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Monday, March 20, 2006

Catholic Charities' tragic gay adoption ban.

If you pay attention to the links I collect in my scrapbook (here on the front page sidebar or all by itself), you will have noticed that I've been following the decision of the Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts to seek a religious exemption to the state's antidiscrimination policies governing adoptions. Catholic Charities wants to opt out of providing adoption services to same-sex couples. It's turning into a tragic story — and soon you'll be seeing stories like it where you live. Here's the short version, followed by questions I'm wondering about:

The four Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts began looking for ways to bar same-sex couples from seeking to adopt using services they provide after the Vatican declared — in a cruelly ironic phrase — that placing children with gay adoptive parents "does violence" to the children. State law governing adoptions, however, has forbidden discrimination based on sexual orientation for many years. But Catholic Charities — the social service arm of the Archdiocese of Boston — has placed 13 of 720 children with same-sex couples since it signed a contract to help find homes for children in the state's custody back in 1987. Its board, made up of 42 prominent lay Catholics, voted unananimously in December to continue placing children with eligible gay parents despite the Vatican statement; seven board members resigned earlier this month when the bishops insisted on barring gay parents, and another board member quit a short time later. Finally, when Gov. Romney said he couldn't grant an exemption without legislative action and legislative leaders said there wasn't a chance they'd change the law, Catholic Charities announced that it would halt all adoption services in June, ending a service it has provided for more than a century.

Everyone acknowledges that Catholic Charities has done outstanding work, especially in finding homes for foster children with special needs. Everyone acknowledges that it's tragic for the agency to stop doing work it does so well. But what's the solution?

Politically, it's silly for conservatives to think that the legislature would give the Archdiocese what it's asking. Ever since the clergy child sex abuse scandal began, the Church has lost tremendous political clout and has shown a peculiar knack for pissing off politicians. (Remember how Boston and state pols reacted to parish school closings? I thought I was watching a mutiny.) Legislators know that any bill that grants an exemption to the Church in its dealings with vulnerable children isn't going far — even if everyone agrees that Catholic Charities and the Rev. Bryan Hehir are worlds apart from Cardinal Law and the child-molesting clergy he protected for years. There's just no political gain in siding with the Church against people who want to adopt neglected kids.

Ironically, the superabundance of Catholics in the legislature also works against the Church because legislators, frustrated at having no real voice for reform within the Church, have tried forcing reforms using secular legislation recently — as the state senate tried doing in launching its ill-considered financial disclosure bill last fall. If there were more non-Catholics in the legislature, the Church might actually make some headway arguing about the free exercise of religion. But in Catholic Massachusetts, we non-Catholics just live here — watching Catholics and frustrated Catholics and ex-Catholics work out their issues on Beacon Hill and in the op-ed columns of the Globe.

My questions: Could the Department of Social Services simply handle the adoptions directly rather than outsource the work to nonprofit organizations like Catholic Charities? Yes, but probably not without a lot more funding. Catholic Charities received $1 million in state funds in 2005 for handling adoptions for DSS — but Catholic Charities receives millions more from corporate, foundation, and individual donors, and it offers many programs beyond adoption services. (Total revenues in 2005: $37 million. I don't know how much came from other government funds.) I've unsuccessfully tried to find information about Catholic Charities' total budget for adoption services, but I suspect the state's $1 million covers only part of the total expense.

Michael Levenson reported that "of the 866 children adopted from the state Department of Social Services [last year], 91 went through private agencies, and 28 of those through Catholic Charities." But those 28 were the "most troubled foster children, including those with HIV and AIDS, mental and emotional problems, and histories of abuse."

What this means, I think, is that the state chose a less expensive and politically expedient route by outsourcing adoptions to Catholic Charities and seven other organizations. Subcontracting the work pleases anti-tax conservatives who want social services spending kept low while satisfying liberals who want to provide an important social service. But private donors are funding what the taxpayers won't — and that's a problem because the state does run into trouble trying to promote an important principle, equal access under the law, through privately subsidized and faith-based service programs.

Can the other adoption providers do the work as effectively while complying with state regulations? I hope so. I hope the Globe will tell us more about how adoptions are done in the state. But again, it's possible that the scale of Catholic Charities' work and the infrastructure supported by its broader funding and range of services allowed it to work more efficiently than other agencies can.

Are religiously motivated service agencies better able to do certain kinds of work than secular agencies? Maybe. Despite the abysmal salaries of social workers, nothing would seem to compare to nuns' vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity — and nuns used to provide much of the workforce for Catholic service agencies. That has changed in recent decades, of course, as vocations have plummeted. What motivates people to invest time and money in difficult social service work, whether it's religiously oriented or secular? If a religious charity is, in fact, better able to serve the needs of most vulnerable children, we liberals need to find a way to account for that fact. But I'm not convinced yet that it's true.

The state has a legitimate interest in wanting its laws and regulations governing its social services to apply to its subcontractors. This is where the problem with "faith-based initiatives" comes up, because religious service providers are often oriented around different values sets than the secular state. Equal access matters in a democratic republic, but that's not the same thing as the Christian value of hospitality or charity. Equal access is not a Catholic ideal. (It's worth noting that Catholic Charities began offering adoption services more than 100 years ago to prevent Protestant parents from adopting Catholic orphans. It began as a community preservation tactic, and was inherently discriminatory.) Personally, I find it hard to justify outsourcing important government services to groups that do not and cannot consider themselves accountable to the people.

Final question: Why were all 13 of the children adopted by same-sex couples "difficult cases"? Did Catholic Charities discriminate against same-sex couples by only allowing them to adopt after all other options had been exhausted?

Media coverage:

All Boston Globe stories by Patricia Wen unless otherwise noted:

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 20 March 2006 at 8:23 AM

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March 20, 2006 12:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

According to its 2005 annual report (page 15), 13 percent of Catholic Charities' funding — $4.7 million — came from donations and other fundraising. The Archdiocese itself contributed only $700,000, or 2 percent. Contracts from government and other agencies, however, accounted for $18.8 million, 52 percent of total revenue.

I can't tell from the annual report whether adoption services fall under Community Social Services ($17.7 million) or Child Care Services ($11.4 million).


March 20, 2006 05:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

We were kind of hoping that the UUA would start an organization to replace the one that the Catholics dropped. I can dream, can't I?

h sofia:

March 20, 2006 11:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, Kim, you can - and I am dreaming with you!

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