Matt C. Abbott
The controversy surrounding Catholic Relief Services
By Matt C. Abbott
March 26, 2015

(I'd first like to commend the pro-life leaders who staged a peaceful protest at House Speaker John Boehner's office the morning of March 25. Click here to read about it. Also, Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, recently posted a very good open letter to Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski regarding his unjust treatment of a Catholic schoolteacher. Click here to read it.)

Over the last several years, there has been considerable controversy surrounding the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), both of which were founded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The focus of this particular column is CRS.

In a recent article at the website of Crisis Magazine, Stephen Phelan, director of mission communications at Human Life International, wrote (briefly excerpted; click here to read the article in its entirety):
    In trying to understand the ongoing controversy regarding 'the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States,' there are two primary ways one might err. The first would be to deny that Catholic Relief Services does an incredible amount of good in bringing aid to the poor around the world. The second would be to argue that because CRS does so much good work, good Catholics must look away when questions are raised about how some of its work is done, and with whom CRS partners to do this work....

    ...Those of us who receive CRS's fundraising pitches (this writer is a former donor) or who have visited CRS's website in the last few years are likely to see a clear identification with the Church. On the mission delivery and secular communications side of the organization, however, CRS takes a different tack: It apparently takes pride in not sharing the Gospel and in not preferentially hiring Catholics to do the Catholic charity's work, and it partners with organizations who together spend billions annually on immoral, and often coercive, means of population control....

    ....In 2013 (a typical year, percentagewise), only around 3 percent of CRS's revenue came from Catholics in the pews via the annual collection and rice bowl campaign. 70 percent of its revenue and donated services came from the federal government and another 10 percent or so came from private foundations that, while not listed in the latest published financial reports, in the past has included organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The remainder primarily comes from investment revenue and other standard fundraising such as mailings and events.
The Crisis Magazine article prompted the following response from CRS:
    Stephen Phelan's March 18, 2015 Crisis Magazine article is the latest in a series of coordinated attacks by a small number of groups whose claims about CRS have proven to be misleading and inaccurate. This latest attack is more of the same, restating claims that have been addressed again and again. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that no answer CRS provides satisfies these critics, since their goal is not to help us build up a culture of life and love, but to tear down our efforts to do so.

    Our Catholic identity is the heart of our mission, and we have implemented comprehensive processes to help ensure that we remain faithful to Catholic teaching in all our programming. We rigorously monitor and frequently review all our relationships and activities to ensure that they are faithful to Catholic teaching. If a problem does arise, we work to resolve it immediately. This includes applying policies developed by the CRS Board of Directors in consultation with the Holy See, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and other leading moral theologians. Information on these policies, as well as responses to the various allegations that Mr. Phelan repeats in his article, can be found at 'CRS Upholds Catholic Teaching and Values.'

    The groups behind these allegations advocate for CRS' retreat from public engagement and even its dissolution. While these groups may have their opinions, they do not speak for the Catholic Church. CRS must follow the direction we receive from Church leaders about how to apply Catholic teaching to our work. Mr. Phelan and others are free to disagree with those leaders, but as an agency of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), we will continue to follow their guidance. We are grateful for the support of the USCCB Administrative Committee, which affirmed in a statement of support for CRS that 'The U.S. Catholic bishops stand firmly behind CRS in its commitment to promote and defend human dignity and the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception until natural death, and at every moment in between.'
I asked Mr. Phelan to comment on the CRS statement. He wrote the following in an email to me:
    CRS' attack on our motives is predicted in the article. Why would we want to 'tear down' their ability to 'build a culture of life and love?' What a terrible thing to say. I assume there are lots of good folks at CRS who are doing their jobs the best way they know how. And as for the bishops, anyone who has known a bishop knows how busy they are and how much they have to rely on others to gather information, especially in complicated matters.

    In this case, Archbishop Coakley has been singled out since he is the president of the CRS board and has made several statements in their defense, but one can't seriously call him a weak bishop. Just look at the situation with the black mass in Oklahoma City last year, though there are several other examples – this is a strong shepherd who is not afraid to defend the faith and the faithful. I think rather that the bishops are only hearing part of the story, and have been advised to ignore those who raise concerns due to our supposed ill intentions. This is why this is public.

    So for the person who is understandably overwhelmed by all of the back and forth and doesn't know what to think, I would say that maybe the way to start to understand this is to take just one case. This takes only about ten minutes.

    Start with the disagreement over MEDiCAM, beginning just with the facts that no one denies:

    1) CRS is still a dues-paying member of MEDiCAM (source). Though not a large amount of money (around $3,000), dues are typically fungible, in that they go to an organization's general fund.

    2) CRS has had staff members on the organization's steering committee, which "concerns itself with the overall visions, strategies and policies of the organization." (source, page 7, for just one such reference) So CRS is not a mere spectator within the organization.

    3) MEDiCAM is a consortium of various organizations in Cambodia who discuss and forward a broad range of public health concerns in practice and in policy. MEDiCAM, as an organization, also consistently advocates for increased access to abortion (source, p. 19; source, p. 7; source, p. 5; hundreds more available on MEDiCAM web site), and for contraception.

    Given these undisputed facts, concerns were raised in 2012 having to do with scandal in CRS maintaining a paid membership and leadership positions in an organization that consistently promotes abortion and contraception, without challenging the problematic positions in public venues where the concerns would have to be addressed by its partners.

    Now read CRS's reply to those who raised concerns here.

    1) As to the risk of scandal, CRS says that their 'staff who participate in these associations acknowledge our differences, air our disagreements on these issues, and contribute our Catholic voice to the conversation.' Even if we grant this, one wonders what message is really sent when CRS's pro-life position is rejected by the organization, CRS's support is assumed for the public positions taken by MEDiCAM and this is not challenged by CRS in public, and CRS continues to pay dues for its membership year after year.

    2) MEDiCAM is presented in the CRS statement as a neutral setting for medical professionals and advocates who happen to disagree on some issues. But this ignores the fact that the organization itself consistently advocates for abortion and contraception. MEDiCAM is not neutral in these debates or in its policy recommendations.

    3) CRS makes a comparison: 'Catholic physicians are not prohibited from joining the American Medical Association even though there are areas of practice which violate Catholic teachings.' Of the many problems with this comparison, perhaps most obvious is that CRS, an agency of the Catholic Church and not an individual who is Catholic, is itself paying to be a member and for its staff to hold leadership positions in a group that promotes abortion and contraception. A Catholic doctor would also be well justified in abandoning an organization that consistently advocates for the destruction of unborn human life, but if she held a leadership position and her position was ignored in the organization's public statements, she would have to publicly condemn the promotion of evil and resign.

    4) CRS has still not, as far as we can find, released a public statement distancing CRS from the groups' consistent advocacy for abortion in a venue where MEDiCAM's partners would have to confront the challenge. A press release to American Catholics, only after concerns are raised, is not equivalent.

    5) Would CRS also pay to belong to an organization that does good work but promotes racism? Of course not – the scandal would be too great. CRS would immediately stop paying dues and would very publicly condemn the racist views of the organization. If the organization were dominant in terms of its influence in industry practice and national policy, CRS would try to build another such coalition, one that did not promote evils along with the good. Indeed, this is what love, truth and courage would demand.

    6) To peruse CRS's own 'complete and accurate information' on condoms and other means of HIV/AIDS prevention is to marvel at the lack of Catholicity in the materials, even if CRS often avoids (though certainly does not always avoid) the direct promotion of condoms. But at some point a question must be asked: Where is CRS's positive case for the Church's life-giving teaching on marriage and human sexuality? With all of the "sex education" its experts are involved in, why is there not a robust and thorough presentation of the beauty of human sexuality available for all to see on CRS's web site, and which must be used for all such purposes? The honest answer will have something to do with the fact that as a government grant recipient, CRS cannot present the fullness of Church teaching on marriage and sexuality, which is why it spends so much time funding organizations that are hostile to this teaching, and participating in coalitions, negotiating for slight improvements in mind-numbing technical documents that often promote terrible things. This is not to say that CRS leadership directly opposes the Church, it is to say that CRS obviously does not have control over all the projects it funds or is aligned with, because it gets most of its money from the U.S. government.

    So, just in this one case, I ask the reader if CRS's reply on the MEDiCAM matter accurately represents the claims made by those who raised concerns, and if it sufficiently addresses the concerns. The more you check into each set of claims and compare them to CRS's statements, especially when they issue blanket denials that only raise more questions, the more you see why bishops don't know what to make of this whole matter.

    Finally, someone I respect raised a fair point regarding the question of the high incomes of CRS leadership in the Crisis article. I didn't present this well – it came across as ad hominem, and everyone I've met who knows Carolyn Woo speaks highly of her. The idea was to present a fact that puts the question of CRS's identity in stark relief: for a government-funded NGO that takes in just under a billion dollars per year, $460,000 is not unreasonable for a CEO's salary. For a Catholic charity that serves the poor, it shows a disconnect bordering on the extreme. So to defend the salary, CRS has to grant the critics' main point about the split identity of CRS, which is why CRS will not acknowledge the question. That Obama's ambassador to the Vatican has received somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars in deferred compensation since he left CRS – at an annual rate higher than the current CEO – is a scandal of an entirely different order, which is again why CRS won't address it, and is why they attack our motives.

    We have to pray for all involved. This scandal will not go away until the matter is brought in line with truth, which gets more difficult with every denial from CRS.
© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media, and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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