Federal authorities are investigating the actions of a Catholic charity in Richmond which helped a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl to receive an abortion in January, in possible violation of Virginia law.
Officials have called the matter to the attention of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) headquarters in Washington, urging it to prevent any repetition of the incident.
Four employees of Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Richmond, (CCR) have been fired and one supervisor with the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services agency has been suspended, according to federal sources and a secret April 29 letter written by three bishops to 350 bishops nationwide.
The two-page missive from Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester and Bishop Michael P. Driscoll of Boise, Idaho, was prompted by a federal investigation requested on April 23.
The bishops' letter, first publicized Friday by the Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly newspaper, detailed a series of botched management decisions that preceded the Jan. 18 abortion.
The unnamed girl, who already had one child, had been fitted with a contraceptive device provided by CCR two months earlier, the letter said. CCR members signed the consent form necessary for a minor to have an abortion and had someone drive her to and from the abortion clinic.
It is illegal in Virginia for a social worker to sign a parental consent form for an abortion. The state's notification law stipulates that at least one parent, grandparent or adult sibling must give consent.
The girl, whose parents are missing, was a ward of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
HHS provides $7.6 million a year in contracts with the USCCB for foster care of immigrant children. The bishops group subcontracts services through agencies like Commonwealth Catholic Charities.
"These federal funds are awarded with the clear purpose of caring for unaccompanied minors here from other countries," said HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe. "To that end, we were surprised and disappointed to learn of a chapter of Catholic Charities using this funding to facilitate a minor procuring an abortion."
He said the case has been referred to HHS Inspector General Timothy Menke because it might violate Virginia law and contradicts federal policy.
"We have also requested several corrective actions be taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ... in order to prevent this type of abuse from happening again," Mr. Wolfe said. "Our agency is one that supports human life, and we take that responsibility seriously."
In a three-page letter dated April 23, David Siegel, acting director of the HHS Refugee Resettlement Office, criticized the Catholic bishops group.
"USCCB's inability to direct the actions of its sub-grantee was a failure of management, oversight and monitoring," he said in the letter to Johnny Young, executive director of the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) agency.
In addition, Mr. Siegel noted in the letter, CCR staff used the wrong medical authorization form to justify the abortion, adding that if his agency had received the correct form, "it would not have been approved."
Roman Catholic doctrine condemns deliberate abortion as a mortal sin in all cases and imposes automatic excommunication upon anyone who obtains one or knowingly helps someone else do so. The excommunication usually can be lifted by ordinary confession and appropriate penance.
The church also teaches that knowingly using contraception is a mortal sin, although it does not incur automatic excommunication. Moreover, the church objects to some methods of contraception - those that prevent a fertilized embryo from implanting in the uterus - as forms of abortion.
"Some members of the MRS staff were not sufficiently aware of church teaching and [USCCB] policy regarding these matters to take stronger and more appropriate actions," Bishops DiLorenzo, Wester and Driscoll said in a letter to their peers.
"This incident is a most regrettable stain on the record of excellence in the work both of MRS and of Catholic Charities," they said.
CCR is a member of Catholic Charities USA, a social service network serving 8 million people. Based in Alexandria, Catholic Charities USA receives 65 percent of its $3.6 billion annual budget from contracts - such as refugee services - with the federal government.
In a statement released Monday, the agency blamed Bishop DiLorenzo for the incident, noting that CCR is incorporated under the leadership of the Richmond Diocese and that the bishop serves on CCR's board.
Officials for the diocese, the Catholic bishops and their agencies declined multiple requests for comment.
The bishops' letter said all MRS staff will receive training on "the primacy of Catholic teachings and beliefs as they impact their work or professional ethics ... to assure that such unacceptable incidents never happen again."