CRS refutes claims that it distributed birth control in Africa

The latest in a growing number of attacks in recent years by independent Catholic groups and individuals on U.S. bishops’ efforts to alleviate poverty, advocate for social justice and provide disaster relief has resulted in “major inaccuracies” and “unfortunate” allegations, Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent interview.

Woo was responding to claims made last month by the Population Research Institute that CRS, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ international humanitarian agency, uses funding it receives from American Catholics and the federal government to distribute contraceptives and abortifacient drugs in collaboration with population control groups.

“That simply is not true,” Woo said. “We have very strict policies against doing that.”

An investigation

The Population Research Institute (PRI), a Virginia-based nonprofit that argues against overpopulation and coercive population control policies, says it investigated CRS’ activities in Madagascar, and that its one-month investigation uncovered evidence that CRS health workers distributed birth control and abortifacients to people in 125 communes. The PRI report says its researchers interviewed “multiple CRS officials,” clergy and bishops, as well as officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government entity that provides funding to CRS.

Steven Mosher, president of PRI, told OSV that his researchers interviewed people “on every level,” from archbishops to CRS health workers in the field.

“CRS has denied that they are distributing contraceptives and abortifacient drugs, but the evidence we have on the ground is conclusive,” Mosher said. “(CRS) has passed on responding to most of our findings.”

Woo said CRS’ operations in Madagascar focus on water and sanitation, food aid, child vaccination, nutrition and malaria prevention, and that PRI’s reports were inaccurate.

“I think that had PRI reached out to CRS and talked to us during the month they were in Madagascar, many clarifications could have been provided to them,” she said.

Tucson, Ariz., Bishop Gerald Kicanas, chairman of CRS’ board of directors, echoed Woo’s defense.

“As far as CRS being an organization that distributes contraception and abortifacients, that is simply not true,” Bishop Kicanas told OSV.

Bishop Kicanas and Woo said they met with Madagascar’s bishops in September 2012. During several discussions they described as frank and wide-ranging, the Madagascar bishops never raised concerns about CRS distributing contraceptives.

“Not once was there any mention at all of CRS and artificial family planning,” Woo said.

In recent telephone conversations with USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Bishop Kicanas, Archbishops Odon Razanakolona, of the Archdiocese of Antananarivo, and Désiré Tsarahazana, of the Archdiocese of Toamasina — both quoted in the PRI report as sounding skeptical of CRS — repudiated the allegations.

Constant scrutiny

This type of scrutiny by groups like PRI was a constant reality for John Carr when he led the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. Carr said his office frequently investigated allegations that groups who received funding from the bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development engaged in activities that violated Catholic teaching, such as advocating for same-sex marriage.

Archbishop Razanakolona
Archbishop Odon Razanakolona, of the Archdiocese of Antananarivo

“You don’t want money going to the wrong people, (but) we ought to act like we are one community of faith instead of a collection of feuding factions,” Carr said. “CCHD is better, but it’s better because of the work of the bishops and the staff at USCCB, not because of angry voices on the outside.”

Criticisms from watchdog groups have prompted changes to how CCHD screens its grant applicants. In July, CCHD cut its funding to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights after the group announced its support for same-sex marriage.

Dr. Jeffrey Mirus, a philosopher and president of Trinity Communications, the nonprofit that runs the website, said the questions raised about agencies like CCHD and CRS are “certainly legitimate,” though the situation has improved.

“Rome itself has recently insisted that the various Catholic charities operate according to strict Catholic principles and not become so entangled with worldly values,” said Mirus, who told OSV that PRI was right to underscore CRS’ reliance on government funding.

“These funds always have strings attached and very frequently impose requirements contrary to Catholic moral teaching,” he said, adding that CRS was “far too much in bed” with pro-contraceptive organizations in combating AIDS.

Bishop Kicanas said the federal government does not coerce CRS into activities that undermine Catholic teaching. The government is aware of CRS’ moral positions, but still provides funding because of the agency’s effectiveness in disaster relief.

“The idea that government money requires us to do things against Church teachings is just not correct,” Woo said, adding that CRS does not apply for government grants involving family planning programs.

An ideological bent

Some Catholic observers such as Stephen F. Schneck, director of The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, perceive an ideological bent in some of the criticisms against the bishops’ relief programs. Judie Brown, president and co-founder of American Life League, compared CRS to Catholics for Choice, a pro-abortion group, on a blog entry titled “Counterfeit Catholics.” Michael Hichborn, director of ALL’s Defend the Faith initiative, hosted a video report alleging that executives from CCHD and Catholic Charities USA have close ties to pro-abortion and pro-gay politicians and organizations.

“Why must groups like American Life League always focus holier-than-thou scrutiny on Catholic organizations that work against poverty?” Schneck said.

Hichborn said that “moral compromise runs through all levels of the Catholic social justice movement,” and that those compromises set the stage for chastisements the Blessed Virgin Mary purportedly warned about in a 1973 appearance to a nun in Akita, Japan.

That sort of rhetoric, Carr said, is unhelpful. Carr also noted Pope Francis’ repeated call for Catholics to engage those on the fringes of society.

“CRS is a shining example of what Pope Francis is calling for, and it deserves support, not attacks,” he said. “If most Catholics knew the work CRS is doing around the world, they would be so proud to be Catholic.”

Remote cooperation

On the question of groups like CRS collaborating with non-Catholic entities, several Catholic commentators said remote material cooperation with evil is inevitable when operating in the world.

“For her moral mission in the world, our Church must sometimes be shoulder-to-shoulder with those who do not fully share the truth of our faith,” Schneck said.

Mosher doesn’t agree. CRS, he said, could still provide relief services without taking government money.

“I don’t believe there is no alternative to cooperating with evil,” Mosher said. “I think there is an alternative, and it’s called the Catholic Church.”

Woo said CRS collaborates with partners to provide relief services and emergency medicine to people in remote areas with few roads. Bishop Kicanas added that CRS evaluates its partnerships in light of remote cooperation and scandal, and that CRS strives to educate its non-Catholic employees — who are hired for their expertise — to understand the agency’s Catholic mission.

“This work is very important for the Church,” he said. “The Holy Father has made that very clear. It would be tragic if this negativity drained the energy from things that really need to be done.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.