- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2015

A Catholic international service group says accusations that it acted improperly in a children’s sex education program in Rwanda are without merit and based on misunderstandings and false claims.

Catholic Relief Services acknowledged in a statement that its staff had “conducted research” with other groups in a sex education program called My Changing Body.

However, Catholic Relief Services said, it did not collaborate with Planned Parenthood, did not promote or “normalize” homosexuality or masturbation for teens and did not promote or encourage use of birth control.

“CRS works faithfully to adhere to Church teaching in everything we do,” said a statement provided by Paul Eagle, director of communications for Catholic Relief Services.

The relief agency has served for decades under the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Last month, the Lepanto Institute, a new think tank led by Michael Hichborn, issued a report saying that, based on a 2011 document, Catholic Relief Services was involved in implementing a “graphic sexuality education program” with Rwandan children ages 10 to 14.

The curriculum for My Changing Body: Puberty and Fertility Awareness for Young People is “completely incompatible with Catholic moral teaching” on such things as masturbation, condom use and contraception, Mr. Hichborn wrote. “There is no justification for a Catholic organization to have had anything to do with this program as written, let alone actually implement it and test it.”

The Lepanto report said Georgetown University Institute for Reproductive Health paid Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, which operates out of dioceses in Rwanda, to implement the program with these “very young adolescents” in 2009 and 2010.

Catholic Relief Services said its investigation, which included reviewing documents and interviewing staff involved with the project in Rwanda, showed “there is no evidence” that the objectionable passages “were ever used in conjunction with CRS’ activities in Rwanda.”

Instead, “there were collaborative efforts among CRS, Georgetown, diocesan facilitators and priests to adapt ‘My Changing Body’ to conform to Catholic teaching,” Catholic Relief Services said.

Catholic Relief Services’ own sex education program, Avoiding Risk, Affirming Life, “spread the message throughout Rwanda that abstinence and fidelity were the best and only sure methods of stemming the spread of HIV,” Catholic Relief Services said. The program, it said, ran from 2005 to 2010 and was carried out with Caritas Rwanda.

Thus, the claims made by the Lepanto Institute about Catholic Relief Services’ work in Rwanda are unfounded, the agency said, adding that it did not ask to be acknowledged in the 2011 report.

Mr. Hichborn issued a response Monday that posed several more detailed questions, such as what happened to the “adapted” version of the curriculum.

Separately, Catholic Relief Services rebuffed earlier criticisms about its activities from groups such as American Life League, where Mr. Hichborn served for eight years.

In 2013, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Catholic Relief Services does not distribute contraception, upholds pro-life teachings in its work and uses a “careful vetting system” to make sure its activities and partnerships with other groups or governments do not violate Catholic teaching.

The bishops group has also said it has thoroughly investigated accusations about Catholic Relief Services’ adherence to church teaching and its identity as a Catholic institution, and “we wish to assure the Catholic faithful that CRS fully and faithfully adheres to Church teaching in fulfilling its mission of mercy.”

The Lepanto Institute says on its website that it was created to “present the facts regarding organizations that claim the name Catholic or even Christian, but are acting in opposition to the teachings of our Blessed Lord and His Holy and Immaculate Church.”

It names Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Health Association as groups it is monitoring.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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