RICHMOND, Va. – Authorities are investigating whether a Catholic charity violated state and federal law by helping a 16-year-old illegal immigrant who was in the organization's care get an abortion.
Workers with Commonwealth Catholic Charities helped the girl travel to and from the procedure in January and signed a consent form for the abortion, Joanne Nattrass, the charity's executive director, said in a statement. She declined further comment.
Four of the Richmond-based charity's workers were fired, according to a letter by David Siegel, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' refugee resettlement program.
The federal department is looking into the charity's actions and the role played by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference receives $7.6 million a year in federal funds to place unaccompanied illegal immigrant children in foster care until they're reunited with relatives, sponsored, or returned to their homeland. The girl is from Guatemala but was living in Virginia when the abortion took place.
Federal law bans the use of federal money to pay for abortions with exceptions for rape, incest or threats to the life of the mother. Virginia law requires parental consent for an abortion for a girl under 18.
Commonwealth Catholic Charities serves children in the Richmond area as a subcontractor of the bishop's conference. The conference "appears to have been aware of Commonwealth Catholic Charities' actions," Siegel wrote in his April 23 letter to HHS' deputy inspector general, Timothy Menke.
In a letter nearly a week later, the conference acknowledged some responsibility for the incident and said it has revised agreements with the more than 1,700 Catholic Charities offices nationwide to explicitly bar services that contradict Catholic teachings. Catholics are strongly opposed to abortion, and it isn't clear why the organization assisted the teen.
"There were significant supervisory errors that resulted in a failure to do everything possible to avoid the abortion," said the letter, signed by Bishops Francis X. DiLorenzo of the Richmond diocese; John C. Wester of the Salt Lake City diocese; and Michael P. Driscoll of the Boise, Idaho diocese. All have some link to the youth resettlement program.
Federal officials were surprised and disappointed that a Catholic charity used funding to help a minor get an abortion, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families in HHS.
"That is at odds with federal policy and is a possible violation of Virginia state law, so we have referred this case to HSS' inspector general," Wolfe said in a statement. "Our agency is one that supports human life and we take that responsibility seriously."