WASHINGTON — From the bishops’ perspective, the fight against poverty is daunting enough without wasting time and resources defending their record.

But one pro-life organization continues to question whether resources that come from the wallets and pocketbooks of faithful Catholic should be directed to anti-poverty agencies with other agendas.

As most dioceses this weekend take up the annual collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops’ domestic anti-poverty, social-justice program, the Campaign is again drawing the ire of critics who allege that the program funds agencies involved in activities contrary to Church teaching on abortion, contraception and same-sex “marriage.”

However, officials with CCHD say they have strengthened the screening process that vets social-service agencies seeking grants, and now they are strongly challenging a recent American Life League report, which alleges that 55 agencies funded in 2010-11 were in conflict with Church teaching.

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ CCHD subcommittee, said in a telephone interview that the American Life League report contained false and misleading information. He said the 212-page report contained recycled charges, often outdated, gleaned from Web searches and not verified with the particular agencies or local bishops.

“Our work is done in what is today a highly polarized political environment,” Bishop Soto said. “Any effort to practice and preach the Gospel will be challenged, whether from the left or the right, from political organizations or from the government itself.”

Michael Hichborn, director of the American Life League’s Defend the Faith project and the report’s author, said that the CCHD is not taking his organization’s concerns seriously. He took issue with the CCHD staff’s rebuttal of the charges by ALL and the other member groups of the Reform CCHD Now Coalition, and asserted the problem reflected undisclosed partisan ideological agendas.

“The crux of the issue, and why things continue to be a problem, is because the (CCHD) staff is either not being honest with the bishops or not being honest with themselves over the nature of the problem,” Hichborn charged. “CCHD is more interested in how far they can go in not crossing the line and not protecting Catholic funds. Once you start asking those questions, you’ve already crossed the line.”

Since 2008, American Life League and other vocal critics, including Bellarmine Veritas Ministries and Human Life International, have questioned the thoroughness of CCHD’s process for vetting grant applications from agencies involved in anti-poverty programs. In 2010-11, CCHD funded 218 organizations with grants funded through a national collection that netted about $9.5 million.

11-Month Investigation

Last year’s American Life League report, released weeks before the annual CCHD collection at Sunday Masses prior to Thanksgiving, raised considerable controversy when it detailed a list of funded organizations accused of participating in activities opposed to Catholic teaching. The report called for a complete overhaul of the bishops’ anti-poverty program.

CCHD officials responded with their own 11-month investigation, which led the organization to rescind five grants to agencies that reportedly violated their agreements not to engage in practices antithetical to Church teaching or to form coalitions with organizations whose stated missions run counter to Catholic principles.

The internal review led to the Oct. 26, 2010, release of a 15-page document entitled ”The Review and Renewal of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development”, which affirmed the CCHD mission statement, but also added new layers of screening to ensure grant recipients’ adherence to Catholic teaching.

The reforms included a preference for grant applicants with overt Catholic identities, a rewritten application enumerating specific positions that exclude groups from receiving funds, increased collaboration between CCHD and other offices in the bishops’ conference, the establishment of an independent review board and ongoing consultations with a moral theologian.

Officials also confirmed that dioceses and the national CCHD office jointly investigate any potential problems with grant recipients. The local bishop is also briefed on the grant applicants and must sign off before they receive any funds.

“CCHD has done very good work over the years, and it is exercising even greater vigilance now in promoting Gospel values and making sure the funded programs comply with them,” Bishop Soto said. “I’m seeing people who receive the funding have a better understanding of what their work has to be to reflect the hope and vitality of the Gospel.”

However, the American Life League says serious problems remain. Its report, released in October, says that 55 CCHD-funded groups are involved in activities contrary to Church teaching and that 40 are actively involved in coalitions with such activities. Those estimates would mean that the number — 51 to 55 — and percentage — 21% to 24% — of offending groups increased from the previous year.

Condom Giveaway

Hichborn, the report’s author, said 35 grantees profiled in this year’s report were not included in last year’s analysis. Hichborn said the new guidelines and protections that CCHD enacted last year are sound, but there have been problems with implementation.

“The CCHD staff in Washington, D.C., consistently points to the bishops and say that all the bishops have to sign off on this. But that does not mean that the bishops have all the information. My understanding is that the bishops are very busy shepherding their own flocks and don’t have time to look into all this information.”

“When something like this comes up, (the bishops) have to rely on the reporting of the CCHD staff, and when you have a staff wanting to continue funding for these organizations and they tell the bishops, ‘Don’t worry. This is just Web-based research,’ they’re not even considering the accusations,” Hichborn said.

Stephen Phelan, communications director for Human Life International, said that “it is not clear that whoever is responsible for vetting grantees is aware of the policy or is given clear direction in how it should be implemented.”

Some examples of problematic grant recipients cited in the ALL report included Centro Campesino in Owatonna, Minn., an immigrants-rights group that was granted $35,000 but was found to be distributing condoms. The bishops’ conference subsequently pulled the organization’s funding. Officials said CCHD revoked a California agency’s funding to provide HIV-AIDS services after initiating its own inquiry.

However, critics say there are still many offending grant recipients. W.H. Marshner, a theology professor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., wrote a letter, dated Oct. 13, to American Life League’s executive director, Paul Rondeau, where he said ALL’s “well-organized report” documented at least 11 cases, where in his judgment, the grantee had done or promoted an immoral activity.

Marshner also wrote that the ALL report documented at least 13 solid examples of grantees being affiliated with coalitions that sponsor or advocate actions and positions that the Church does not approve of. Marshner said those grantees “ought to be defunded, and yet they are not.”

“There are dozens of examples of these kinds of problems documented in ALL’s report, which is why we, and several bishops, are still concerned about the CCHD’s ability to implement an authentic renewal of their grant-making procedures,” said Phelan, who did not name the concerned bishops.

Jeffrey Mirus, president of Trinity Communications, said CCHD has not always exercised extreme care in vetting grant recipients.

“The reason, most likely, is that the CCHD is staffed by social justice advocates who have been formed as much in the liberal/leftist tradition (represented, say, by the Democratic Party) as by a deep understanding of the full scope of Catholic social teaching,” Mirus said.

Unverified Information

CCHD fired back at ALL in a memo posted on the USCCB website. Except for one case, CCHD said the groups mentioned in the report had not violated their agreement to refrain from morally problematic activities.

The memo said the ALL report relied almost exclusively on unverified Web-based information, often outdated, and that the accusations were “almost always made” without contact with the CCHD-funded group or diocesan staff.

In some cases, CCHD said, agencies were listed on other organizations’ websites without their knowledge or consent, but were still criticized in the ALL report as materially cooperating with those groups.

In one case, the Immigrant Worker Center of Ohio sent three interns to attend a meeting of the United States Social Forum, a gathering of social-justice activists which grew out of the World Social Forum process. According to the ALL report, the Social Forum hosted dozens of workshops promoting abortion, homosexuality and Marxism. One of the primary purposes of the forum, according to ALL’s findings, was to generate cross-issues advocacy.

As a result, the ALL report cited the Immigrant Worker Project of Ohio as an offending organization, which Tony Stieritz, director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Social Action Office and Commission, said was unfair.

Stieritz said the Immigrant Worker Project’s representatives attended the forum to speak about their particular issues — immigrant rights — and not to advocate for same-sex “marriage” or “family planning” services.

“Nobody really sees their involvement (at the forum) as actually cooperating with evil,” said Stieritz, whose office coordinates CCHD-funded activities at the local level.

Stieritz said the archdiocese monitors its local grantees for any signs of inappropriate activity and affiliations and noted that the archdiocese recently warned local agencies not to affiliate themselves with a local funding organization, similar to United Way, which listed Planned Parenthood as a founding member.

“This is something that we do need to take seriously because these are Catholic dollars that we want to make sure contribute to the Church’s mission and don’t contradict that in any way,” Stieritz said.

“Again, it is something to be taken seriously, but I don’t agree with the way some of these national groups go about it, in the sense of trying to create a scandal about it.”

Root Causes

But Hichborn stands by his research methodologies, saying that he follows research standards endorsed by the Department of Defense and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Hichborn said he and his research partner are both certified in those standards and that they combed through primary-source material such as board minutes, annual reports and published news reports.

Hichborn also denied CCHD statements that he and other critics simply do not approve of the organization’s mission statement.

“We have told them repeatedly that American Life League does not dispute the stated missions and goals of CCHD. The only reason we got into looking at them was because they were funding organizations that promote abortion, homosexuality and birth control.”

Meanwhile, Phelan said there is a “profound philosophical disconnect” between the CCHD’s core mission and how they go about addressing it, “which is why the CCHD gives almost all of its money to secular groups whose work is based on a very different anthropology, or view of the human person.”

Jerry Schmutte, a member of a Catholics United for the Faith chapter in Milwaukee, said in a phone interview that he would rather see the money being donated to Catholic organizations.

“Why not spend those millions of dollars raised in the collection on inner-city Catholic schools that teach the faith, the whole faith, not part of it. At least, they would be under direct Catholic supervision,” Schmutte said.

Rey Flores, director of Better Catholic Giving, is also critical of the CCHD model. Flores was previously the director of the CCHD program in the Archdiocese of Chicago until he left that post last November. He generated controversy for reforms that included specifically asking grant applicants where they stood on the issues of abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and “family planning” programs. Flores told the Register he also began awarding grants to organizations that promoted pro-life causes.

“We want to teach people about authentic social justice,” said Flores, who calls Better Catholic Giving a “lay education and accountability organization.”

“I think CCHD has literally been coopted by secular community organizations that just see us as a feeding trough and a bottomless source of funding for their activities,” Flores said.

Mirus noted that there is nothing contrary to Catholic social teaching in making contributions to organizations which seek to raise community awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged, and to advocate for change. Part of the backlash, he suggested, should be dismissed as conservatism, not Catholicism.

“From the point of view of Catholic social teaching, the question is probably, ‘What degree of entanglement is permissible when attempting to further some good purpose?’” Mirus said.

“Catholic social teaching would indicate which points of advocacy are immoral or contrary to the common good. Obviously, direct involvement in this sort of advocacy (or in the actions advocated), such as abortion or same-sex marriage, is immoral. But if the connection to the immoral advocacy is unintended, indirect, imprecise and fairly far-removed, then it will often be morally permissible. In that case, prudence would determine whether the connection or perceived connection would do more harm than good,” Mirus said.

Meanwhile, Bishop Soto said CCHD carries out important work in the areas of human relief and social justice.

“We have to commit to moving the CCHD goal forward, which is keeping a true sense of human development that raises the dignity of the human person,” said Bishop Soto, who added: “People are going to question our work. When there are legitimate questions raised, we will investigate them.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.