Local Catholic leaders take ALS 'challenge' day after stem-cell controversy

CINCINNATI -- A representative of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and a local Catholic educator accepted a "challenge" on Thursday, a day after the local church came under fire for telling archdiocesan schools not to donate to an organization benefiting from a viral fundraising campaign.

Jim Rigg, superintendent of schools in the archdiocese, and Elder Principal Tom Otten took the “ice bucket challenge” to support medical research against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Participants record themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their heard and then asking several people to do the same and/or donate money to a foundation dedicated to ALS research.

The event took place Thursday morning on the football field at the school in Price Hill. Many of the school’s students were in the stands watching.

Both men promised to contribute some of their own money to the more than $31.5 million raised through the challenge to fund ALS research. But they said they would not do so through the ALS Association (ALSA) because it supports labs that use embryonic stem cells in some of their tests.

The Catholic Church is against embryonic stem-cell research because it involves the destruction of human embryos and conflicts with their beliefs about when life begins.

“Embryonic stem cells can only be obtained by destroying embryonic life,” according to a statement from the archdiocese.

On Tuesday, Rigg sent a letter to staff in the archdiocesan system demanding they not participate in any challenge or donate to the organization as representatives of a local Catholic school.

RELATED: Archdiocese douses enthusiasm for 'challenge' in local Catholic schools

"If your school is planning an effort to raise funds, you should immediately cease such planning, or direct your fundraising to another organization with a similar goal, but whose practices are consistent with the Church," Rigg wrote.

He made sure to articulate that the message was only directed to those considering acting on behalf of a school operated by the church.

"Individual Catholics are still free to donate their own funds to the ALSA, although our Catholic schools should not encourage, organize, or sponsor such efforts," the letter reads.

For instance, Xavier University's president, Father Michael J. Graham, a Catholic priest, took the challenge after being called out by University of Cincinnati president Santa Ono. Graham, whose younger brother Phil has lived with ALS for several years, called upon Cincinnati Bishop Joseph R. Binzer and Pope Francis to do it as well.

Otten wanted to clarify Thursday that the letter from the archdiocese was never intended to stop people from taking part in the campaign or giving to charity.

"(The letter) didn't tell us not to do it. It said not to donate to the ALSA," he said. "John Paul II (Medical Research Institute) was the suggested donation so that's where we are going to send our money."

In conjunction with their challenge, both Rigg and Otten said they’re going to make a monetary donation to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City, Iowa. That facility conducts research using only adult stem cells, which is morally acceptable under Catholic teaching.

"Part of this is to raise awareness that ALS does touch lives and we need to help those and raise awareness for them," Otten said.

WCPO has reached out to Graham to find out if and where he donated money.

In response to religious concerns, Maegan T. Bracken, manager for online fundraising for the ALS Association, said the majority of research funded by the group goes toward adult stem cell research.

"Currently, the association is funding one study using embryonic stem cells (ESC), and the stem cell line was established many years ago under ethical guidelines set by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)," Bracken said. "This research is funded by one specific donor, who is committed to this area of research."

In addition, she said, "donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem cell project."

There is no clear indication through media reports that other Catholic dioceses have issued similar warnings to private schools and their employees.

Web editor Brian Mains contributed to this report.

Below is the full video from Thursday's event at Elder High School

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