Catholic human trafficking outreach lost funds after HHS officials intervened
George Sheldon, who serves as the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families
George Sheldon, who serves as the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families
By Michelle Bauman
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.- New information about the Department of Health and Human Services’ failure to renew a $19 million grant to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ program for human trafficking victims has prompted complaints of religious discrimination.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, SM, director of media relations for the bishops’ conference, said in a Nov. 1 blog post that the grant process had been “manipulated” to prevent the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services from receiving the award.

She criticized the decision to “promote abortion politics over real care for trafficking victims” and denounced the Obama administration’s failure to protect conscience rights.

Sr. Walsh told CNA on Nov. 2 that the bishops’ conference is still gathering information and that no decision has been made yet about pursuing legal action.

Conscience protection has become a growing concern for American Catholics in recent months. The U.S. House Subcommittee on Health held a Nov. 2 hearing on a mandate that resulted from President Obama’s health reform law which would require coverage of contraception in most private insurance plans.

Catholics from across the country have written to the HHS to protest the mandate for the way it violates their right to conscientious objection.

At the end of September, the Office of Refugee Resettlement for the Department of Health and Human Services informed the U.S. bishops’ conference that its application for a grant to continue helping human trafficking victims had been denied.

Since 2006, the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services has led efforts to provide food, clothing and other aid to trafficking victims around the country.

In accordance with Church teaching, the outreach to refugees does not provide referrals for contraception or abortion.

A Nov. 1 front-page story in the Washington Post revealed that the decision to direct funding away from the bishops’ conference was made by political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The decision was made despite the fact that staff members in the department had recommended that the bishops’ service receive the grant based on scores issued by an independent review board.

Department policies do not prohibit political appointees from being involved in grant competitions. However, the Post explained, grants are normally managed by career officials and “priority consideration is given to the review board’s judgment.”

Some department staffers protested the involvement of Sharon Parrott, one of three advisers to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The staffers said that the process was politicized and aimed at unfairly excluding the Catholic bishops’ group.

“It was so clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome,’’ one official told the Post on the condition of anonymity. “That’s very distasteful to people.’’

Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services have denied any unfair treatment.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, told the Post that the department had “followed standard procedure.”

“I don’t think there was any undue influence exerted to make this grant go one way or another,’’ Sheldon said.

“Ultimately, I felt it was my responsibility – and I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook here – to do what I thought was in the best interests of these victims.’’

Although the department initially said at least four anti-trafficking grants would be awarded, only three groups were ultimately given awards: Heartland Human Care Services, Tapestri and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

According to the Post, individuals familiar with the matter say that Tapestri and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants both scored “significantly below” the bishops’ conference in independent reviews.

This spring, political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services were involved in adding new written instructions to groups requesting grants through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The new instructions dictate that “strong preference” will be given to organizations which offer referrals for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

In an Oct. 13 blog post, Sr. Walsh said the new instructions amounted to an unwritten rule of “Anybody But Catholics.”

She pointed out that the bishops’ outreach has always received superior rankings for its work.

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