Bishop Sullivan’s relationship with Joe

Excerpt from the book “The Good Bishop” by Phyllis Theroux, pages 66 – 69.

One of the condemned prisoners Sullivan visited was Joe Giarratano, who had been convicted of a double murder of two sisters in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1979. With less than thirty-six hours until his execution, his conviction was commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Douglas Wilder, but to this day he remains in prison, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. When Giarratano met the man he calls “Bishop” he was on death row.

“It was a very bad time for me,” Giarratano writes. “I had foregone my appeals, I was mentally ill, I was being force fed (injected) with painful anti-psychotic drugs. I was convinced that I was evil and that I deserved to die. Volunteer lawyers were attempting to convince me to appeal my case and were not having much success. Bishop, late one afternoon, came to the prison unannounced and asked if he could speak with me. Initially, I told the prison officials ‘no.’ The captain of the guard replied ‘but that’s the bishop. You can’t refuse to see him!’ I refused.”

“Bishop came again the following day. This time he sent a message. I don’t recall the exact words but it was something to the effect, ‘I’m not trying to change your mind,’ and said something about the last rites. I agreed to see him, and he was brought to the basement. We spoke. I asked him if he believed I was committing suicide. (One of my lawyers, an Episcopalian, believed I was.) Bishop said that he didn’t think so but he had not really given it much thought. I was looking for ammunition to rebut the lawyer: ‘l’m Catholic, you’re Episcopalian, Catholic Bishop says I’m not,’ etc.

“My first visit with Bishop was not very eventful, but I was a bit impressed. I sensed a genuine kindness in him. He was not pretentious. He made his distaste of the basement known to the guards/ death squad, but did so in a way that respected their humanity. He had a real sense of humor …. “Thereafter, every few months, Bishop would return. Whenever he came he had a hug for all of us. He was always relaxed, funny, never in a hurry to leave (often to the consternation of the local priest and the person traveling with the bishop).”

Sullivan wasn’t the only member of the clergy who visited Giarratano. “I recall one really funny incident,” Giarratano said. “I was a bit aggravated with the Church’s official position on capital punishment. I would often discuss it with the local priest who was a really nice guy, but a stuffy priest. He would get very condescending on the issue. So I decided to write a paper on the topic, ‘Capital Punishment and the Scriptures.’ I shared it with Marie Deans, who thought it was quite good.” So I sent it directly to the Vatican addressed to Pope John Paul. About a month later I received a letter from the papal nuncio in D.C. with a message from the pope sent via diplomatic pouch thanking me for the essay, which raised many valid points, and that I would hear more in the near future. When I showed the letter to Father Prinelli during his next visit he got all bent out of shape, saying that I should have cleared my correspondence with him first, and that the bishop was not going to be pleased. I wrote Bishop and sort of apologized and he replied that I should feel free to write the pope at any time. He asked me to say hello for him.”

Giarratano tells the story of another prisoner, Manuel Quintana, a Cuban refugee who spoke no English and who suffered a massive heart attack. The prison didn’t want to waste money on a death row inmate by giving him an operation and it was only after Giarratano and the bishop, among others, exerted moral pressure on the authorities that they relented. But before they could take steps to transport him to the hospital, Quintana suffered another attack and died. Various churches were asked if they would bury Quintana. “‘All hesitated and/ or hem-hawed about it,” said Giarratano.

Then the bishop was contacted, and he said he would take care of it. A funeral mass for Manuel Quintana was held at the Sacred Heart Cathedral with Bishop Sullivan officiating.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether he believes in the Gospel or Jesus, or doesn’t,” wrote Giarratano. “My experience with the bishop is that he lives the heart of the message.” Giarratano, a lapsed Catholic, attempts to do the same.

Since being released from death row, he has distinguished himself in many ways, including writing a legal brief for a mentally retarded inmate on death row, Earl Washington, which resulted in Washington’s being exonerated and released from prison altogether. In 1992 he worked with writer Colman McCarthy and his Center for Teaching Peace and with Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation founded by Marie Deans.

“Colman provided us with start-up funds. In short order we were able to obtain 501c3 status. I wrote to Bishop to see if the Church could help. Folks from the Office of Justice and Peace came to meet with us. We were awarded a sizable grant. Bishop was very supportive of the program, generally, and of me personally.”

Giarratano is currently incarcerated at Wallens Ridge Penitentiary in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, acting as a mentor and program facilitator in a prison ward dedicated to inmates with mental illness or the inability to function well in the general population. It is a new assignment that is already attracting attention from administrators in other prisons who have come to learn how Giarratano proceeds.

“Growing old in prison is hardly a joyful experience,” he admits, “but what I have gotten from Bishop in all my encounters with him over the years is that how I live my life is more important than anything I may or may not believe; that the most essential element in that equation is compassion.”