[Updated w/ Video] My Thoughts on HHS Hearing + Statement By Rep. Buerkle

This morning I attended the Congressional oversight committee’s hearing on the Department of Health and Human Service’s decision to pass-over the US Bishops Conference and award a grant to help victims of human trafficking to other, less-qualified organizations that consent to doing referrals for abortions, sterilization and contraception.

Before I get to summarizing my experiences, I want to share with you a statement passed-along to me exclusively from Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (NY-25), a Republican Congresswoman who appeared at the hearing and pursued a very powerful line of questioning:

“Since 2006, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has received Health and Human Services (HHS) grants for the case management of victims of human trafficking.  Through 2011, the USCCB received exemplary marks during evaluation of its services provided to these victims.  It is of great concern to me to see that this organization was not awarded an HHS grant this year, despite its proven record of responsible stewardship and success.  It appears that under this administration it is no longer business as usual.  The politicization of the grant process puts the integrity of U.S. outreach efforts into question and has instead elevated the priority of partisanship over the needs of those victims of human trafficking and purposefully at the expense of an organization capable of meeting those needs.”

My thoughts on what I saw and heard at the hearing:

In many ways, the hearing revealed our government at its bureaucratic worst. Over the course of three hours, George Sheldon, acting assistant HHS secretary for the Administration for Children and Families (isn’t that a mouthful?) stayed very close to his prepared talking points.

Democrat members on the committee spent little time acknowledging the actual reason the committee was convened, namely, to answer the question whether or not HHS politicized its choice to deny the US Bishops grant money because of pro-abortion ideology.

Instead, Democrat members spent the lion’s share of their time talking about the plight of persons who have been the victim of human trafficking. While this is an important matter, this is not the question the committee was attempting to resolve. Reps. Gerry Connolly (VA-11) and John Tierney (MA-6) were particularly shameless in expressing that, although they were “raised” Catholic they proudly dissent from the Church’s teaching in these areas.

Republican members, meanwhile, are to be commended for showing up, doing their research, and asking tough questions. Chairman Darrell Issa vigorously pressured HHS Sheldon to answer the questions, and Reps. Chris Smith (NJ-4), James Lankford (OK-5), Tim Whalburg (MI-7) and Ann Marie Buerkle (NY-25) are to be particularly commended for their focused and enlightening line of questions. The mere fact that Congress is holding a hearing to examine what happened is meaningful because it will cause other agencies to pause before treating faith-based groups like the Catholic Church as second class applicants.

The narrative that emerged from the question and answer period, as best as I can make out, is that HHS, after previously awarding grant money to the US Bishops (who received and continue to receive excellent marks for their performance), during this new wave of awarding grants, inserted a litmus test that required all grantees to refer for abortion, contraception and sterilization, or risk not being funded at all, which is why they rejected the US Bishops’ application.

Much remains to be discovered, and the hearing ended with a promise that HHS will continue to turn over documents detailing the process that led to their final decision. One big outstanding question that remains is to what degree Kathleen Sebelius, her office, and political pressure from the Obama administration may have led HHS to do what it did. So simply put: we haven’t heard the end of this inquiry.

Apart from the religious liberty and conscience questions, there remains underlying all of these issues a fundamental disagreement between Democrats + HHS, and Republicans + US Bishops about what sort of care victims of human trafficking deserve, and who is best suited to give them that care.

One thing that became clear during the course of the morning was that, in the eyes of the Democrats and those who made the final decision at HHS, it is more important that a victim of human trafficking (often girls as young as 12-14 years old), it’s more important that they be offered abortion, sterilization and contraception than that they be cared for by a faith-based organization such as the Catholic Church.

Steve Wagner’s National Catholic Register column [link fixed] points out how denying young women who have been victims of sex trafficking the unique care and human-dignity-affirming compassion of the Catholic Church is unconscionable. I couldn’t agree more.

I’ll be following this story in the days and weeks to come and urge you to do the same!

UPDATE — for those of you who want to break out the popcorn, here’s the video of the hearing:

And here’s more statement and video clips:

Testimony by Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families George H. Sheldon

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) video

Statement by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) and video Part 1 and Part 2

Statement by Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) and video



  • Erin

    Thank you so much for posting this! I only planned to watch about 15 minutes of it, but I ended up watching the entire thing. The arguments made by some of the majority were fascinating. They stayed on point (unlike many of the minority) yet they hit home to the underlying issues. I was especially impressed by Congresswoman Beurkle’s point that the young women who are brought out of trafficking don’t need to be pressured into making the life-altering decision of having an abortion. By excluding pro-life case management contractors, abortion becomes a preference, not a choice. I also applaud Congressman Lankford for asking the question I was pondering the entire time: Why was the “preference” included in the funding announcement to begin with? Did women complain over the last 5 years that they were denied service under the USCCB? Were there HIPPA violations where the USCCB involved themselves in how physicians treated patients? Sheldon could not answer these questions directly, but it was pretty obvious the answer is “No.” If a victim really wanted an abortion, she found someone that would provide one. The real issue is that the USCCB would not reimburse for it. I think the question of how and why the “full-range of services” preference was entered into the funding announcement and who was responsible for it needs to be further investigated.

  • LindaF

    Tell your friend that the situation is more like this:

    1) A shelter is forced to make its housing gender-neutral. As a result, some women are assaulted. But, hey, they aren’t discriminating by gender!

    2) A free lunch program is forced to serve pork – but the program is run by Muslims. Tough. They don’t have to take the money.

    3) Baptists run a program for troubled teens. They are forced to have dances for the teens. Tough. Don’t take the money.

    4) Mormons run a free breakfast program for the homeless. They are told that they have to serve coffee to get the Federal money. Mormons don’t drink coffee. Tough.

    These are just some examples. The major problem for the Catholic Church is that the beliefs targeted are CORE, not just peripheral.



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