The United Methodist Church here is the kind of politically active place where parishioners take to the pulpit to discuss poverty in El Salvador and refugees living in Meriden. But few issues engage its passions as much as the death penalty.
The last three pastors were opponents of capital punishment. Church-sponsored adult education classes promote the idea of “restorative justice,” advocating rehabilitation over punishment. Two years ago, congregants attended midnight vigils outside the prison where Connecticut executed a prisoner for the first time in 45 years.
So it might have been expected that United Methodist congregants would speak out forcefully when a brutal triple murder here in July led to tough new policies against violent criminals across the state and a pledge from prosecutors to seek capital punishment against the defendants.
But the congregation has been largely quiet, not out of indifference, but anguish: the victims were popular and active members of the church — Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. On July 23, two men broke into the family’s home. Mrs. Hawke-Petit was strangled and her daughters died in a fire that the police say was set by the intruders.
The killings have not just stunned the congregation, they have spurred quiet debate about how it should respond to the crime and whether it should publicly oppose the punishment that may follow. It has also caused a few to reassess how they feel about the punishment.
At the heart of the debate are questions about how Mrs. Hawke-Petit’s husband, William, who survived the attack, feels about the death penalty. The indications are conflicting. Sensitive to his grief, many of the church’s most ardent capital punishment opponents have been hesitant to speak against the capital charges brought against two parolees charged with the killings, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.
“I’m treading lightly out of respect for the Petit family,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Stephen E. Volpe, a death penalty opponent. “I do not feel we, in this church, ought to make this tragedy the rallying cry for anything at this point.”
At the same time, there is a widespread belief that Mrs. Hawke-Petit was opposed to capital punishment. Having her killers put to death would be the last thing she would want, many say.