- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2008

The Roman Catholic bishop of Richmond was told that a diocesan charity planned to help a teenage foster child get an abortion in January and did not try to prevent the procedure.

Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo “was told erroneously that everything was in place and there was nothing he could do to stop it,” said Steve Neill, Bishop DiLorenzo’s communications officer. “He is very apologetic about the whole episode.

“It is very awkward, it is very embarrassing. A human life was taken. He certainly has not taken it lightly in any way. He is clearly opposed to abortion.”

Mr. Neill said the bishop was informed Jan. 17, the day before an abortion was performed on the 16-year-old Guatemalan girl, who was a foster care client of Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Richmond (CCR), a group incorporated under the diocese.

CCR Executive Director Joanne Nattrass also knew about the planned abortion, Mr. Neill said.

“The director was very upset about it and it clearly went against all she stood for as a director of Catholic Charities,” he said.

After The Washington Times revealed the abortion on June 18, Ms. Nattrass released a statement on June 19 saying the incident was “contrary to basic teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Federal authorities are investigating CCR because the girl was a ward of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS had contracted with CCR to take care of the girl, whose parents are not in the country.

Ms. Nattrass wrote that neither CCR nor diocesan funds paid for the abortion but did not say who did. Federal law forbids any federal funds to be used.

Ms. Nattrass’ statement also said a CCR staff member signed the consent form necessary for a minor to have an abortion, even though Virginia law mandates parental consent for anyone younger than 18.

Martin Tucker, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, would not say whether a state investigation is under way.

After HHS officials learned of the abortion, they complained about the incident on April 23 to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), a parent agency to Catholic Charities.

Bill Etherington, an attorney for the diocese and CCR, said Bishop DiLorenzo was given bad information about whether the abortion could be prevented, but didn’t elaborate as to how.

“He was told it could not be stopped,” Mr. Etherington said. “It was erroneous information. He didn’t have to sign off on it. He was not personally involved.”

He added, without elaborating, that the underage abortion did not violate state law.

After learning of the federal investigation, Bishop DiLorenzo and two other bishops issued an April 29 letter to the nation’s 350 Catholic bishops detailing the botched management decisions that led to the abortion.

“He wrote the letter with the intent that word was going to get out and they should be notified of the circumstances,” Mr. Neill said.

Four CCR employees were fired over the incident, and one USCCB official who worked with its office of Migration and Refugee Services was suspended.

“They were so caught up with the plight of the young girl who already had a child,” Mr. Neill said. “She was not a Catholic. She got pregnant by her boyfriend, and she was determined not to have the baby.”

The unnamed girl had been implanted with a contraceptive device provided by CCR two months earlier, according to the April 29 letter. Catholic doctrine condemns deliberate abortion and the use of contraception as mortal sins. Those who obtain an abortion or help someone else to do so can be excommunicated.

In this case, it was a volunteer, not CCR staff, who drove the girl to the abortion clinic, Mr. Neill said. CCR staff will be having “ongoing formation and education” regarding church teaching on the matter, he added.

The USCCB has refused to comment. A spokeswoman said the matter was a “personnel issue.”

Additional comments by Bishop DiLorenzo are slated for release Monday in the diocesan newspaper at www.catholicvirginian.org.