December 1, 2011 Print

House Committee Investigates Anti-Catholic Funding Bias

by Karla Dial

Members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform spent more than an hour sharply questioning two representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services about how a Catholic organization was denied a grant to work with sex-trafficking victims.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) worked with trafficking victims for several years with the aid of a federal grant, and was rated by HHS reviewers as the second-best applicant for the grant this year. But after the Obama administration issued a new edict this year, saying it would give “strong preference” to applicants who provide or refer women for abortion, contraception and sterilization services, USCCB lost the grant.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS Department of Children and Families, repeatedly answered questions from congressmen by saying he’d only been in his position for six months, and that he did not believe anyone had discriminated against USCCB. His answers appeared to anger several of his questioners, including Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Reps. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., and Chris Smith, R-N.J.

“In my lifetime, I know there’s a huge difference between what’s legal and what’s right,” Kelly said. “I have to tell you — we got gamed on this. We put language in there that would preclude the Catholic bishops from participating, even though they have a great track record and outscored other people. Maybe it’s legal, but it’s very disappointing for me, not just as a member of Congress, but as a citizen of the United States. All the good work they’ve done was negated by the language. That’s not right, gentlemen. It doesn’t make sense to me, and it’s pathetic that we have to have a hearing to discuss this.”

Sheldon said all applicants were asked whether they’d be willing to provide “the full range” of legal reproductive services. When USCCB said it would act according to the tenets of the Catholic faith, he said HHS asked the group to explain how it would work around helping women obtain services Catholics can’t condone. Its inadequate response, he claimed, was the reason the grant was denied.

“If the Catholic bishops had told you how to get an abortion or birth control, wouldn’t you agree that would be wrong under their teachings?” Issa asked.

Sheldon agreed, noting that “other faith-based organizations have simply not taken responsibility” for pregnant trafficking victims.

“You just gave me the answer I’ve been waiting for all day,” Issa said. “Their canons of ethics prohibited them from answering the question you say you went to them to get. They couldn’t tell you how to work around it.

“They don’t have the responsibility (to provide the alternative) — you do. It’s our obligation as government.”

Read The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops blog post on this topic.