Anti-Catholicism alleged in HHS grant denial

Church officials see signs of anti-Catholic animus in a recent decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to strip public funding for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ anti-human trafficking programs. 

In late September, the bishops’ conference was denied a new grant in favor of three organizations that refer victims of human trafficking to contraceptive and abortion services, which the bishops did not provide in accordance with Catholic teaching. 

“[HHS] made no case that there are a whole lot of people looking for abortion and contraceptive services. The reality of this is that there was never an issue in real life, but they wanted to make that an issue,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, USCCB director of media relations. 

Influencing outcome

Sister Walsh told Our Sunday Visitor that the bishops’ conference’s grant application lost points on HHS’ scoring scale because of its positions on abortion and contraception. Still, the HHS independent review board gave the bishops a higher score than two of the agencies that were eventually awarded the grant funding, Sister Walsh said. 

That decision angered several HHS staffers, who complained to their inspector general that the process was unfair and politicized, according to a Washington Post report, which quoted an anonymous HHS official who said political appointees — including HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic who has butted heads with the bishops over her pro-choice views — aimed to exclude the USCCB from the contract. 

“It was so clear and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome. That’s very distasteful to people,” the HHS official told the Washington Post, which also reported that HHS political appointees reshaped the request for proposal guidelines, adding a “strong preference” for agencies offering referrals for family planning and the “full range” of gynecological and obstetric care. 

“Their decision proves to be anti-Catholic, according to what I read in the Washington Post,” Sister Walsh told OSV. “What they did was say, ‘You’re not in the picture,’ which I’m sure you can’t even do legally.” Sister Walsh said that the bishops’ conference is gathering information and considering its legal options. She said as of early November no decision yet had been made to file a lawsuit. 

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for Children and Families at HHS, denied any anti-Catholic bias in the administration of President Barack Obama. 

“This administration has and continues to partner with Catholic organizations, including USCCB, across government,” Sheldon told OSV. “In fact, not long after their trafficking-related contract expired, USCCB received a $22 million grant from the Administration for Children and Families to provide employment services to refugees, asylees and victims of trafficking.” 

‘Resoundingly successful’

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the USCCB’s stance on not referring trafficking victims to abortion and contraceptive services. The lawsuit, pending in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, said the government “allowed USCCB to impose its religious beliefs” on trafficking victims. 

The ACLU said: “Particularly in a nation founded on the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church has no place in dictating the way that government funds should be used, and persons who have been victims of trafficking deserve comprehensive care that includes autonomous decision-making over their families and their lives.” 

In defending the contracts for the ACLU lawsuit, government lawyers argued that providing federal funds for the USCCB’s anti-human trafficking programs was constitutional and that the bishops had been “resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of human trafficking” since the USCCB was first awarded the grant in 2006. 

Sister Walsh said the Office of Migration and Refugee Services used the federal funding to establish a network of services that included food, housing, medical care, legal services, counseling and other assistance for trafficking victims. The bishops partnered with 163 sub-agencies that worked around the clock and could immediately respond to people in need. 

The bishops’ conference helped more than 2,700 trafficking victims since 2006. Christian and secular organizations, including the Salvation Army, YMCA affiliates, domestic violence shelters, World Relief and other subcontractors used the USCCB’s infrastructure to provide services throughout the country. One-third of subcontractors were Catholic-affiliated. 

“We had people in the field. We could serve a need anytime, anywhere because of the extensive network we had,” Sister Walsh said. “When you think of someone who has been trafficked, they’re alone. They’re by themselves. They don’t have the same support that any of us have with family and friends.” 

The HHS’ Sheldon defended the department’s decision. 

“We are fully confident that the organizations best suited to provide comprehensive case management to victims of trafficking were awarded the grants for these services,” he told OSV. “These organizations have a long track record in providing exactly these kind of referral services to women in need.” 

‘ABC rule’

Despite the denial of bias, Sister Walsh said there appears to be a new unwritten regulation at HHS. “It’s the ABC rule: ‘Anybody but Catholics,’” Sister Walsh said. 

William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, agreed with Sister Walsh’s assessment, and said the HHS decision follows on the heels of “several assaults on religious liberty,” including the Obama administration’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and HHS’ proposed mandate that all medical insurers, most Catholic agencies included, provide contraceptives and family planning services. 

“The lust for abortion is so thoroughly ingrained with many in the Obama administration that they will use any means possible to force the pro-life community to accept its radical agenda,” Donohue said. 

Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, wrote Oct. 23 in The Catholic New World that civil law once prevented anti-Catholic and anti-religious groups from attacking the Church’s institutions. 

“Now some of these groups are using civil law to destroy these very institutions. For some homosexual activists, pro-abortion zealots and for others who resent the Church’s teachings, it’s payback time for the Church’s recognizing their actions as objectively sinful,” he wrote. 

Strained cooperation

However, Peter Steinfels, co-director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, told OSV that he believes it is a “grave mistake” for Church officials to analyze the recent conflicts between the Obama administration and the bishops conference through the lens of anti-Catholicism. 

“There are some serious issues of religious freedom in the air, but in my view, it requires a very serious discussion about the question of religious exemptions, instead of a situation that gets inflamed by charges of anti-Catholicism on one side, and from the other side, suspicions that the bishops are trying to create a wedge issue in an electoral season,” Steinfels said. 

There has been a long tradition in the United States of cooperation between government and faith groups to provide relief and community services, with the understanding that those religious organizations would be provided certain exemptions in the interest of religious freedom. However, Steinfels noted, that cooperation is becoming strained in an increasingly pluralistic society. 

“What I have seen developing is a way of defining religion and religious activities in connection with those exemptions that is a threat to religious freedom, not just to Catholics, but to other groups,” Steinfels said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts