BALTIMORE, MD, March 6, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) — Critics of Catholic Relief Services say the international humanitarian agency apparently neglected to carefully read the latest claims that it promoted contraception and abortifacients for children in Kenya before issuing blanket denials.
The Population Research Institute and the Lepanto Institute continue to call for a full-scale reform of the U.S. bishops’ aid organization.
“CRS's response uses straw-man tactics, misdirection, and outright lies in order to cast doubt on the PRI and Lepanto Institute report,” Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, told LifeSiteNews.
The two groups also have 600 pages of CRS self-reported documents in their possession, obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and shared with LifeSiteNews, that they insist substantiate the claims they made in their report and irrefutably prove that the relief agency is being dishonest.
The report, issued March 3, says CRS took government grant money from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to implement an AIDS prevention program for Kenyan children with two components, Healthy Choices 1 (HC1) and Healthy Choices 2 (HC2), both of which promoted contraceptives and abortifacients in violation of Catholic teaching.
The report also says CRS cooperated in altering PEPFAR documents once its involvement in the program had become known and was brought to the agency’s attention.
In addition to the FOIA documents, evidence of CRS’s involvement in the contraception-promoting program was corroborated by CRS sub-partner website content, and by on-the-ground field interviews conducted by an independent investigator retained by PRI who had a medical background and who was fluent in local languages.
PRI, the Lepanto Institute, and Human Life International (HLI) attempted unsuccessfully to meet with CRS leadership, CRS Chairman and Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley, and other board members over several months before releasing the report.
After the apparent unwillingness of CRS and its governing body to discuss the concerns, the groups’ remaining recourse was the March 3 press conference called to share the results of the report.
“PRI has been trying for months to address these concerns through appropriate channels,” PRI President Stephen Mosher said. “We are now making our findings public in the hope that CRS will speedily enact credible reforms to ensure that such abuses never happen again.”
HLI Director of Mission Communications Stephen Phelan said at the press conference that his organization was part of releasing the report because of the unsuccessful efforts to meet, and while he expressed reluctance on the part of HLI toward taking part, they felt compelled to join with PRI and the Lepanto Institute because of their findings on CRS.
“We’ve read the reports, based on our own background in the area we find it to be very credible, and we’re very concerned that CRS’ current public explanation on the record cannot be true,” Phelan said. “I want to make that as clear as possible, what CRS has said about this cannot be true.”
“What makes it worse is that they’ve told the bishops this and now the bishops won’t talk to us about this,” he continued. “Again, forcing this out in the public.”
CRS issued its response to the allegations during the March 3 press conference, allowing PRI and the Lepanto Institute to respond at the event.
“After a careful review of the facts, the report's allegations unravel quickly,” the CRS statement said. “They are misleading, exaggerated, and untrue.”
Examples of what’s shown in the FOIA documents include CRS’s sub-partner, Africa Inland Church, indicating that it implemented eight modules (the full program) of Healthy Choices II through CRS-SAIDIA (Support and Assistance to Indigenous Implementing Agencies), and CRS’s sub-partner, Caritas Nyeri, indicating that it implemented Healthy Choices II, and that Healthy Choices II promoted “protected sexual intercourse,” “safe sex,” and “consistent condom use.”
The FOIA documents also show various results of the investigator’s findings, such as his being told by the CRS-Kenya secretary that CRS implemented HC2, that children he interviewed who had been through HC2 saying they had learned about contraception as a “healthy choice,” and CRS sub-partner MMAAK telling him they’d been advised by CRS “not to take Healthy Choices II to any Catholic school.”
CRS stated in its response to the report it is false that it promoted condoms with its Healthy Choices 1 (HC1) program.
“CRS took the original Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Healthy Choices I program and changed it to remove all aspects that violated Church teaching,” it said. “We then implemented this revised version of the program. We could do this because of PEPFAR's conscience clause, which allows faith-based agencies like CRS to design publicly-funded AIDS programs that respect our religious convictions, including focusing on abstinence and fidelity. Our modified version was approved by the CDC and the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
PRI President Stephen Mosher and Hichborn both replied that their report didn’t allege that CRS HC1 continued to push condom use. Mosher pointed out, as the PRI/Lepanto Institute report states, that the removal of condom promotion occurred only after complaints from local Catholics, and also the investigation did confirm that the Healthy Choices (HC2) did not remove the endorsement of condoms, hormonal contraception, and abortifacients.
“If CRS had bothered to carefully review the facts contained in the report,” Hichborn said, “it would have seen very quickly seen that the PRI/Lepanto Institute report indicated that the Healthy Choices I program was modified in order to remove the promotion of condoms.”
Further, the CDC was not mentioned in the PRI/Lepanto Institute report, as the government grant documentation reported on was from PEPFAR. The two government agencies work in concert, but the report did not include the CDC.
CRS also stated in its response that it is false that it and the CDC changed documents to cover up CRS’s involvement in distributing contraception.
“The CDC made an error in a report, incorrectly listing CRS as involved in a program related to contraception,” the CRS statement said. “We asked the CDC to correct their mistake on the report, which they did. The PRI/Lepanto claim that asking the CDC to correct their error constitutes a cover-up is simply absurd.”
The original document was produced by PEPFAR, not the CDC, Mosher replied. The original PEPFAR document states that CRS implemented HC 2, the later version removes all indication that CRS implemented HC 2, and then CRS claimed in its response that they implemented HC2, but without any reference to contraception.
“All three of these things cannot be true,” Mosher told LifeSiteNews. “They can’t have it both ways.”
“CRS claims that the alteration of the PEPFAR document does not constitute a cover-up,” said Hichborn. “However, the removal of all mention of Healthy Choices II is neither consistent with the evidence, nor is it consistent with CRS's very next paragraph, which admits to implementing Healthy Choices II.”
“Either CRS implemented HC II or it did not,” he said. “If it did, then the PEPFAR document was falsified as we originally indicated.”
CRS states in its response that its implementing partners used only two of the four sections of HC2, “those two which were appropriate and in accordance with Church and CRS doctrine, and did not use the other sections, as they were deemed inappropriate.”
Yet, Mosher responded, PRI’s on-the-ground investigation and self-reporting by CRS acquired through the FOIA request indicate that CRS did implement Healthy Choices II as written, including the promotion of contraception.
“Furthermore,” Hichborn said, “the on-the-ground investigator obtained the facilitator’s manual for Healthy Choices II from CRS’s sub-partner KWOSP (Kenya Widows And Orphans Support Programme), and this manual contains all of the contraception-promoting elements.”
CRS said in its response the dispensary referenced in the PRI/Lepanto report was one of several local partners under SAIDIA, and that “no CRS project funds were ever used to purchase or distribute condoms or artificial contraception.” CRS stated the dispensary’s work with CRS was “limited to antiretroviral and tuberculosis treatment and clearly in line with Church teaching.”
“According to the CRS-certified nurse at AIC Kalamba (dispensary),” Hichborn responded, “condoms were a part of the package, CRS knew it, and kept quiet about it.”
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CRS claimed in its response the PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission) Project referenced in the report was not operated under CRS, but was rather a separate project operated by the local organization, funded by another donor.
“This is completely false,” Hichborn countered. “We have dozens of pages of information obtained through a FOIA request, with CRS letterhead, indicating the number of individuals they reached with PMTC.”
Mosher concurred: “This blanket denial is especially concerning.”
CRS’s final rebuttal to the report was in regard to the investigator and more in the form of a disturbing charge in the direction of PRI and the Lepanto Institute.
“We are concerned that the ‘investigator’ misrepresented himself during his ‘research’ in Kenya,” the CRS reply stated. “He presented himself as a student doing research for his thesis when he visited CRS’ office and shared his CV. Such misrepresentation does not appear to comply with international standards on research that normally requires full disclosure on the purpose of research to all interviewees.”
“It is our sincere hope that international research standards were upheld during his interviews with children,” CRS said. “As young children were not only quoted, but photographed in this report.”
“This is what is colloquially referred to as ‘shooting the messenger,’ when you don't like his message,” Mosher responded. “Our investigator abided by the highest standards of investigative journalism.”
“Not only is this irrelevant, but the threatening tone of this statement is disgusting,” said Hichborn. “Why not just address what the investigator found?”
Mosher pointed out that PRI has a long history of conducting field research and that the investigator did not misrepresent himself. Additionally, Hichborn is formally trained in open source analysis.
“We are concerned that CRS is seeking to discredit us rather than address our concerns for constructive reform,” Mosher stated.
PRI, the Lepanto Institute, and HLI continue to call for review of CRS programs, and assurances that the necessary modifications be made to ensure that CRS’s assistance to those in need globally would be certain of an authentic Catholic foundation.
“We recommend that the USCCB establish a review committee of outside experts to review all CRS programs,” Mosher said, “including representatives from countries like Kenya which have been adversely affected, to enact needed reforms.”
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