The Foundation for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, made up of prominent businessmen throughout the diocese, invited Ridge to be honored as the key-note speaker at the gala $125 per plate Sixth Annual Dinner on May 8, 1998 in Altoona, to raise money for their Foundations projects. Under the leadership of Frank J. Pasquerilla, now deceased, the Foundation failed to consider Ridge’s pro-abortion stance. In their defense, they were simply looking for a speaker who would draw the most attendees. Pasquerilla was a friend and supporter of Ridge and had donated $43,000 to his campaign. Furthermore, one of Ridge’s agenda items was vouchers for school choice, a concept that stood to alleviate the crisis facing Catholic schools in the dwindling population of rust belt central Pennsylvania.
The invitation had not yet been made public when spouses of Foundation members, also involved in the pro-life cause, became alarmed and alerted other Catholic pro-life activists who wrote to and met with members of the Board of the Foundation. They also pleaded for Bishop Joseph Adamec himself to intervene, to disinvite Ridge. Given the scandal to the faithful of his Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that having a pro-abort speaker at this prestigious dinner would engender, this was not an unreasonable request. The public was unaware of this brewing controversy. No face would have been lost, early in January 1998, if it had been quietly handled in the appropriate manner by Foundation members and the bishop himself.
Yet this initial effort was met with rationalization and outright refusal, on the part of the Foundation and the bishop, to reconsider. More letters and meetings ensued, with appeals to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, the writings of Pope John Paul II, other American bishops, and Vatican II documents. Despite logical, cohesive, intelligent appeals, the diocese was steadfast in its resolve, and Ridge’s invitation stood.
Led by Tom Forr, an attorney, George Foster, an advertising executive, and Mark Chuff, a counselor, the group was driven by the demands of conscience to continue their efforts. After all the normal channels available to lay Catholics for the correction of the situation had been exhausted, including appeals to other hierarchy, the group was at a crossroads, and the months until the dinner were slipping away.
Throughout the exchanges Bishop Adamec steadfastly insisted that it was his "determination" as bishop that having Ridge speak was simply not scandalous, and because no honors were being bestowed, technically no Canon Laws were being broken. Between the lines, in personal meetings and letters, a refrain emerged from the bishop’s statements, that the laity themselves could become the cause of scandal in refusing to obey and abide by the bishop’s "determination."
On the other hand, it can only be said that the pro-life group proceeded with caution, charity, and humility, in a true spirit of prayerfulness. These were not right wing "kooks and cranks" shooting from the hip at some perceived wrong. They were well educated lay men and woman fully versed in the teachings of their Church and the Canon Law and moral theology principles that guided their actions. Most importantly they were guided at every step by solid, competent spiritual direction. In all things they acted with a clear conscience.
When it became clear that the diocesan path of rationalizing Ridge’s presence could not be altered by their efforts, a difficult decision was made to publicly oppose Ridge’s appearance, despite the bishop’s wishes. Once this decision was properly made and started to become public, a groundswell of grassroots support built quickly.
Utilizing his advertizing experience Foster organized a unified media blitz, posting pro-life bill boards, placing full page ads explaining the principles involved in local and regional newspapers, and getting Chuff and Forr as much media exposure as possible. As the event neared, regional newspapers reported on the controversy until it became a statewide story, eventually making it into the AP and UPI wires as well as the Washington Times. Chuff and Forr appeared on numerous radio broadcasts, making it quite clear that the problem did not lie with the local Church so much as with politicians like Ridge claiming to be both Catholic and pro-abortion, and being given the opportunity to speak as a Catholic at Catholic events. This was the primary focus behind the peaceful prayer protest that was being planned the evening of Ridge’s appearance. Numerous small donations come in first from their own diocese but eventually from all corners of Pennsylvania. What began as a Catholic effort quickly became a broad ecumenical movement. The owner of the park adjacent and surrounding the posh restaurant where the event was planned even donated the use of the park for the prayerful protest.
Lamenting this course of events, Bishop Adamec wrote in his Random comments Column in the diocesan Catholic Register:
"WHAT ABOUT THE GOVERNOR? It would have been my preference to leave this issue for after Easter. However, it has been thrust upon me by certain individuals of Altoona going to the mass media (both television and newspaper) on the eve of Palm Sunday. I regret that these Catholics chose such a holy time in which to air a disagreement with their Bishop. However, when I reflect on the fact that similar things happened to Jesus during that first holy Week, when He was asked to defend himself, the matter takes on a more meaningful perspective. . . Some are raising concern due to the fact that the Governor’s stand on pro-life issues is not consistent with that of the Church . . . I do not share the same concern over the Governor’s visit . . . it is incumbent on us to differentiate between the person and his/her actions. The Governor is not being given an award of recognition or distinction. He has been invited simply to speak as the head of state . . . The Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently responded to criticism of Cardinal Bevilacqua for allowing the Governor to speak on Archdiocesan property. A written policy of the Archdiocese states that if the ‘voting record or public expression is contrary to the teachings of the Church, he or she should receive no award, honor, or endorsement of any kind." But, the person may be invited to speak . . . In all of this, of course, there is the consideration of confusion and/or scandal. It is my belief and determination as Diocesan Bishop that there is very little danger of either. There are those who would rather not have the Governor present. However, the reason is not based on confusion, since the Church’s pro-life teaching is very clear, nor on the possibility of scandal, since the event in itself will not be the cause for others to do evil . . . The freedom given those who live in Christ not to obey laws that are contrary to the moral order does not exempt them from showing the respect due persons in authority . . . "
In their resolve to follow the dictates of their consciences, Chuff, Forr, Foster and the growing pro-life coalition found solace in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"907 "In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of the persons."
The best response to their bishop’s lament could be found in the text of the pro-life groups paid newspaper ads themselves:
" Let’s start speaking up for the unborn in our own state against politicians who call themselves Christians but betray their faith by their actions . . . Governor Ridge has been spending a lot of time and money in our area. Perhaps he knows we are people with a conscience. He attempts to buy the votes of Christians by proposing tax cuts, school choice or jobs in exchange for the life issue. This selling of the life issue for monetary gain has been termed "the taking of the thirty pieces of silver . . . As people of God we must not allow ourselves to cooperate with today’s Holocaust."