.- New information about the Department of Health and Human Servicesâ failure to renew a $19 million grant to the U.S. Catholic bishopsâ program for human trafficking victims has prompted complaints of religious discrimination.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, SM, director of media relations for the bishopsâ conference, said in a Nov. 1 blog post that the grant process had been âmanipulatedâ to prevent the bishopsâ Migration and Refugee Services from receiving the award.
She criticized the decision to âpromote abortion politics over real care for trafficking victimsâ and denounced the Obama administrationâs failure to protect conscience rights.
Sr. Walsh told CNA on Nov. 2 that the bishopsâ 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 Obamaâs 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. bishopsâ conference that its application for a grant to continue helping human trafficking victims had been denied.
Since 2006, the bishopsâ 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 bishopsâ 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 bishopsâ 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 âpriority consideration is given to the review boardâs judgment.â
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 bishopsâ group.
âIt was so clearly and blatantly trying to come up with a certain outcome,ââ one official told the Post on the condition of anonymity. âThatâs very distasteful to people.ââ
Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services have denied any unfair treatment.
George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHSâs Administration for Children and Families, told the Post that the department had âfollowed standard procedure.â
âI donât think there was any undue influence exerted to make this grant go one way or another,ââ Sheldon said.
âUltimately, I felt it was my responsibility â and Iâm not trying to get anyone off the hook here â to do what I thought was in the best interests of these victims.ââ
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 âsignificantly belowâ the bishopsâ 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 âstrong preferenceâ will be given to organizations which offer referrals for the âfull range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.â
In an Oct. 13 blog post, Sr. Walsh said the new instructions amounted to an unwritten rule of âAnybody But Catholics.â
She pointed out that the bishopsâ outreach has always received superior rankings for its work.