Catholic aid organizations respond to Oxfam prostitution scandal in Haiti

Refugees in Haiti.  Credit: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock
Refugees in Haiti. Credit: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock

.- Amid allegations that Oxfam UK aid workers hired prostitutes in Haiti and Chad while administering humanitarian aid, Catholic aid organizations are responding with prayers, strong condemnation, and renewed commitments to protect the vulnerable.

“We are aware of The Times’ investigation of Oxfam UK members and their conduct in the Haiti earthquake response. First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of these atrocious acts. We unequivocally condemn any act that violates the rights and human dignity of individuals,” Catholic Relief Services Communications Director, Kim Pozniak, told CNA.

Roland van Hauwermeiren, the Oxfam official responsible for the agency’s Haitian recovery efforts following a devastating 2010 earthquake, repeatedly paid for sex, arranging groups of prostitutes to meet with Oxfam officials at the charity’s guesthouse, according to an investigation published by The Times of London on Feb. 9.  

Some reports have characterized events arranged by van Hauwermeiren as “orgies.” Oxfam officials are also accused of financial mismanagement, harassment, bullying, and negligent supervision.

One of the staff members working with van Hauwermeiren in Haiti later went on to work for the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD).

CAFOD dismissed the staffer on Feb. 14, after Oxfam confirmed the employee was accused of sexual misconduct, according to the BBC.

CAFOD Director Chris Bain said in a statement, “We were not aware of allegations made against this employee and received two references, as standard practice, at the time of recruitment.”

Before working in Haiti, van Hauwermeiren previously led a team in Chad, where it is alleged that he hired prostitutes for staff events as early as 2006.

Earlier this week, Oxfam officials acknowledged that the issue had been raised before van Hauwermeiren was transferred.

“It is now clear that these allegations—involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behavior of both the country director and members of his team in Chad—were raised before he moved to Haiti,” said Oxfam Great Britain’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, in a Feb. 12 statement announcing her resignation.

Oxfam celebrity ambassador and actress Minnie Driver withdrew her support from the aid organization on Feb. 14 in response to the scandal in Haiti, writing on Twitter that she was “devastated for the women who were used by people sent there to help them.”

“I feel deeply, deeply hurt. ... What happened in Haiti was a few privileged men abusing the very people they were supposed to protect - using the power they had from Oxfam to abuse powerless women. It breaks my heart,” said the executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, in a Feb. 11 television interview with Reuters.

David Adams, who lived and worked in Haiti for years as U.S. Agency for International Development Haiti Mission Director, told CNA that the majority of humanitarian aid workers in Haiti did not abuse their power in such an appalling way.

Adams now serves as the Vice President of Missions for Cross Catholic Outreach (CCO).

“Cross Catholic Outreach was deeply involved in the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake and observed that the great majority of humanitarian workers including our own staff responded to the needs of the vulnerable with nothing but love and compassion,” he said.

CCO tries to ensure its employees do not abuse the imbalance of power in Haiti by only hiring staff with extensive experience in the country, he said.

Adams explained, “We deliberately select staff with work experience in Haiti who understand the cultural context and underlying causes of poverty rather than aid workers who accept short-term positions moving from one country or disaster situation after another.”

Other Catholic aid organizations who work in Haiti also say that they have protocols for aid workers and partners in international development, intended to ensure the protection of the vulnerable people they serve.

Catholic Relief Services told CNA that their protocol includes a whistleblower system and a protection training course that all CRS employees (and partners) must complete.
Following Haiti’s 7.0 earthquake in Jan. 2010, which left an estimated 230,000 dead and nearly 2 million displaced, Haitians were particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.

Adams told CNA that Cross Catholic Outreach assisted the Haitian Sisters of Charity of Saint-Louis in efforts to counsel and train women at risk of prostitution and trafficking in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Cross Catholic Outreach continues to support another religious order, the St. Jean Evangeliste Sisters, who operate a safe house along Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic for women and children who have been trafficked or abused.

Tags: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic News, Haiti, Oxfam, CAFOD, Cross Catholic Outreach