wave of stories about predator priests, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy which required the immediate reporting of known or suspected cases. And three years ago, Finn himself made the same promise in response to a legal settlement with earlier abuse victims. But even after all this, absolutely nothing has changed. All the church's promises are void, their words hollow. Since the church is never going to change of its own accord, the real authorities need to step in to protect the children delivered to its care and hold those who harmed them accountable. That's why I'm pleased to see a bishop criminally charged for the first time. It ought to send an unmistakable message to these men that they're subject to the laws of the world, not just the laws of the church. There are signs that the dam is breaking all over. Earlier this year, a Philadelphia grand jury returned a similar indictment against William Lynn, the archdiocese's secretary of clergy, alleging that Lynn had allowed known pedophiles to remain in jobs that put them in contact with children. I suspect there are grounds for many indictments like this, and I hope we start seeing more of them in the near future. It's past time that the Catholic church was brought to account for the unimaginable harm and suffering it's inflicted upon innocent children, so that people who support it can see what they've really been supporting. Image credit: John Yavuz Can, released under CC BY 2.0 license
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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