The U.S. bishop who chairs the board of Catholic Relief Services said that local Church leaders in Madagascar have given their assurances that the international aid agency adheres to Catholic teaching.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said that he and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York –president of the U.S. bishops’ conference – had spoken to Madagascar’s Archbishop Odon Razanakolona of Antananarivo and Archbishop Désiré Tsarahazana of Toamasina about allegations that Catholic Relief Services was involved in contraception and abortifacient distribution.
“They assured us clearly that they did not feel that this was something that CRS was doing, that they had great respect for CRS and great regard for the work that was being done,” Bishop Kicanas told CNA on Aug. 5.
His comments counter a report from the Population Research Institute which contended Madagascar’s Catholic Church was alienated from the U.S.-based Catholic relief agency and believed its work to be violating Catholic teaching. The report cited both African archbishops.
The Washington, D.C.-based institute on July 26 charged that the relief agency was “using funding from American Catholics to distribute contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices in concert with some of the world’s biggest population control / family planning organizations.”
On Aug. 5, Bishop Kicanas and other officials from CRS and the U.S. bishops’ conference spoke with Archbishop Razanakolona, the head of Caritas Madagascar.
According to the U.S. bishops’ conference, the archbishop said he was surprised to see himself quoted in the Population Research Institute report. He said he is sure that the relief agency follows Catholic teaching and does not provide or facilitate access to contraception, and that Catholic Relief Services has been a good partner that collaborates with staff in his archdiocese.
“Certainly the quotes do not reflect the conversation that we heard in our discussions with the archbishops,” Bishop Kicanas told CNA, suggesting there may have been “a translation issue” in the critical report.
Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, stood by the institute’s report, saying that CRS’ responses amounted to “blanket denials and general statements.”
“We did an investigation. We’re convinced that what we saw and what we heard is true, and we reported accurately,” Mosher told CNA Aug. 6.
He said he accepts that there is no current evidence of CRS involvement in family planning in Madagascar. However, he said that his reports focused on CRS cooperation with family planning in the U.S. Agency for International Development-backed SanteNet2 project in Madagascar, discontinued last month.
He said evidence for this cooperation with SanteNet2 is “indisputable.”
“There is simply too much evidence to ignore,” Mosher said, citing the statements of bishops, clergy and CRS staffers.
“I would not make such charges publicly if they had not been made privately and if no action had been taken. And I would not make them publicly if I didn’t have ample evidence to back them up. And there’s more evidence forthcoming, so stay tuned.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference, however, denied the claims. An Aug. 2 statement said that Archbishop Tsarahazana told Cardinal Dolan there had been some confusion on his archdiocese that was quickly resolved.
Joan Rosenhauer, Catholic Relief Services’ executive vice-president of U.S. operations, told CNA Aug. 5 there was confusion about “who was doing what,” but when the matter was investigated, they determined “that CRS was only doing programming that was consistent with Church teaching.”
The agency’s communications director, John Rivera, added that some reports about the relief agency confused the actions of CRS staffers with those of non-staff community health workers, who are chosen locally and are part of the Madagascar government’s health care system.
“Health programs in Madagascar are required by the government to work through government systems and structures, including the community health workers. These are not CRS staff, and they are not supported by CRS projects to engage in any activities that are contrary to Catholic teaching,” Rivera said.
CRS involvement in the country’s health care programs, including children’s health, nutrition and malaria prevention, required the agency to work through and train the community health workers, including those that are not employed by the agency, he explained.
Mosher said that the local archbishop had told PRI that these workers were under the supervision of CRS employees and were filing their reports with these employees. He noted employment among relief workers often overlaps.
“On the ground level, you don’t have three or four different people walking around to different villages. You have one, representing the whole project,” he said. “And so people on the ground naturally, as the Archbishop of Toamasina told us, are confused at how Catholics can be doing such things.”
Mosher said an independent commission should be created to respond to the Population Research Institute’s report.
He was also skeptical towards CRS partnerships with non-Catholic organizations that support some practices Catholics oppose. He cited Pope Benedict XVI’s January 19 address to the Pontifical Council Cor Unum plenary session, which said Catholics “must exercise a critical vigilance and at times refuse funding and collaborations that, directly or indirectly, favor actions or projects that are at odds with Christian anthropology.”
In an Aug. 7 statement, Mosher noted that Catholic Relief Services receives much of its annual funding – about $500 million – from the United States Agency for International Development.
He observed that the agency is only eligible for this funding “because it is viewed by the U.S. government as a legally separate, non-profit, non-governmental organization,” rather than “juridically a part of the institutional Church, reporting directly to the U.S. bishops.”
He suggested that the U.S. bishops conference should change the juridical status of CRS to make it part of the institutional Church. Doing so, he said, would mean forfeiting some federal funding but would also put the agency in a position to report more directly to the bishops.
However, CRS responded in a statement explaining that although its legally separate status allows the agency to receive federal money, “the bishops always have been in charge.”
“CRS was founded 70 years ago by the bishops and to this day remains an agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,” the group said, noting that the majority of its board continues to consist of U.S. bishops. It added that the organization “must be invited into any country where we work by the episcopal conference, and we continue to serve there only with the conference’s approval and support.”
Top officials also defended the agency’s policy on partnerships with the government and other aid organizations.
“No one can possibly address the universal needs of the world today alone. Partnerships have to take place,” Bishop Kicanas said. “What CRS is obviously concerned about is that we partner with people only in ways that we can faithfully do that.”
When CRS partners with groups that disagree with Catholic doctrine, the extent of their work together is limited to efforts that align with Church teaching, such as work to prevent malaria or offer clean drinking water, he said.
The agency’s commitment to Church teaching makes it ineligible from some USAID grants, the bishop continued, but there are others that can be used to “benefit people who live in very desperate situations” in a moral and charitable way.
He also noted that all employees, regardless of faith background, must participate in training programs to understand Catholic teachings and how to uphold it as employees of the relief agency.
“Pope Francis has very much called us to be a Church in the world, interacting in the world, including with people who disagree with us,” added Rosenhauer, and “there’s a rich body of teaching about how we make those decisions.”
She explained that the agency has a “very elaborate process” to guide its decisions about partnerships and contracts through consultations with its board of directors, other bishops, moral theologians, and U.S. bishops’ conference committees including the pro-life committee.
With some 5,000 staff members in nearly 100 countries, she said, CRS welcomes any information about issues that may arise “so that we can investigate and make any corrections if necessary.”
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