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Investigation: Cardinal Wuerl received $2 million in 2020 for ‘ministry activities’

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 05:32 pm (CNA).- Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop emeritus of Washington DC who stepped down in 2018 amid scandal, received over $2 million from the archdiocese last year for unspecified “ministry activities,” an investigation has found. 



A March 3 examination of the archdiocese’s financial records by The Pillar found that Wuerl was allocated $2,012,639 for “continuing ministry activities” during fiscal year 2020.



The amount appropriated to Wuerl is up from approximately $1.5 million in 2019. The archdiocesan financial statement does not detail what “continuing ministry activities” the funds facilitated. 



In contrast, the amount the archdiocese allocated for “Formation of priests” declined slightly from $1.1 million in 2019 to just over $1 million in 2020. 



Similarly, “Archdiocesan charitable giving” in 2020 was listed at just over $401,000, down from just over $651,000 in fiscal year 2019. 



The Pillar confirmed that Wuerl gave at least one retreat to a group of U.S. bishops in January 2021. The archdiocese did not respond to The Pillar’s questions about what other ministry responsibilities, if any, the archdiocese had given Wuerl.  



Revelations during summer 2018 about the sexual misconduct of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick raised questions about whether Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor, was aware of McCarrick’s misdeeds. 



McCarrick was found to have sexually abused both minors and adult seminarians and priests, and Pope Francis laicized him in Feb. 2019. 



For his part, Wuerl has insisted he knew nothing about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct until 2018.



But previous reporting by CNA, as well as the recent McCarrick Report, found that Wuerl was made aware in 2004 of inappropriate conduct, apparently not of a sexual nature, on the part of McCarrick involving an adult. 



Though Wuerl forwarded a report of the alleged misconduct to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., no record has been found that the nuncio, who by that time had fallen seriously ill, ever forwarded it to the Vatican.



The McCarrick Report also details a 2010 incident whereby Wuerl advised against then-Pope Benedict sending a birthday greeting to McCarrick because there remained “the possibility that the New York Times is going to publish a nasty article, already prepared, about the Cardinal’s ‘moral life.’”



Wuerl, 80, was appointed to lead the Washington archdiocese in May 2006. Pope Benedict XVI named him a cardinal in 2010. He was previously Bishop of Pittsburgh since 1988.



Wuerl had submitted his resignation to the Vatican in 2015 upon turning 75, as is the requirement for bishops. 



Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation in Oct. 2018 at Wuerl’s request, but asked him to remain as Apostolic Administrator until the appointment of his successor. In May 2019, Archbishop— now Cardinal— Wilton Gregory was installed in Washington. 



The archdiocese of Washington released a statement March 4 following The Pillar’s report, saying the funds in the “continuing ministry activities” account are donations “made by persons who want to cover Cardinal Wuerl’s expenses and ministerial needs.”



These include “living expenses, prior travel for business in Rome, as well as for charitable requests asked of the archbishop emeritus,” the statement said, adding that the “donations have accumulated over time.”



However, The Pillar noted that the funds allocated for Wuerl are classified as “net assets without donor restrictions,” meaning they are not subject to “donor imposed restrictions stipulating how, when and/or if the net assets are available for expenditure.”



The designation appears at odds with the archdiocese’s statement that the funds were donated with the specific intention of covering Wuerl’s expenses. 



The Pillar contacted the archdiocese to ask specifically about the funds’ designation—  which is regulated both by state law and the IRS— and did not receive a reply by press time. 



“All the expenses of Cardinal Gregory and Cardinal Wuerl are reviewed by members of the Archdiocesan Finance Council throughout the year. All expenditures go through the Archdiocese’s normal budget and internal control procedures, which are also audited by an accounting firm annually,” the archdiocesan statement concluded. 



The U.S. bishops’ conference has guidelines for providing for retired bishops, recommending that their diocese give them a stipend of at least $2,250 per month, as well as housing, health insurance, a car, travel expenses, secretarial assistance if needed, and a suitable funeral and burial.



McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor, is known to have funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars through what was known as the Archbishop’s Fund, and reportedly made gifts to senior Vatican officials, even while the fund remained under the charitable auspices of the archdiocese.


The Archdiocese of Washington has so far declined to disclose sources, sums, and uses of money, though it has acknowledged that the fund exists.

Bishops across US issue split messages on Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine

Denver Newsroom, Mar 4, 2021 / 04:24 pm (CNA).- Bishops across the United States have weighed in with varied guidance for their flocks amid renewed debate over the morality of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency FDA authorization last weekend. 



While the bishops’ conference at large has said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally acceptable if Catholics have no other choice, some individual bishops have said Catholics ought to accept the first vaccine they are offered. 



And in contrast, at least one bishop has instructed his flock not to accept the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at all. 



In a March 2 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) echoed the Vatican in stating that it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID-19 vaccines produced using cell lines from aborted fetuses when no alternative is available, but if possible, Catholics ought to choose a vaccine with a more remote connection to abortion.



“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available…it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,’” the bishops wrote.



The statement was signed by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, who head the USCCB committees on doctrine and pro-life activities, respectively.



Bishop Rhoades has since clarified that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine “can be used in good moral conscience.”



“What’s most important is that people get vaccinated,” Bishop Rhoades said in a March 4 video message. 


“It can be an act of charity that serves the common good. At the same time, as we bishops have already done, it’s really important for us to encourage development of vaccines that do not use abortion-derived cell lines. This is very important for the future.”



In the United States, vaccines are federally allocated, and the amounts of each of the three COVID-19 vaccines available varies from state to state. Experts have said it is unlikely that patients will be able to choose which vaccine they will be able to get. 



Joseph Zalot, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that while Catholics are free to choose to wait for a more ethical vaccine— or even to not receive a vaccine at all— they must take into account the potential effects not only on their own health, but on the health of others.



For example, a healthy person accepting a COVID-19 vaccine— even Johnson & Johnson’s— is less likely to spread the virus to others, such as elderly relatives, he noted, which could constitute a proportionate reason to accept the less ethical vaccine. 



NPR reported that at least one Catholic hospital, Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, had already received several hundred doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week— before the USCCB’s statement— with plans to administer them as soon as possible. 



Zalot commented that he hopes most Catholic hospitals will have tried, as much as possible, to order the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines rather than the Johnson & Johnson. 



“However, if the J&J vaccine has already arrived, the question then becomes, ‘Which is the greater evil – issuing these vaccines knowing their ‘heightened’ connection with abortion-derived cell lines or letting them go to waste when people could greatly benefit from them?’” Zalot said. 



“As much as I personally would seek to avoid accepting the J&J vaccine, I also don’t think it would be prudent to let them go to waste.”



The Pontifical Academy for Life has said that Catholics should advocate for ethically-produced vaccines which do not use cell lines of aborted babies. Zalot noted that Catholics who do choose to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ought to inform the manufacturers of their opposition to the use of abortion-derived cell lines.



Several bishops have echoed the USCCB’s March 2 statement with statements of their own. 



The bishops of Pittsburgh, St. Augustine, and St. Louis are among those bishops who have affirmed the USCCB statement to their own flocks. 



“I have received both doses of a vaccine and have encouraged our priests to get theirs as soon as their age or risk group is able to do so. You should not delay getting your vaccine. Moderna or Pfizer vaccines are preferable. When there is no choice, you may receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” archbishop Gregory Hartmayer of Atlanta said March 3. 



The Archdiocese of New Orleans, while not prohibiting Catholics from receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if no other ethical alternative is available, advised Catholics to seek out the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines if possible.



Bishop Michael Duca of Baton Rouge also weighed in on the matter this week in a March 1 letter to the faithful.



“[M]y guidance to the faithful of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is to accept as your first choices the vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna, but if for any reasonable circumstance you are only able to receive the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, you should feel free to do so for your safety and for the common good,” Bishop Duca wrote.


Some bishops, such as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, have released statements encouraging people not to delay in accepting any vaccination available to them.



“[O]n the concrete moral and pastoral question of receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson or Astra-Zeneca vaccines...in the current pandemic moment, with limited vaccine options available to achieve healing for our nation and our world, it is entirely morally legitimate to receive any of these four vaccines, and to recognize, as Pope Francis has noted, that in receiving them we are truly showing love for our neighbor and our God,” McElroy wrote March 3. 



McElroy’s statement did not reference any obligation to avoid certain versions if given a choice.



Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, while echoing the USCCB and Vatican statements, similarly encouraged people to accept the vaccinations they are given. 



"When it is your turn to receive a vaccine, you can receive the one that is offered to you without moral reservation,” Deeley wrote in part March 4. 



The diocese of Syracuse, led by Bishop Douglas Lucia, said in a statement to local news that all individuals may not have the ability to pick and choose a vaccine, so “therefore what is most important is the duty to protect one’s own health and that of their neighbor by being vaccinated.”



Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri said March 4: “In the current situation of a pandemic, Catholics may in good conscience utilize any of the vaccines currently available, even those derived in an unethical manner, to protect themselves, as well as to avoid the serious risk to vulnerable persons and to society resulting from remaining unvaccinated. If a person concludes he or she cannot be vaccinated, whether for health reasons or if their own moral analysis is different from the Church, they are morally obliged to do everything they can to prevent transmission of the coronavirus and avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated.”



At least one U.S. bishop has specifically advised his flock against receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 



Bishop David Kagan of Bismark, North Dakota released a statement March 2 which took a harder line than the USCCB at large, effectively prohibiting Catholics in the diocese from accepting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 



“This Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally compromised and therefore unacceptable for any Catholic physician or health care worker to dispense and for any Catholic to receive due to its direct connection to the intrinsically evil act of abortion,” he wrote. 



“No one should use or receive this vaccine but there is no justification for any Catholic to do so.  Two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used. As always, no one is bound to receive this vaccine, but it remains an individual and informed decision.”



One other prelate, Bishop Joseph Strickland, has publicly expressed his personal opposition to receiving any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, while not prohibiting his flock from doing so. 



“I will not accept a vaccine whose existence depends on the abortion of a child, but I realize others may discern a need for immunization in these extraordinarily hard times,” Strickland said on Twitter late last year. 



Strickland has not issued a statement or letter to his flock directly addressing the issue since an April 2020 letter in which he encouraged Catholics to pray and demonstrate for ethical COVID-19 vaccines. 



Strickland has since called the situation with COVID-19 vaccines a “lost opportunity” to voice opposition to medical treatments with connections to abortion. 



“It’s not up to me to tell people whether or not to take the vaccine, but to be informed, and to make their own informed conscience decision. That’s really what the Catholic church teaches,” Strickland told local news station KETK March 3. 



The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes use of PER.C6— a proprietary cell line developed from retinal cells from a fetus aborted in 1985— in design and development, production, and lab testing.



In contrast, mRNA vaccines available from Pfizer and Moderna have an extremely remote connection to abortion in the design and testing phases, leading ethicists to judge those vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.” Similar testing is performed on many contemporary prescription and over-the-counter medications.



A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson issued a statement March 3 saying there is “no fetal tissue” in their vaccine. 


'Open the doors again': One advocate urges nursing home visitation to resume

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- The U.S. must consider increasing nursing home visitation during the pandemic, one advocate for elder care told CNA.

“It’s necessary to open the doors again, and end the isolation of the elderly,” said Jim Towey, founder and CEO of the group Aging with Dignity, which advocates for care of the elderly. Towey was formerly legal counsel to Mother Teresa, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and president of St. Vincent’s College and of Ave Maria University.

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have seen high death rates from the coronavirus pandemic, and thus have had strict visitation policies. Towey said that as a result, many elderly persons have been cut off from human contact and from the physical presence of their loved ones for nearly a year—with devastating consequences.

“I think what’s going to emerge in the next six months is the awareness that COVID was as much a mental health crisis as an infectious disease crisis,” Towey told CNA in a Feb. 17 interview. “And this is going to be true at every level of society, from school kids that are failing to thrive to seniors who have been traumatized by their isolation.”

While many might see mass vaccination as heralding a return to normal life in the coming months, he said, hospitals and long-term care facilities have not yet changed their “lockdown practices” despite COVID vaccinations beginning in December.

Kaiser Health News has reported that weekly new deaths among nursing home residents had sharply declined by 66% since COVID-19 vaccinations began in December. Yet many facilities, Kaiser reported on Thursday, are still not open to visitation, or have strict visitation policies.

Federal guidance acknowledges the difficulties faced by residents without visitors, and lists precautions that facilities could take to accommodate visitors safely. After Towey spoke with CNA on Feb. 17, multiple states announced a relaxation of their nursing home visitation policies.  

Yet public health regulations have prized physical safety over mental health without full regard to the consequences, Towey said. 

“I feel like the public health concerns failed to weigh the destructive effect these lockdown practices of nursing homes and hospitals have had on human beings and their emotional needs,” Towey said of the isolation felt by many nursing home residents during the pandemic.

Furthermore, he added, reports of widespread isolation “will have a chilling effect on individuals and their decisions to go into assisted living or a nursing home. They don’t want to be imprisoned. They don’t want to be cut off from the human race.”

Towey has argued that other local, state, and federal public health policies have reflected society’s disdain for the elderly. He told CNA back in May that nursing homes had been “ground zero” for the worst suffering from the pandemic, due to reports of neglect and state orders that nursing homes accept COVID-positive patients discharged from hospitals.

Then, he had warned of a “utilitarian” mindset that the lives of the elderly mattered less.

Now, Towey said, society cannot ignore the mental anguish of residents who have no one to visit them. “The isolation has been punishing. The loneliness that’s resulted has been cancerous,” he said.

Making matters worse, he argued, is that the U.S. has no plan or national initiative to deal with the problem.

“You can’t lock down the elderly forever and isolate them forever, and I don’t think our country has thought through humane approaches that give the elderly not simply protection, but also company and love and accompaniment,” Towey said.

He juxtaposed the care for the elderly in the U.S. with the situation in Italy. While the country saw high death rates among the elderly during the pandemic, there has also been a campaign by young people to send supportive calls and video messages to elderly residents in isolation. The Catholic “Youth for Peace” movement has organized the campaign, also collecting supplies for elderly residents.

Towey called for a national initiative in the U.S. to rethink elder care during the pandemic—including “how we can change practices immediately” to remedy the “starvation that the elderly are experiencing in the way of human contact.”

“I think the United States is lagging behind,” he said, noting that the isolation faced by elderly residents—along with anecdotes of them being denied access to ventilators at intensive care units— reflects a societal utilitarian view of human beings, that you’re valuable if you’re useful. And many feel that our elderly aren’t useful.”

At the outset of the pandemic, ethicists warned against state and local triage plans that would discriminate against the elderly and the disabled. Care should be rationed on an ethical basis and must not be denied those who are deemed to have a lesser “quality of life” on a utilitarian basis, ethicists told CNA.

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) warned that it would be watching for any age or disability-based discrimination during the pandemic. The office successfully prodded Alabama to update its controversial triage plan and exclude problematic provisions.

Some public officials, such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), have been criticized for state policies that allowed COVID-positive patients to be discharged from hospitals into nursing homes.

Although New York reversed that policy last spring, Cuomo’s administration is under federal investigation for its handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. An aide admitted that the administration tried to hide the nursing home death count from the federal government.

The general isolation or neglect of the elderly, Towey said, is all part of the “throwaway culture” condemned by Pope Francis

“I think Pope Francis has properly focused on the disproportionate impact that COVID has had on the elderly, far beyond the fatality count,” he said.

“It’s damaging to the social fabric that ties us all together,” he said.

The Catholic Church celebrates Easter Monday under the title 'Monday of the Angel'

ACI Prensa Staff, Mar 4, 2021 / 02:53 pm (CNA).- On Easter Monday, the Catholic Church celebrates what’s called “Monday of the Angel.” In many countries in Europe and South America, this day, also known as “Little Easter,” is a national holiday.



In a Vatican Radio recording in 1994, Pope John Paul II gave an explanation for Monday of the Angel:



“Why is it called that?” the pope asked, highlighting the need for an angel to call out from the depths of the grave: “He is Risen.”



These words “were very difficult to proclaim, to express, for a person,” said John Paul II. “Also, the women that were at the tomb encountered it empty but couldn’t tell ‘he had risen;’ they only affirmed that the tomb was empty. The angel said more: “He is not here, He has risen.”



The Gospel of Saint Matthew puts it this way: “Then the angel said to the women in reply, ‘Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5-7)



Angels are servants and messengers of God. As purely spiritual beings, they have intellects and wills. They are personal and immortal. They surpass all visible beings in their perfection.



Christ himself gives testimony to the angels when he said, “The angels in Heaven always see the face of my father who is in Heaven!” (Matthew 18:10).



Christ is the center of the universe and angels belong to him. Even more so, because he made them messengers of his plan of salvation: an angel announced his conception to the Blessed Mother at the Annunciation and an angel proclaimed his Resurrection to Mary Magdalene.


From Easter Monday until the end of Easter at Pentecost, the Church prays the Regina Caeli instead of the Angelus at the noon hour.



On Monday of the Angel in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said the text of the Regina Caeli “is like a new ‘Annunciation’ to Mary, this time not made by an angel but by us Christians who invite the Mother to rejoice because her Son, whom she carried in her womb, is risen as he promised.”


He continued, “Indeed, ‘rejoice’ was the first word that the heavenly messenger addressed to the Virgin in Nazareth. And this is what it meant: Rejoice, Mary, because the Son of God is about to become man within you. Now, after the drama of the Passion, a new invitation to rejoice rings out: ‘Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia, quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia’ — Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia. Rejoice because the Lord is truly risen, alleluia!”



Regina Caeli (English)

V. Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.

R. For He whom you did merit to bear, alleluia.

V. Has risen, as he said, alleluia.

R. Pray for us to God, alleluia.

V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.

R. For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.

V. Let us pray. O God, who gave joy to the world through the resurrection of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, grant we beseech Thee, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, His Mother, we may obtain the joys of everlasting life. Through the same Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

 

Regina Caeli (Latin)

V. Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia.

R. Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia.

V. Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.

R. Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

V. Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia.

R. Quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia.

V. Oremus. Deus, qui per resurrectionem Filii tui, Domini nostri Iesu Christi, mundum laetificare dignatus es: praesta, quaesumus; ut per eius Genetricem Virginem Mariam, perpetuae capiamus gaudia vitae. Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum.

R. Amen. 




This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by Jeanette De Melo at the National Catholic Register.

Relics of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to be displayed this summer at her shrine

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- The Sisters of Charity of New York have donated several of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s relics to the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, it was announced on March 1. 

The relics, which include the saint’s religious bonnet, rosary, and crucifix, will be displayed in an expanded museum at the shrine, which is located in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Seton was the first American-born person to be canonized. 

The donation “was a surprise,” Rob Judge, the executive director of the Seton Shrine, said to CNA.

“We knew that they had these wonderful artifacts and they've loaned us artifacts at different times,” he said of the Sisters of Charity, “but it was really their generosity--they're recognizing that this is a momentous year for the shrine.” Seton died in 1821, and Jan. 4 marked the bicentennial of her death.

The bicentennial “has been an opportunity to share her story on a deeper level, with more people in the Church and in the world,” said Judge. 

The Sisters of Charity of New York, who Judge called “great partners” with the shrine, donated the relics with the intent of helping to share the saint’s story. While they originally displayed the artifacts at their archives and museum in Riverdale, New York, the sisters determined they “needed a climate-controlled environment” and could be seen and venerated by more visitors at the national shrine in Emmitsburg, the shrine said in its release. 

“They just decided to [donate the relics] out of their own generosity and desire to share Mother Seton,” Judge told CNA. “And we're just humbled and grateful.”

The relics include Seton’s bonnet, rosary, her family broach she wore on her wedding day, and the christening gown worn by her daughter. 

Judge called these items “just really precious artifacts that help make her relatable and help us tell her story.” 

Seton, who was canonized in 1975, was born in New York City in 1774. She was raised Episcopalian and was received into the Catholic Church in 1805, two years after the death of her husband, William. She and William had five children together including Catherine, the first American to join the Sisters of Charity. 

Following her conversion to Catholicism, Seton eventually moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland and founded a Catholic school for girls and a religious community to care for the poor. 

Judge thinks that Seton’s life story resonates with Catholics today, noting the saint had “such a broad life experience” that included times of joy and times of extreme sorrow. 

“She had such a strong belief in God's providential care, that he had a plan that she would see us through, and that led her through her life,” said Judge. Seton’s husband and two of her children died of tuberculosis, something that Judge thinks is particularly relevant during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“She knew what it was like to live through a pandemic,” he said.

Seton is “an incredible model as a young woman, as a wife, as a religious, and as someone who was just a believer and a seeker,” said Judge. 

Her relics will be on display at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton this summer. The shrine remains open to visitors with COVID-19 prevention protocols.

Doctors, hospitals, fight 'transgender mandate' in federal court

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 09:32 am (CNA).- Doctors can’t be forced to perform gender-transition surgeries against their conscientious beliefs, argued attorneys for doctors and hospitals on Wednesday before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fifth Circuit judges heard oral arguments on Wednesday in Franciscan Alliance v. Cochran, the case of the federal “transgender mandate.” The mandate dates back to 2016, when the Obama administration interpreted a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to require procedures—such as gender-transitioning and abortions—to be available upon request.

The 2016 mandate did not include conscience exemptions, thus forcing almost all doctors and hospitals around the country to provide gender-transitioning procedures upon the referral of a mental health professional—regardless of their moral or professional opposition to doing so.

“Religious liberty law protects doctors from having to violate their conscience in order to perform these highly-controversial procedures that they believe harm the patients they are performed on,” said Joe Davis, legal counsel at Becket, in an interview with CNA on Wednesday.

Sec. 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination in health care on a number of cases including race, sex, and disability. The Obama administration interpreted “sex” discrimination to include termination of pregnancy and gender identity—thus forbidding denial of abortions and gender-transitioning.

The mandate is attached to federal Medicare and Medicaid funds—which almost every doctor receives, Davis explained. The mandate also could be enforced by private lawsuits against doctors who won’t provide the requested procedures, he said.

After the 2016 mandate, more than 19,000 healthcare professionals, nine states, and several religious organizations filed two lawsuits. Two federal courts in December, 2016, placed an injunction on the mandate.

Two more federal district court judges ruled against the mandate in 2019 and 2020. The doctors and hospitals before the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday were seeking permanent relief from the mandate, Davis said.

The Trump administration issued a new rule protecting doctors who opposed the transgender mandate last summer, but a federal court put an injunction on that action.

President Biden, meanwhile, stated his administration will interpret federal anti-discrimination laws to also cover gender identity discrimination—thus taking the Obama administration’s stance and signaling that they could re-impose the full transgender mandate.

On Wednesday, judges asked attorneys for HHS if they could ensure doctors wouldn’t be forced against their beliefs to provide the procedures.

“HHS couldn’t answer the question, they couldn’t give that assurance,” Davis said. “That’s exactly what they are seeking to do, and that’s why we need protection from the courts.”

The Fifth Circuit, he added, “seemed dissatisfied” with HHS’ answer and “generally seemed to understand the principle that religious liberty is so important, that a violation of religious freedom should result in lasting protection in those cases.”

There is not a consensus within the medical community on gender-transition surgeries, Davis noted.

The mandate "is also a shocking move given the science, in which many doctors disagree for entirely medical reasons about the efficacy of performing these procedures, especially on children, who often desist from gender dysphoria on their own without medical interventions,” Davis said.

Providence diocese won't comment on bill expanding liability for child sex abuse

Providence, R.I., Mar 3, 2021 / 08:01 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Providence is refusing to comment on a bill that would provide increased opportunities for victims of child sexual abuse to sue people and entities which enabled their abuse.

The bill, which was introduced to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in February, would expand the definition of a “perpetrator” in a 2019 piece of legislation known as “Annie’s Law.”

“Annie’s Law” changed the statute of limitations for filing suits related to child sexual abuse from seven years to 35 years after the abuse victim’s 18th birthday.

Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-South Kingstown), whose sister, Annie, for whom the 2019 bill was named, was abused by a priest as a child, is the sponsor of the bill.

The bill would name a  “perpetrator” as not only the person who committed the crime, but institutions as well, if there was a cover-up of the abuse. Similar bills have passed in other states, resulting in hundreds of lawsuits against institutions, including Catholic dioceses, the Boy Scouts, and other entities.

The Diocese of Providence told CNA that "it is premature to comment on the recently introduced legislation."

The bill comes after a superior court judge ruled last year that men who were abused as boys could not sue the Diocese of Providence in civil court. The men filed separate suits in 2019 and in 2020 against the diocese just prior to their 53rd birthdays, the deadline for filing a suit.

The suits were dismissed by Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel in October 2020. Vogel ruled that the diocese was not a perpetrator of abuse under the existing law, but rather the offending priest was the sole perpetrator who was liable. 

The bill is pending in both the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate.

Christian medical groups urge conscience protections amid Covid-19 vaccination push

CNA Staff, Mar 3, 2021 / 07:19 pm (CNA).- In a joint statement Tuesday, several Christian medical organizations highlighted the importance of conscience protections as COVID-19 vaccines are being administered.

Governing authorities ought to respect an individual’s decision to accept or refuse a vaccine according to their conscience, the organizations stated.

“While the pandemic remains a significant public health crisis, the individual rights of American citizens also remains of paramount importance. The guarantee of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ includes the right to make individual health care decisions while taking into account our responsibility for the common good,” the March 2 statement reads.

Signers included the Catholic Medical Association, Christian Medical and Dental Association, the American College of Pediatricians, and the National Association of Catholic Nurses, U.S.A.

The signers noted that some people may object to accepting a vaccine on moral grounds, as many modern vaccines have some connection with HEK-293 tissue which is descended from a baby who was likely aborted in the 1970s.

Guidance from the Vatican and the U.S. bishops’ conference has clarified that though Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines do have some connection to abortion, it is extremely remote and Catholics may morally accept them. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines both use mRNA technology and are not produced using fetal cells.

Even Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which was developed, tested, and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines, can be accepted by Catholics if there are no alternatives available, the US bishops’ conference has said.

“An individual’s decision to be vaccinated will also depend upon their personal assessment of the medical risks, a choice that should be respected. The decision not to be vaccinated must be accompanied by a commitment to take necessary precautions to lessen disease transmission,” the statement continues.

The organizations noted that vaccine distribution ought to prioritize those at greatest medical risk and those directly involved in the care of the sick.

“Attention should also be given to making vaccines available to smaller independent hospitals and clinics serving in underserved and rural areas where the vaccines to date have been less available.”

At the same time, the groups reiterated that vaccinations should be voluntary, respecting those who choose to object.

“It is fundamental that the right of individual conscience be preserved. Coerced vaccination would irreparably harm Constitutional rights and the patient-physician relationship,” the groups said.

“Conscience is an individual belief influenced by many factors such as faith, culture, family, and reason. Each individual makes a conscientious decision in any given situation. Respect for conscience rights is always of primary importance.”

Nation- and state-wide vaccination mandates for all people do not exist, but private businesses are allowed to implement vaccine mandates for their employees.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, certain populations have borne the brunt of virus deaths, and become the subjects of discussions about who should receive a vaccine first.

While residents of long-term care facilities accounted for 7% of COVID cases in the U.S., they reportedly make up 40% of deaths from the virus. More than 100,000 residents of long-term care facilities have died of the virus so far.

Prisons have reportedly suffered many virus outbreaks as well, although the data at hand do not show as high of a fatality rate among this population.

Senate committee splits on Becerra confirmation

Washington D.C., Mar 3, 2021 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- The Senate Finance Committee was divided on the confirmation of Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services on Wednesday.

In voting to favorably recommend the confirmation of Becerra to the entire Senate on Wednesday, the committee was equally divided by party, with 14 members of each party voting for and against Becerra. Democrats supported his confirmation while Republicans opposed.

Per Senate rules, the vote will now be transmitted to the secretary of the senate and either party’s leader can move to force a confirmation vote by the entire chamber.

Becerra, currently California’s attorney general, has been vociferously opposed by pro-life groups as health secretary nominee. On Wednesday, Republican senators brought up his record on abortion and religious freedom as reasons to oppose his confirmation.

“His qualifications for HHS Secretary seem to be minimal, beyond suing HHS,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

Becerra was grilled over his treatment of Catholic religious last week at his confirmation hearings. As attorney general of California, he defended state mandates that required even Catholic religious to provide abortion coverage, and forced crisis pregnancy centers to advertise for abortions. Regarding the latter mandate, the Supreme Court ruled against Becerra in 2018 in NIFLA v. Becerra.

Becerra also sued the Trump administration over its religious and moral exemptions that it granted to the HHS contraceptive coverage mandate—an act which forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to go back to court.

The Little Sisters of the Poor had benefited from the religious exemption to providing coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients. They moved to return to court to defend their exemption after California and Pennsylvania sued to take it away.

Senate Pro-Life Caucus chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) called Becerra “as radical as it gets” in a statement on Wednesday, saying that he “is extremely pro-abortion” and “attacks religious freedom.”

In an exchange with Daines last week, Becerra would not name one abortion restriction that he supported. As attorney general, he also filed briefs in opposition to other states’ abortion restrictions, and fought to liberalize federal restrictions on the abortion pill regimen. At his confirmation hearing last week, Becerra pushed for women to be able to receive the abortion pill regimen remotely.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the finance committee, invoked “women’s health care” to support Becerra on Wednesday.

“I just feel very strongly over the last four years, women across the country saw their health providers close down, their access to reproductive health care, including abortion, ripped away. And the attacks that were leveled against the attorney general, in my view, twist reality when it comes to women’s health care,” Wyden said.

In his written responses to questions for the record submitted after his confirmation hearing, Becerra committed to acting to fund abortion providers—but would not commit to religious freedom protections for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

In response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Becerra committed to reviewing the Title X family planning program—an act that is expected to roll back the Trump administration’s requirements that recipients not refer for abortions or be co-located with abortion facilities.

Planned Parenthood withdrew from the program in 2019 due to the prohibitions. President Biden pledged to repeal the requirements and, in a recent order, instructed the health secretary to review the program—the first administrative step toward repealing the requirements.  

Planned Parenthood Action has also pushed for Becerra’s confirmation, calling it “a big deal.”

Becerra also would not commit to not re-imposing the contraceptive mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Supreme Court last July sided with the sisters in their defense of their religious exemption to the mandate. Biden has said he would repeal that exemption.

“I strongly believe women should not be put through unnecessary hurdles to access to health care,” Becerra said when asked by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) if he would commit to keeping the exemption in place.

In written questions, submitted for the record, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) noted that Becerra’s positions on “late-term abortion, life, conscience protections, and overreaching government policies that infringe on religious freedoms have raised significant concerns among many South Carolinians.”

Becerra, in response, cited his Catholic faith as a defense of his record.

“As a person of faith, I believe deeply in religious freedom,” he said. “I was raised in a Catholic home, and we would get up early on Sunday mornings to go to mass.”

He also would not directly answer questions on the transgender issue.

When asked if his agency would “ensure that children are not subjected to experimental hormone therapy,” and if he believed that “doctors and hospitals should have the right to refuse to participate in gender transition therapies and treatments due to medical, religious or moral convictions,” Becerra said he would rely on the expertise of “doctors and scientists.”

“I believe medical decisions should be left to individuals and their health providers,” he said.

Rachel Levine, a man identifying as a transgender woman, is currently under consideration to be nominated as assistant HHS secretary, and would serve under Becerra if both were to be confirmed.

Levine has previously stated support for hormone therapy for teenagers, provided that the individual, parents, doctor, and therapist all supported the procedure.

In response to a series of questions by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) on conscience protections for doctors, religious freedom, the Hyde Amendment, and protections for infant survivors of abortions, Becerra simply said he would “follow the law” if confirmed.

Pro Choice Caucus calls on Biden to end Hyde Amendment

Washington D.C., Mar 3, 2021 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Congressional Democrats called on President Joe Biden this week to remove pro-life protections from the 2022 federal budget.  

The Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, the Democratic Women’s Caucus leaders, and other members of the House and Senate sent a letter to Biden on Tuesday asking him to eliminate the Hyde Amendment, the Weldon Amendment, and the Helms Amendment from the budget. 

The Hyde and Helms amendments restrict the use of taxpayer funds for elective abortions in the U.S. and abroad, respectively. The Weldon Amendment restricts funding of states that discriminate against health care entities opposed to abortion.

These abortion funding restrictions have been enacted in law for years - decades, in the case of the Hyde and Helms amendments which have been law since the 1970s.

However, in recent years an increasing number of Democrats have pushed for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment - including President Biden, once a supporter of the policy.

Pro-life lawmakers made a request to preserve these amendments in a letter sent earlier this year to congressional leadership. 

Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) - who led the letter - told CNA Wednesday in a statement that the Hyde Amendment “is supported by the overwhelming majority of voters, was endorsed by President Biden as recently as 2019 and was passed each year in a bipartisan, noncontroversial manner for decades.” 

“The modern day Democrat Party has fully embraced anti-life radicalism, but the Republican Study Committee is equally determined to make sure the Hyde Amendment continues to save unborn lives,” Banks said. “Because of our campaign, almost every Republican in Congress has pledged to vote against any bill that would weaken Hyde protections.” 

The RSC has listed saving the Hyde Amendment as one of its top priorities for the 117th Congress. 

Pro-abortion lawmakers argued in their letter that the ongoing pandemic “yet again showed the long-standing structural racism and inequities in our health care system, with communities of color, particularly those in the Black, Latinx, and Pacific Islander communities, and Indigenous people facing high rates of infection and death from COVID-19.” 

“We are ready to work with the Biden Administration to undo harmful abortion access policies that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote. 

The Hyde Amendment, they argued, blocks subsidized abortion for “people enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare; federal employees and their dependents; Peace Corps Volunteers; Indigenous people; women in federal prisons and immigration detention centers; and residents of the District of Columbia.”

“We are committed to ensuring all people can access reproductive health care, including abortion, no matter how much money they make, where they were born or live, their age, their immigration status, their race, or their sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity,” they wrote. 

The pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute has estimated that the Hyde Amendment has resulted in fewer abortions annually since it was first enacted in 1976, and has saved the lives of more than 2.4 million people.