Bishops clear Development and Peace on Lifesite allegations

Canada’s bishops have rejected allegations that the Catholic aid agency Development and Peace (D&P) provides money to organizations or projects in Mexico that promote abortion. The bishops created D&P in 1967 to support projects in poor countries and to undertake development education in Canada and two bishops sit on D&P’s board. The string of accusations began on March 11 when a web-based publication called Lifesite News claimed that D&P “is funding groups in Mexico that are pressuring the Mexican government to legalize abortion.”  LifeSite carried more than 45 articles on the topic between March and June of 2009. In April the CCCB announced that two Canadian bishops would lead an inquiry to Mexico to investigate the Lifesite allegations. The seven-person group also included the CCCB general secretary, an official from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and three people from D&P. The delegation met with representatives of the Mexican bishops’ conference and with groups that had been accused by Lifesite of promoting abortion.

On June 29, the CCCB released its report. In an accompanying statement, CCCB president Archbishop James Weisgerber summarized the inquiry’s key finding in the following manner: “The Committee of Inquiry has determined that the projects funded by Development and Peace did not promote abortion and that the five Mexican organizations do not support abortion … the allegations by against Development and Peace are unfounded.” Weisgerber added that while the inquiry cleared the organization, the bishops would have “a full discussion” regarding D&P’s policies and practices at the CCCB’s annual meeting in October 2009.

D&P, in a statement issued on March 20, had denied Lifesite’s allegations but said that its Mexican partners were involved in a nationwide consultation on the human rights situation, and were contributors (along with 100 other organizations) to an omnibus document on human rights issues. Other civil society groups participating in the exercise brought forward concerns that did relate to family planning even though that was not the focus of D&P’s partner groups. Lifesite seized on the existence of this document and other information it claimed to have as the basis for its allegations. The CCCB, in its report, said that the Mexican organizations assisted by D&P were “imprudent in signing the report in question”, but that their major preoccupation was to work for human rights. The bishops said that D&P should be “more vigilant” in analyzing requests from possible partners. The bishops also suggested that while their relationship with D&P is a good one, the organization should consult more closely with the bishops, particularly the two who sit on its board of directors.

Lifesite says to report a “whitewash”

LifeSite responded defiantly on its website to the inquiry report: “This story is not over,” LifeSite said. “Many bishops have withheld funding from D&P over this and the CCCB report has not yet changed that, and we suspect that it won’t. Because it is a whitewash, the report will cause even greater scandal.” Lifesite’s web publication is a creation of the Campaign Life Coalition, which describes itself as the “political wing of the pro-life movement in Canada.” Lifesite staff shares an office with Campaign Life in Toronto but Lifesite also lists a Pittsburgh address for itself and many of its articles deal with American matters. LifeSite also said the inquiry team assembled by the bishops was not competent to investigate the allegations and that D&P personnel who accompanied the group “led the bishops in their investigations”. The bishops indicated in their report, however, that the D&P personnel organized travel and other arrangements but had no hand in writing the report.

The bishops’ report also appealed to the people behind Lifesite to “establish an open and fruitful dialogue” with the bishops and other Catholic groups. “Negative actions of this kind,” the report says, “encourage suspicion, scandal and division in the Church.” Finally, the CCCB report urged Canadian bishops, and the leadership of social justice and pro-life groups “to recognize there is a continuum and integrity to all human life issues  . . .  there is an urgency to all that threatens the dignity and sacredness of human life, including violence, hunger, poverty and oppression.” This was an appeal to everyone, including bishops, not to be selective in choosing any one issue as being of ultimate importance, as Lifesite continues to do with its emphasis on abortion and contraception and its willfully ignoring issues relating to poverty and human rights.

Lifesite’s continuing attacks have placed both D&P and the bishops on the defensive.  The signal from the CCCB is that the bishops will place D&P under the microscope. There is nothing unusual about this since the CCCB has long made it a practice to focus attention on one or two of its departments or agencies at the bishops’ annual meeting – but it will likely be doing so this year in the face of continuing negative attacks on D&P by Lifesite and its supporters. Lifesite has been emboldened by the belief that it has succeeded in creating division among the bishops. The CCCB has also placed itself into a position of requesting dialogue with an organization that many bishops have long considered to be on the church’s extremist fringe and one that has no official status as a Catholic organization.

Archbishop Weisgerber, in a June 19 interview with Salt + Light Television, expressed his frustration that the bishops’ integrity and their teaching authority were being challenged by a group of mostly unknown and self-appointed people from Lifesite. “There’s a big issue there,” Weisgerber said. “It seems that there is a tendency on the part of some people to trust allegations on websites more than they trust the bishops.”

More than a Catholic matter

The controversy may appear to be an internal Catholic matter (it has received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media) but it has broader implications. The nature of Lifesite’s attacks could well hamper the way in which D&P conducts is development work in poor countries. Lifesite insists that agencies described as Catholic should be prohibited from being involved in projects related to family planning of any kind, including contraception – and that Catholic groups be prohibited from associating with other organizations who are so involved. Such a policy, if enacted, would prevent Catholic groups from working for justice in many circumstances. This would be a victory for the Catholic right and would signal a return to a form of triumphalism that was supposedly discarded by Vatican II in the 1960s. Accepting this protocol would also set back the cause of women’s rights by decades and place Catholic organizations in the company of some of the world’s most religiously fundamentalist regimes.

It is worth noting, as well, that Lifesite strongly supported George W. Bush’s decision to refuse American support for international aid programs that dealt in any way with abortion or contraception. Bush was providing payback to the religious right for its political support. Lifesite has been particularly hostile toward President Barack Obama who moved quickly after his 2008 election to strike down Bush’s prohibition.

There are a growing number of areas in contemporary society where religious right is having a negative impact on international development, and Lifesite’s attack upon D&P for its work in poor countries is one such example.



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