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BALTIMORE, Maryland, October 25, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Critics calling for a reform of Catholic Relief Services are succeeding, according to CRS' chairman.

Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley pointed out in a letter to the nation's bishops that numerous U.S. priests have refused to take part in CRS programs as a result of reports by the Lepanto Institute on the bishops’ relief agency.

“I would also like to note that we have heard of a number of pastors across the country refusing to participate in CRS programs, including CRS Rice Bowl, because of Lepanto reports,” Coakley stated in the letter. “This means that Michael Hichborn and his Lepanto Institute are prevailing.”

Speaking on behalf of the CRS Board of Directors in the letter, released to LifeSiteNews by an anonymous source, Archbishop Coakley told the nation’s bishops to persuade their priests to disregard the contents of the latest Lepanto Institute report and to continue to support CRS.

“The CRS board would greatly appreciate anything you can do to encourage your priests not to accept what Hichborn is saying,” Archbishop Coakley stated, “and to support our international agency …”

Just who is to blame here?

The October 17 Lepanto Institute report cited and presented U.S. federal government documents showing CRS as an implementing partner behind lead organization IMA World Health in warehousing and facilitating distribution of 2.25 million units of contraception, including abortifacients and related supplies, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2006 to 2010.

The Lepanto Institute report describes how “family planning” was a “key objective” of the Congo program, known as Project AXxes, with CRS’ own medical coordinator acknowledging the contraception-promoting element of the project in a USAID-produced video.

The report also shows that contraception was pushed across all elements of Project AXxes, including incorporation in otherwise typically legitimate health programs such as vaccination, neonatal, and mother-to child HIV transmission prevention, and that CRS was involved in the planning for this.

It shows as well how Project AXxes resulted in a steep rise in contraception use in the area where there previously had been negligible awareness of birth control, and how “family planning” messaging was amended during the course of the program to be more palatable to the Congolese culture.

A preemptive message

Archbishop Coakley had written another letter to the U.S. bishops preemptively, before the Lepanto Institute released its report.

That letter, dated September 29, included form letters from bishops’ conferences in Kenya and the Congo, based upon a presumption that Hichborn had been recently investigating CRS in both African countries while Hichborn had been on an unrelated speaking engagement in Kenya.

This latest letter from Archbishop Coakley to the other U.S. bishops disputing the Lepanto Institute report blamed IMA World Health and played down the contraception focus of the project, stating that CRS “participated in specific activities that were consistent with Catholic teaching while other groups, including the prime sponsor, undertook other activities including some that involved artificial contraception.”

Archbishop Coakley’s letter said IMA did not grasp the importance of “clarity on CRS’ role,” and because of this, the Project AXxes reports, which it stated were completed by IMA, gave the impression that CRS took part in contraception distribution.

“Unfortunately, in reports prepared by the prime sponsor, who did not understand how important clarity on CRS’ role is, it appears CRS participated in distribution of artificial contraception,” he stated. 

“The prime sponsor has confirmed that the report could be misleading and that CRS was very clear we could not participate in distribution of artificial contraception or anything that violated Catholic teaching,” Archbishop Coakley wrote.

One statement disproves the other

But Hichborn pointed out that IMA, as the prime sponsor, directly contradicted CRS’ main point of denial that IMA did not understand the importance of clarity when it came to CRS’ role, in its very statement also in an accompanying letter provided to the U.S. bishops that CRS was very clear with all parties that it would not engage in any activities that were contrary to Catholic teaching.

“So, IMA World Health says that CRS was very clear from the outset that it would not engage in any activities that were contrary to Catholic teaching, and CRS says that IMA World Health didn't understand how important it was to be clear about this?” Hichborn said.

“IMA World Health is providing cover to CRS by simply shifting focus on to them,” he told LifeSiteNews. “How can CRS and IMA World Health have thoroughly investigated what was contained in my report in less than 24 hours?”

Where is that government form?

Hichborn pointed to a lack of documentation indicating CRS was exempt from handling contraception as further proof the IMA excuse doesn’t add up. 

“The inventory reports were conducted visually and signed off in triplicate,” he said. “How on earth did the contraceptives get identified with CRS if CRS had nothing to do with them?”

“And the inventory and distribution reports are marked CRS, not IMA World Health,” Hichborn continued. “So, which 'implementing partners' were not welcoming the contraception, and why is CRS not singled out as having had no part in the distribution? It stands to reason that this would have been noteworthy, so why no paper trail indicating that CRS was exempt?”

Hichborn posed further questions in this regard.

“If CRS was in charge of the health zones where contraception was being introduced  — for the very first time by anyone — but CRS was not a part of the contraceptive elements of the program, then just what exactly was it CRS was doing there?” he asked. “Additionally, why would CRS permit others to introduce contraception into an area it was responsible for?” 

The report wasn’t even out yet

Archbishop Coakley cited one of two letters from African bishops in the September 29 preemptive letter he’d sent the U.S. bishops, stating, “The bishops of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) have also confirmed that the work of CRS in their country has been consistent with Catholic teaching.” 

Hichborn pointed out again that this statement was obtained before the October 17 publication of the Lepanto Institute report, which means it was made prior to either CRS’ knowledge or the Congolese bishops’ knowledge of the contents of the report.

“How can they ‘confirm’ something they had no prior knowledge of?” Hichborn asked. “As a defense, CRS says that it obtained these statements of support, but they got those statements of support before anyone saw the report I wrote. So these statements of support are being offered by definition under false pretenses.”

Watch the wording here

Archbishop Coakley proceeded to provide an official response in the letter from CRS for U.S. bishops’ use. “The contraceptives in question were delivered to the geographic are where CRS worked, but it was IMA World Health – not CRS – who “provided an alternative mechanism for the training, storage and distribution of contraceptive products.”

The official CRS response cited the italicized part of the statement as a quote from Richard Santos, who became president of IMA World Health toward the end of Project AXxes’ duration.

Hichborn told LifeSiteNews the quote was twisted, used by CRS in an odd way.

Santos’ letter was included in full with Archbishop Coakley’s letter to the U.S. bishops, but not with CRS’ response on its website.

CRS specifically included only the italicized portion of Santos’ statement (shown above) in regard to CRS’ involvement in contraceptive distribution.

Hichborn said CRS seems to have omitted key portions of Santos' remarks because they actually illustrate CRS' proximate, material cooperation with evil in Project AXxes. Santos wrote:

As the project in question was primed by IMA, I can personally assure your leadership team and board that CRS was not engaged in activities related to the distribution or management of contraceptives under the AXxes project.  CRS was very clear with IMA, USAID, and our other partners from the beginning of the project that it would not promote any such activities that were not aligned with Catholic teaching.  Indeed, CRS was steadfast in this position throughout the project.

I understand that the current accusations allege that CRS received and distributed artificial contraception.  While CRS was responsible for the overall management of health activities for specific health zones under the AXxes project, IMA provided an alternative mechanism for the training, storage, and distribution of contraceptive products and only required CRS to report on family planning activities in their assigned health zones, as part of the overall government reporting system.

Hichborn noted that CRS left the following parts out in quoting Santos: “While CRS was responsible for the overall management of health activities for specific health zones under the AXxes project … ” as well as, “and only required CRS to report on family planning activities in their assigned health zones, as part of the overall government reporting system.”

What’s really being said?

“CRS softened the statement to say that contraception was delivered to the ‘geographic area where CRS worked,’” Hichborn told LifeSiteNews. “But Santos says that 'CRS was responsible for the overall management of health activities' in its health zones. This is a HUGE distinction!” 

“CRS is distancing itself from its responsibility for the contraception distribution,” he continued, “but since CRS was responsible for the overall management of health activities, this means that CRS was directly permitting contraception to be delivered and dispensed in its health centers, even if CRS itself didn't technically 'touch' the contraception.” 

“If IMA World Health is 'providing an alternative mechanism' to 'contraception,' not CRS, then doesn't that mean that CRS is still responsible for the contraception?” Hichborn asked. “Santos admits the guilt, which is why CRS had to commit linguistic acrobatics in order to use his quote while leaving out the damning aspect of what he said.”

Natural family planning as a tool to promote artificial birth control

The letter from Archbishop Coakley to the other U.S. bishops notes that CRS provided natural family planning as part of Project AXxes, but does not mention the project’s efforts to counsel women to move from natural family planning to artificial contraception, or that “the project’s guiding principle to provide counseling on all methods and provide the method of choice to each client.”

“IMA World Health said specifically that NFP was being used as a steppingstone to introduce women to artificial contraception,” Hichborn said. “In other words, CRS is willfully participating in a program that intentionally uses CRS's promotion of NFP as a steppingstone to artificial birth control.” 

He also questions the statement that CRS was so clear about not having been involved with contraception, when its own medical coordinator, Dr. Janvier Barhobagayana, stated in a 2010 USAID report on Project AXxes (page 9): “Figures for access to prenatal care, assisted deliveries, and use of contraceptives all show improvement over the last year. But there is something less tangible as well — a change for the better in attitudes. The successes in the program are encouraging more people in the community to seek out health services.”           

“CRS and IMA World Health conveniently leave out the fact that CRS's medical coordinator mentions the ‘family planning’ component and later discusses how the use of contraception has ‘shown improvements,’” Hichborn said. “If CRS was not a part of the contraception element, how would he know?”

CRS insists it welcomes constructive dialogue

Toward the end of the CRS response to the Lepanto Institute report given by Archbishop Coakley to U.S bishops is the claim that CRS “would have provided clarification of the report” had Hichborn performed “a simple query to CRS” but that he did not “approach CRS with his concerns.”

“What CRS is truly complaining about here is that it didn't have ample time to orchestrate another cover-up,” Hichborn stated in response to this. “The last time I provided information to Catholic Relief Services in advance of releasing a report, they used it to contact PEPFAR in order to have the public record changed so as to give the appearance that CRS had not implemented a contraception-promoting program called Healthy Choices II.” 

“They claimed that they were mistakenly identified with the project and had PEPFAR change the public record on their behalf,” he continued. “IMA World Health is doing the exact same thing here.”

“Until CRS shows itself to be more interested in addressing authentic concerns from faithful Catholics than in making excuses, I see no reason to provide advanced warning,” Hichborn told LifeSiteNews. “And given the pre-gamed response to a report it had not yet seen, attempting to poison the well among the bishops against it, it seems that my concerns continue to be well founded.”

Hichborn said CRS indeed implements these programs in full, and he views CRS’ response to his report on Project AXxes as an unquestionable admission of guilt.

“The project stated at the outset that the inclusion of contraception would permeate the entire project, so what business did CRS have in agreeing to participate at all?” he said. “CRS may as well have been a man caught in a brothel, claiming that he was trying to sell toothbrushes.”

Read Archbishop Coakley's letter and CRS' response here.