Citing numerous and ongoing violations of Catholic teaching, including an instance of abortion, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix has declared that St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center can no longer call itself a Catholic institution.
The bishop announced his decision in a press conference at diocesan headquarters Dec. 21. It follows months of negotiations with officials for St. Joseph’s and its parent company, Catholic Healthcare West.
These talks, aimed in part at getting the hospital to admit its ethical wrongdoing in performing the abortion, reached an impasse last month. The bishop had given officials a Dec. 17 deadline to reach an understanding. When that date passed, he extended the deadline to Dec. 21.
“They have not addressed in an adequate manner the scandal caused by the abortion,” Bishop Olmstead said in making his announcement.
“Unfortunately,” he said, the talks “have only eroded my confidence about their commitment” to the Church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. These directives are a set of standards drawn up by the U.S. bishops to guide treatment in Catholic institutions.
St. Joseph’s continues to maintain that it did nothing wrong in performing an abortion on a woman in November 2009. The woman was 11 weeks pregnant and doctors contended that she had a heart and lung condition that could threaten her life if she carried the child to term. Some of the hospital's medical advisers, including Mercy Sister Margaret McBride, who served on the hospital's ethics board, approved the abortion.
Catholic teaching forbids direct and intentional abortion as the deliberate taking of innocent human life. It holds that abortion is never medically necessary or morally permissible. While a woman may undergo a necessary treatment that could have the unintended effect of killing an unborn child, abortion is never permitted as a form of medical treatment.
Bishop Olmsted declared in May that Sister McBride had incurred an automatic excommunication for her role in recommending the abortion.
At that time, he also entered into negotiations with St. Joseph’s seeking to convince the hospital to admit its wrongdoing and to commit to complying with the Church’s ethical guidelines in the future.
In a letter he wrote this past November that was leaked to the press on Dec. 15, Bishop Olmstead voiced frustration with the hospital’s continued justification of the abortion and its refusal to cooperate with him.
“In effect, you would have me believe that we will merely have to agree to disagree,” he told Catholic Health Care West president Lloyd Dean. “But this resolution is unacceptable, because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a successor of the Apostles.”
The bishop had been insisting that St. Joseph’s admit to its ethics violation, commit to avoiding abortion under all circumstances, and retrain staff members through an institution of his choosing.
Ultimately, the negotiations failed and Bishop Olmstead said he had concluded that St. Joseph “is not committed to following the teaching of the Catholic Church [and] therefore, this hospital cannot be considered Catholic.”
He said that in the process of the negotiations he had discovered a pattern of serious ethical violations at both St. Joseph’s and in the wider Catholic Healthcare West system in Arizona.
He said the abuses had been going on “throughout my seven years as bishop of Phoenix and far longer.”
He faulted the institutions’ participation in the so-called “Mercy Health Plan,” through which it receives federal and state monies to provide health care services to the poor — including abortion, birth control, and sterilization.
Although St. Joseph's does not provide these services itself, by setting up and managing the conditions under which other hospitals provide these services, St. Joseph’s was “formally cooperating” in these unethical procedures, the bishop charged.
The bishop said that representatives of St. Joseph's and Catholic Healthcare West had acknowledged they understood that their administration and participation in the Mercy Health Plan made them morally responsible for its actions.
In his press conference, Bishop Olmsted also questioned the hospital’s motivations and priorities, noting that revenues from its participation in the Mercy Health Plan will reach nearly $2 billion this year.
For the past 26 years that the plan has been in existence, he said, St. Joseph’s hospital has made more than $100 million per year.
In a statement, St. Joseph’s president Linda Hunt said the hospital was “deeply disappointed” by the bishop’s actions. She again justified the abortion and said the hospital “will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus."
With its Catholic identity stripped, St. Joseph will be forced to remove the Eucharist from its chapels, and is prohibited from celebrating Mass at the hospital.
“For seven years now, I have tried to work with St. Joseph's,” the bishop said, “and I have hoped and prayed that this day would never come, that this decree would not be needed. However, the faithful of the diocese have a right to know whether institutions of this importance are indeed Catholic in identity and practice.”
The diocese has launched a new informational website at www.arizonacatholic.org, "to provide information and resources" on St. Joseph's ethics violations and Bishop Olmsted's decision to declare the hospital "no longer Catholic."