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The archbishop who chairs the board of Catholic Relief Services says the charity is taking a “close look” at its partnerships and affiliations to ensure fidelity to Catholic teaching. But some of the organization’s leading critics are concerned the new protocols are not going far enough to address the “scandal” that has enveloped the organization.

CRS, the bishops’ international relief organization, has been the subject of ongoing criticism for many of its partnerships and continued funding of organizations operating in conflict with Church teaching, with some calling for the agency’s dissolution.

But Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and CRS President Carolyn Woo both assured the U.S. Bishops at their fall General Assembly in Baltimore that the organization defines itself by its Catholic identity.

“We’re currently taking a close look at the nature of partnerships, the nature of collaborative relationships to ensure that what we are involved with, those with whom we are serving, do not entangle Catholic Relief Services in practices or support of things that are contrary to Catholic faith and Catholic morals,” Coakley told LifeSiteNews at a press conference.

In an address to the bishops, Woo indicated that CRS has established a Catholic identity advisory committee “with theologians and members who are drawn with approval from our board, particularly our Chair, Archbishop Coakley.” The committee members are yet to be finalized, CRS told LifeSiteNews.

LifeSiteNews asked Coakley at the press conference about CRS’ evolving policies and procedures with regard to Catholic identity, and whether this meant that CRS would be implementing controls to ensure its partnerships would not include organizations in conflict with Church teaching.

“Over the last few years at CRS we’ve been looking at policies that we have regarding training, for example, of staff, or Catholic identity and mission,” he told LifeSiteNews. “So a lot of it is just kind of fine tuning what we’re doing.”

The archbishop said being certain that partnerships do not involve CRS in practices or sponsorship of anything anti-Catholic is something CRS is taking “very, very seriously.”

“And we have,” he told LifeSiteNews. “And we will.”

Among the criticisms, CRS is said to have promoted and distributed contraceptives and condoms overseas, and given grants to abortion and contraception providers.

CRS’s largest CRS grant in 2010, $5.3 million, went to CARE, an international “relief and development organization,” that actively promotes and provides contraceptives and abortifacients for women in developing countries, and supports pro-abortion groups and legislation.

In 2013 CRS came under fire for its $2.7 million grant to Population Services International, a major promoter of abortion in the developing world.

CRS staff was reported in 2013 to have been promoting contraceptives in Madagascar as well as promoting condoms in 2012 in Vietnam.

CRS has either denied the allegations, or claimed that its funding is directed only to humanitarian aid and that it must partner with specific organizations that operate in conflict with Church teaching to complete its work.

At the U.S. bishops’ assembly in November 2013, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, then-chair of CRS, defended the organization’s funding practices. “In order to do humanitarian work, it’s necessary to work with other major international organizations. Sadly, most of those organizations do not hold or carry out the teachings of the Church as we understand them,” he said.

That reality is “sad” and “disappointing,” he said, but “nevertheless it’s important in order to do humanitarian work around the world, that we partner with organizations that sometimes are not in keeping with our teaching.”

CRS critics maintained that some of the relief organization’s partnerships still leave plenty in need of review in terms of CRS’ Catholic identity.

“By agreeing to pass money along to organizations like Save the Children, Population Services International, and CARE, CRS is involving itself in the practices and sponsorship of anti-Catholic activity regardless of CRS' intentions,” said Michael Hichborn, president of the newly-founded Lepanto Institute. “By partnering with these organizations, CRS is lending them its reputation and giving the appearance of a Catholic seal of approval. This is the very definition of scandal.” 

“What happens after CRS leaves the areas where it introduced CARE and Save the Children?” Hichborn asked. “The locals will have developed a level of trust with these groups, and when they start distributing and promoting contraception and abortion, the locals will not have the guardianship of the Catholic Church to protect them.”

CRS' membership in the groups COREgroup and MEDiCAM is a significant question pertaining to its partnerships as well, said Hichborn. 

“MEDiCAM has a standing policy, which CRS representatives participated in creating, to train abortion providers and spread contraception throughout Cambodia,” he continued. “COREgroup spends a large portion of its annual budget on the spread of contraception.”

In these cases CRS funds are undeniably going to fund anti-Catholic things, he said.

“CRS' dues to these organizations are directly fungible,” said Hichborn. “Which means that Catholic dollars are indeed being used to spread abortion and birth control through CRS membership in those groups.”

“CRS' biggest partner–the federal government–is also its biggest problem,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute. “Many at USAID are openly hostile to the Catholic faith, because of its defense of traditional marriage, its promotion of the natural family, its respect for Life, its rejection of abortion, contraception, and sterilization.”

“Especially in the area of health care programs,” Mosher said, “CRS has to downplay its Catholic identity to even be considered for a grant.” 

Woo and CRS COO Sean Callahan also told the bishops about CRS’s “capacity strengthening,” or building up of CRS’ partners to help local communities be self-sufficient.

Woo said CRS cannot provide the services it does globally without its roughly 1,255 partners, approximately half of which are Catholic.

Woo also told the bishops that faith was central to the mission of CRS.

“This is very serious to us,” Woo said. “We don’t really want to do this work without our faith being the defining element. That’s what motivates all of us.”

“So I just want to say, when you say, ‘How is Catholic identity important to us?’ First and foremost, this is how we define ourselves.”

Woo said the commitment comes from the very top, and pointed to such things as the CRS tag line of Faith-Action-Results, which the organization took one year to work on. Woo said the other areas where Catholic identity was evident within CRS were policies and practices, training and governance. She told the bishops the CRS Board of Directors was “heavily tied” to the USCCB, and that CRS documents were open to USCCB review.

“I believe that Carolyn Woo sincerely means well, and that her faith is the defining element in the work that she does at CRS,” said Mosher. “But it is nonsensical to say that the Catholic faith motivates ‘all’ of the CRS workers, since so many are not Catholic at all, but Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu.”

“You can't have a ‘Catholic identity’ if you are not Catholic, period,” he added.

CRS made news earlier this year when Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice-president for government relations and advocacy, said in an interview that CRS was proud not to discuss the faith with the people they serve. “We assist people of all backgrounds and religions and we do not attempt to engage in discussions of faith,” he said. “We’re proud of that.”

CRS defended the statement, saying the organization evangelizes through its charitable works.

At the general assembly, the bishops elected four new officers to the CRS board. Joining Chairman Archbishop Coakley and previous board member Omaha Archbishop George Lucas, who was elected to a second term, are Juneau Bishop Edward Burns, St. Augustine Bishop Felipe Estevez, Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades and Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.