By Kameel Stanley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008; B01
Leaders of a Richmond-based Catholic charity under federal investigation are scrambling to explain the organization's involvement in helping a 16-year-old illegal immigrant in its care get an abortion in January.
Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo apologized this week for the "monumental tragedy" and the embarrassment the incident has caused the diocese and Catholics across the country.
"The guilt and depression that many of us experience as a result of the behavior of a few is something that we will bear for a long time to come," he wrote in a statement to the Catholic Virginian, a biweekly newspaper that serves the Richmond diocese.
DiLorenzo's comments followed reports that four staff members of Commonwealth Catholic Charities were fired after it was revealed that they provided the girl with transportation and signed a consent form needed for the abortion.
An investigation revealed that the workers also had helped her implant a contraceptive two months before the abortion, Joanne D. Nattrass, the charity's executive director, said in a statement.
The charity's staff and DiLorenzo "are deeply saddened by the incident," she said.
The girl, who is from Guatemala, was in the government's refugee resettlement program and living in Virginia. It is unclear why the workers helped her obtain the abortion, which is against Catholic teachings.
Nattrass would not discuss the employees' motivation. But she said Commonwealth Catholic Charities has taken steps to ensure that such an incident doesn't happen again, including ongoing education and training for employees about Catholic beliefs.
Charity employees do not have to be Catholic but are expected to adhere to the religion's teachings. "Most of our staff here are not Catholic," spokeswoman Paula Ritter said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is investigating whether the charity violated state and federal laws by facilitating the abortion.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops receives about $7.6 million annually to provide foster care for illegal immigrant children until they can be reunited with their families.
The conference contracts with more than 1,700 Catholic Charities branches across the country to provide services. Federal law prohibits using federal funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the woman's life is in danger.
Also, Virginia law requires those younger than 18 to have parental consent for an abortion.
"These federal funds are awarded with the clear purpose of caring for unaccompanied minors here from other countries," said Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families. "We were surprised and disappointed to learn of a chapter of Catholic Charities using this funding to care for a minor, facilitated a minor procuring an abortion."
Nattrass said no agency or diocese funds were used.
A statement by Catholic Charities USA said the association "encourages all of our member agencies and their staff to adhere to our Code of Ethics which states that 'agencies shall clearly indicate, prior to the creation of any client relationship, that the agency does not provide services contrary to the teachings of the Church.' "
Because of privacy issues, little is known about the girl or her current situation. And it is unclear whether she is still in the United States or whose care she is under. But correspondence between government officials and the charity and statements by the charity's leaders reveal more about the incident.
Church leaders learned Jan. 17, the day before the procedure took place, that the girl was pregnant and considering an abortion but did not stop her, according to an April 23 letter that David Siegel, head of refugee resettlement program, sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In a statement, Nattrass said that upon learning of the plans, she immediately contacted DiLorenzo, who explicitly forbade the procedure.
"Based on erroneous and incorrect information provided to Nattrass, the Bishop was told it could not be stopped," the statement said.
In addition to failing to get parental consent, the agency also failed to file a treatment authorization request, required for medical procedures for minors in their care, federal officials said.
"The CCC staff had rationalized that [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] had given consent for the abortion because the staff had a medical authorization form on file," Siegel wrote.
Furthermore, even though the federal government has custody over children in the refugee resettlement program, federal guidelines require consent from a minor's parent or legal guardian when the medical procedure is considered serious.
Abortions are in the "serious medical services" category, according to federal officials.
"It was a failure of management and oversight by [the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] and a failure in judgment by CCC to conclude that a medical procedure of such seriousness . . . could be consented to unilaterally by a grantee of the federal government," Siegel said in the letter.
Richmond diocese spokesman Steve Neill said church leaders hope the incident will not permanently taint the organization.
"The main thing is there was a life taken, and in no way does the Catholic Church condone abortion," he said. "The bishop is agonized over it."
Some say the damage is done.
Judie Brown, founder and president of the American Life League, an anti-abortion organization, said she was horrified to learn that DiLorenzo knew about the abortion before it took place.
"It's scandalous," Brown said. "It's just another nail in the coffin of the Catholic Church's credibility."
Brown said she holds DiLorenzo responsible, especially given the position and authority bishops hold in the church.
"I don't think it matters what this girl was thinking," she said. "I think it matters what the bishop did not do."
Others say the government's reaction to the incident is disturbing.
Brigitte Amiri, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said the government should be helping teens who ask for help, not putting up roadblocks.
"It's a big concern, and we're learning more about it," Amiri said. "Instead of showing them compassion, the government is putting its political opposition to abortion above their best interests."