- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

A comedy based on apocalyptic fears, a tipsy priest, a girlfriend named Bernadette and the stern demeanor of nuns has inspired a morality play of its own.
"The Children of Fatima," a new play that plumbs Catholic angst and schoolboy foibles, opens tonight in a small campus theater at New Jersey's Rider University. The fact that it debuts on Good Friday has not gone unnoticed.
"Is there anyone who believes that any college would open an anti-Semitic play on Yom Kippur or an anti-black play on Martin Luther King Day?" asked William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization.
Mr. Donohue became concerned after playwright Michael Friel acknowledged that his work was considered "Catholic bashing" by some.
"I have faxed a letter to Rider University President Bart Luedeke asking him to do for Catholics what he recently did for Jews," Mr. Donohue said yesterday.
In December, Mr. Luedeke released a statement to Rider students that distanced the university from a campus appearance by New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, who has been widely attacked as an anti-Semite for his poem "Somebody Blew Up America." The poem suggests Jews had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks.
"In the same vein, I am asking President Luedeke to reassure Catholic students that the university does not endorse this play," Mr. Donohue said.
The plot makes light of a 1960s-era schoolboy convinced that the world will end if the pope reveals a secret message given to three children near the town of Fatima, Portugal, by the Virgin Mary in 1917.
The cast, clad in Catholic school uniforms, struggle with their adolescent faith and sexuality but it's not a swipe at the church, insists Richard Homan, director of the Rider production and chairman of the university's fine arts school.
"In presenting characters who fall short of perfection in their efforts to preach and practice the Roman Catholic faith, the playwright does not attack the church," Mr. Homan said yesterday.
"This production is the playwright's personal creative statement. Early readings and descriptions of play have offended some individuals," Mr. Luedeke responded in a statement issued late yesterday.
"I regret that some have been offended," he continued. "As I have expressed on other occasions, the University remains fully committed to the richness of human diversity and rejects racial, ethnic or religious discrimination in any form."
Still, playwright Mr. Friel told the local Princeton Packet newspaper April 10 that a "devout Catholic" friend claimed the work was "Catholic bashing." Mr. Friel who is Catholic himself emphasized it was his way of showing that religious and secular institutions and parents "use fear to get what they want. By instilling fear, they control you."
"As far as religion goes," Mr. Friel said, "I think you have to write comedy. It's so bizarre."
Mr. Donohue is skeptical.
"If this play has a universal message about the way institutions of any kind use fear to control people, then why, out of all the institutions in society, did Friel choose the Catholic Church to slam?" he asked. "Why did his friend label the play Catholic bashing as opposed to, say, institution bashing? And why is the play opening on Good Friday?"

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