BALTIMORE, Maryland, September 6, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Catholic Relief Services was caught promoting condoms in 2008 as part of its fight against HIV/AIDS, even so far as having an official policy to provide “complete and accurate” information on the prophylactics. Under the direction of now-Cardinal Timothy Dolan, they pledged a reform and explicitly backed Pope Benedict’s teaching that condoms merely exacerbate the AIDS crisis.

So why, four years later, was CRS still touting two pro-condom HIV programs in this May 2012 Youtube video? Combined, the programs have reached nearly 60,000 people, they say.

And why, in a 2010 operating manual for a community center in Vietnam, were they telling staff they should “not forget to provide information on local condom provision”?

CRS responds

LifeSiteNews asked CRS about the Vietnam manual last Thursday and was assured later in the day by communications director John Rivera that “CRS does not purchase, promote or distribute condoms, nor do we provide funding to other organizations for the purchase, promotion or distribution of condoms.”

“We continue to review all our publications and programs to ensure there is full compliance with this position. We thank LifeSite News for pointing out this inconsistency, which will be corrected,” he added.

The same day, CRS published a similar statement saying they were “revising” the document, and removed it from their website. They have also removed dozens of other documents with references to condoms.

Pleased with the seemingly swift resolution, on Friday we sought some clarification and asked about the other documents. We asked whether providing “complete and accurate” information on condoms violates CRS policy, and – noting that many of the pulled documents had been written or reviewed by high-level staff at CRS headquarters in Baltimore – we asked whether they were standing by their original statement that all CRS employees abide by Church teaching in their work.

Finally, given that CRS was apparently unable to resolve the scandal despite their pledges of reform after the controversy in 2008, we asked what assurances they could make to Catholic donors that the problems would be resolved this time around.

After multiple attempts to reach them, on Tuesday CRS indicated they would not be responding. Rivera reiterated it again Wednesday: “We’re going to let our statement suffice,” he said.

Scandal and reform

CRS’ official policy of providing “full” information on condoms – and even of potentially cutting funding to partners who refuse to do so – was first revealed by Russell Shaw and John Norton of Our Sunday Visitor on February 17, 2008.

The scandal was blown open in April 2008 when the noted moral theologian Germain Grisez revealed that CRS had distributed a flipchart in Zambia with graphics showing how to use a condom. The professor, then of Mount St. Mary’s University, called for a full investigation of the entire organization by an independent agency with full access to CRS’ materials, employees, and partners. He said any employees complicit in promoting condoms or other serious wrongdoing should be fired and replaced with faithful Catholics.

CRS’ then-chairman, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who was archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, initially defended the organization, writing April 30, 2008 that “in no cases does CRS promote, purchase or distribute condoms.” But he also called for a review and on July 29th, 2008 he said CRS was withdrawing the flipchart and retaining the National Catholic Bioethics Center for future assistance.

On April 6, 2009, Archbishop Dolan told the National Catholic Register that CRS had taken it even further. “We have withdrawn the document, but we and the board of trustees of CRS didn’t want to stop there; we said, ‘Let’s make sure this mistake is never repeated. And let’s make sure that our people in the field completely comprehend, understand and appreciate the Church’s teaching when it comes to chastity,’” he said.

Sean Callahan, CRS’ executive vice president for overseas operations, told the Register that CRS’ view on condoms “is entirely consistent with His Holiness’ position.” Only three weeks earlier, the Pope had provoked controversy after his comments on condoms aboard the flight to Africa.

CRS’ response seemed so resolute that LifeSiteNews held them up as a model of swift and transparent reform in an April 8, 2009 article comparing them with the Canadian bishops’ scandal-plagued aid organization Development & Peace.

Scandal redux?

So what happened? Was the pledge of reform just smoke and mirrors? Good intentions that dissipated over time? Or perhaps it’s just that a few problematic documents have slipped through the cracks?

Overall, CRS’ programs seem to have a clear emphasis on abstinence and fidelity. But the organization undermines that strong message when they mention condoms as a viable option, talk about their benefits, or, God forbid, tell clients where to get them. Unfortunately, it appears that they have been doing that even after the 2008 scandal.

Consider:

  1. Windows of Hope, a life skills program for 8-12 year-olds that CRS adapted for use in Sierra Leone, includes an “HIV puppet show” that suggests the facilitator tell children “some people use a condom” to protect themselves from infection.

    “A condom is a rubber tube that is put on a man’s penis before having sex,” it continues. “If a condom is used correctly, it keeps the fluids from the penis and vagina from mixing and this way keeps ME out of THEIR bodies. Remember that condoms are not always safe, as they may break during sexual intercourse.”

    CRS began using Windows of Hope in 2006, and have continued to use it as part of a program funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS from February 2008 to December 2012. CRS says the project “aims to have reached 30,000 adolescents and 90,000 secondary beneficiaries.” The curriculum has been unavailable on CRS’ website since Thursday, the day we questioned them.

  2. We Stop AIDS, an HIV prevention education curriculum published in 2007, includes an activity with a drawing of a box of condoms. It states: “Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that create open sores considerably increase the chances of both partners getting infected. This is why many HIV prevention programs also emphasize using condoms and getting treated for any STIs.”

    The program, along with its youth version In Charge!, was still being used as of May 2012, when CRS released a Youtube video promoting it.

    In the video, CRS program specialist Adele Clark says the two programs have been used in four African countries and they “continue to roll it out in other countries.” So far, the adult version has reached about 18,000 people and the youth version about 40,000, according to CRS. Both of these programs were unavailable at CRS’ website as of press time.

  3. In India, CRS appears to be recommending condoms as part of a “positive living” approach for those infected with HIV. In the northeast part of the country, they have been running an HIV care and support program called LIFEAID since 2008, using what they call Positive Living Centers.

    A training guide for counselors at these centers, published in 2010, indicates that one of the steps for “positive living” is to “practice safe sex.” Another handbook for counselors at the LIFEAID project, which was published sometime after October 2008 and appears to be an earlier version of the previous training guide, specifically suggests counselors facilitate discussions with couples on “condom use.”

    The training guide is now unavailable on CRS’ website. The handbook can be found at the website of Caritas Jordan.

    The LIFEAID project built on the “best practices” of a previous CRS project called Preventing AIDS in Northeast India (PANI), which ran from 2004-2008. An evaluation of PANI conducted by CRS staff, published in March 2008 and now also unavailable on the website, indicates a clear interest from CRS headquarters in condoms as a method of prevention.

    Throughout the PANI evaluation, the authors include “condom use” among a list of “correct ways” of protecting against HIV. They lament that there was not enough information given about condoms in the program, noting particularly that youth had not been adequately targeted with the condom message.


‘Personnel is policy’

So we’re clearly not talking about a few stray documents, but a range of programs being implemented in numerous countries on at least two continents. This suggests we’re dealing with a far deeper concern that simply cannot be addressed by merely revising a few documents – which seems to be the approach CRS took in 2008 and may be taking again now in 2012.

Phil Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, pinpointed what we believe is the crux of the issue at CRS: “Personnel is policy.” As Lawler points out, the problem isn’t simply the existence of CRS documents that promote condoms, but a CRS policy that has evidently allowed such documents to be published. “Revising the document won’t solve the problem, if the people responsible for putting that policy in place remain,” he writes.

Consider: The lead author on the PANI evaluation from March 2008 was Dr. Shannon Senefeld. She was also one of the named contributors to the pro-condom policy that sparked the scandal in 2008. Then in 2010 – after the scandal, after the promises of reform – she’s named as having helped write and review the Vietnam operating manual that told staff they should “not forget to provide information on local condom provision.” And she vetted the 2010 LIFEAID counseling handbook that urged HIV clients to “practice safe sex.”

Then in September 2011, Senefeld was promoted to Global Director of Health and HIV, where she oversees CRS’ entire HIV operation.

Senefeld also represents CRS as co-chair for HIV/AIDS at the CORE group, which is a major promoter of contraception. CRS has defended their relationship with CORE by arguing that it allows them to “contribute our Catholic voice to the conversation.”

Consider another named contributor to the original pro-condom policy: Daphyne Williams. LifeSiteNews reported Aug. 21st that Williams had worked only at pro-abortion organizations, including one called Pro-Choice Resources, in the years immediately before she was hired by CRS in 2008.

Responding, CRS stated Aug. 24th that Williams “has carefully abided by all Church teaching in her work for CRS, adhering to CRS’ strong position against the use of contraceptives and abortions.” But it seems that is belied by the fact that Williams also helped write and review the Vietnam operating manual, along with Senefeld and others.

In fact, CRS’ HIV/AIDS department seems to be filled with staff who have either vetted or written documents that promote condoms in some way: Jennifer Overton, Deputy Regional Director, East Africa Regional Office; Dr. Sok Pun, Health and HIV/AIDS Program Manager in Cambodia; Dr. Amy Ellis, Regional Technical Advisor for Health & HIV in Asia; Kristin Weinhauer, Senior Health & HIV Technical Advisor; Dr. Dorothy Brewster-Lee, Senior Technical Advisor.

Time to clean house?

CRS’ approach to reform seems to have been the same failed strategy that has plagued the Church’s recent responses to scandal, whether it be over clergy sex abuse or Catholic development agencies: entrust the reform to the very people who caused the scandal in the first place.

Thus we would submit that if CRS has failed to fully implement the reforms they had promised back in 2008 and 2009, it’s because they failed to clean house.

They need to go back and reconsider Prof. Grisez’s important counsel: “If the appearances of betrayal with respect to condoms are verified or other serious wrongdoing is found, those responsible should be fired and replaced by capable people with a good understanding of Catholic charitable apostolate and a firm commitment to act as faithful agents of the Church.”