Hearing: Obama Admin Discriminated Against Catholics on Abortion

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 1, 2011   |   12:14PM   |   Washington, DC

A House committee held a hearing today on the decision by the Obama administration to deny to the nation’s Catholic bishops a grant for a program helping sex trafficking victims because it would not refer for abortions.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held the hearing on the administration’s decision not to renew funding for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) program to assist human trafficking victims.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had previously received a five-year $19 million grant to help victims of sex trafficking during the administration of pro-life President George W. Bush. Sensitive to how women are exploited in the sex industry, the Catholic bishops prohibit any subcontractors from using the funds to pay for or promote abortions. Instead, the Catholic bishops provide comprehensive case management services to survivors including medical and mental health services.

While the Obama administration extended the contract briefly in March, the bishops were recently notified that it would not be renewed. Instead, Obama officials awarded the grant to three other groups (Tapestri of Atlanta, Heartland Human Care Services of Chicago and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants of Washington) — even though the bishops have helped more than 2,700 victims with the funding.

During the hearing, committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said the decision violated the Obama administration’s “pledge to be the most transparent in history.”

“Unfortunately, today, we are presented with an example of how that goal is not being met and an opportunity to understand how the federal grant-making process has been politicized,” he said.

“The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has begun an investigation into the process used by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement to award grants that fund many types of care and services,” he told the hearing. “That investigation has uncovered many disturbing facts about the grant awards process, including: the most experienced and top rated national applicant was not selected, and lower-ranked organizations were somehow funded. The process was delayed for months while the agency struggled to find ways to inject new criteria into the process, and—of great concern—the judgment of experienced, career-level professionals was discarded when political appointees chose to overrule transparent decision-making.”

“These actions appear to constitute an abuse of discretion and undermine the integrity of the process, while potentially violating the spirit, if not the letter, of federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs,” Issa said.

At several points during the hearing, members discussed the fact that the Obama administration scored one of the applicants that received a grant ahead of the Catholic bishops more than 20 point slower on the scale of reviewing the grant than the high score the Catholic bishops received.

George Sheldon, the Acting Assistant Secretary at the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services testified for the Obama administration.

Sheldon was repeatedly asked by multiple members about how HHS could have denied the grant to the bishops even though their program to help sex trafficking victims scored the second highest when ranked against the other programs competing for grants. Sheldon was unable to give reasons why the Catholic program was not given the grant but protested that it did not have anything to do with abortion.

When asked by Issa what the bishops could have done to receive a grant, he called the question a “hypothetical” and said he could not get into a debate over hypotheticals.

Sheldon also admitted that the previous grant, issued under the Bush administration, did not contain a litmus test on abortion and he admitted that none of the victims the Catholic program helped said they received poor care.

Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle also commented during the hearing about the apparent discrimination.

“Since 2006, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has received Health and Human Services (HHS) grants for the case management of victims of human trafficking,” she said. “Through 2011, the USCCB received exemplary marks during evaluation of its services provided to these victims.”

“It is of great concern to me to see that this organization was not awarded an HHS grant this year, despite its proven record of responsible stewardship and success,” Buerkle said. “It appears that under this administration it is no longer business as usual.  The politicization of the grant process puts the integrity of U.S. outreach efforts into question and has instead elevated the priority of partisanship over the needs of those victims of human trafficking and purposefully at the expense of an organization capable of meeting those needs.”

As LifeNews reported, the nation’s Catholic bishops are considering a lawsuit against the Obama administration for denying a grant previously granted for a program helping victims of sex trafficking because the bishops would not refer the women for abortions.

More recently, 27 senators led by Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Marco Rubio of Florida, have written to pro-abortion HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting information on how the Department of Health and Human Services graded applicants for the grants and for information on why the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services was denied a renewal of its grant. The letter, dated November 9, gave Sebelius until November 18 to respond and to ensure that the Obama administration did not violate federal law when issuing the grants. They are seeking “a full explanation of your department’s decision” and an explanation for whether the bishops’ pro-life “position regarding abortion referrals was a factor in your department’s decision making.”

The letter seeks a list of grant applicants, copies of the applications, scores and comments from an independent review and documents related to communications concerning the decision to ensure no bias took place.

HHS officials say they made a policy decision and not one based on religion, but the decision to not renew the grant came after the pro-abortion ACLU filed suit against the Obama administration for renewing it.

The Washington Post previously reported that the decision by top Obama administration officials to deny the grant was so contentious, some HHS staffers opposed it.

“In the case of the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS stepped in to award the new grants to the bishops’ competitors, overriding an independent review board and career staffers who had recommended that the bishops be funded again, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents. That happened as the ACLU suit is preceding before a federal judge in Boston,” the Post reported. “The decision not to fund the bishops this time has caused controversy inside HHS. A number of career officials refused to sign documents connected to the grant, feeling that the process was unfair and politicized, individuals familiar with the matter said. Their concerns have been reported to the HHS inspector general’s office.”

“HHS policies spell out that career officials usually oversee grant competitions and select the winners, giving priority consideration to the review board’s judgment. The policies do not prohibit political appointees from getting involved, though current and former employees said it is unusual, especially for high-level officials,” the newspaper says.

The Post also indicates Sharon Parrott, a top aide to pro-abortion HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, was closely involved in the process and the newspaper added, “some HHS staffers objected to the involvement of the secretary’s office, saying the goal was to exclude the Catholic bishops, individuals familiar with the matter said.”

“It was so clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome,” one HHS official said. “That’s very distasteful to people.’’

Sister Mary Ann Walsh wrote in a blog post at the USCCB web site, that HHS operates on an “Anybody But Catholics” basis.

“There seems to be a new unwritten reg at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It’s the ABC Rule, Anybody But Catholics,” she writes. “The program worked well on the ground. but not so well for distant administrators promoting the abortion and contraceptive agenda, who bristle at the fact that in accord with church teaching, USCCB won’t facilitate taking innocent life, sterilization and artificial contraception.”