December 6th, 2011
11:28 AM ET
By Chris Boyette, CNN
(CNN) - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has denied a grant request from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of sex trafficking over concerns they will not get access to information on contraceptive services, family planning and abortion.
Critics of the Obama administration were quick to scrutinize the move.
"Victims of trafficking have significant health care needs. Based on these needs, our Office of Refugee Resettlement included an explicit preference for organizations that would ensure that victims had access to information and referrals for the full range of health care services in the funding announcement for these grants." the Health and Human Services said in a statement.
"The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated it could not meet that standard."
The Catholic bishops believe the Health and Human Services denied the grant in an act of anti-Catholic bias.
The Roman Catholic Church believes abortion is immoral.
"This has never been a problem before," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the Catholic bishops.
The Bush administration granted a $19 million, five-year contract to the Catholic bishops in 2006 to manage programs for victims of human trafficking.
As part of that contract, the Catholic bishops subcontracted with other organizations to provide various victims' services.
When the contract ended, the HHS, now under the Obama administration, changed its funding methods from a contract to a competitive grant, and reached out to organizations that then applied for the grants. An independent review board judged the merits of each application, and assigned a score to each organization.
"It was supposed to be a fair and competitive process," Walsh said. "In the competitive process, evaluated by an independent body, we came out second place," she added, "HHS has politicized the grant process, that's the problem."
The one organization that scored higher than the Catholic bishops and two that scored significantly lower, were awarded grants, according to Walsh.
But the Health and Human Services said the process was fair.
"The independent review board is part of an advisory process. It is just a guide, or a tool used to make final decisions (about grant recipients), said Marrianne McMullen, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services.
In response, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing Thursday to evaluate the Health and Human Services' practices in awarding grants.
The hearing was called because the actions of the HHS "appear to constitute an abuse of discretion and undermine the integrity of the process, while potentially violating the spirit, if not the letter, of federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs," said Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican.
Issa, who is the chairman of of the committee, said the federal agency should have been more clear.
"If we were to have a litmus test that Catholics need not apply ... we need to say so and we need to quantify it in the law and stand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court."
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who authored the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, echoed Issa's sentiments. His bill paved the way for the trafficking grants in question.
"If you are a Catholic, or other faith-based NGO, or a secular organization of conscience, there is now clear proof that your grant application will not be considered under a fair, impartial and totally transparent process by the Obama administration," the New Jersey Republican said.
"Let's not forget, the independent HHS reviewers found the USCCB one of the most experienced experts in human trafficking ... that has assisted thousands of victims," he continued. "The bottom line is this: Pro-abortion favoritism, embedded in this egregiously flawed process, does a grave disservice to the victims of trafficking. Victims deserve better."
Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who is a Catholic, took issue with the accusations.
"Earlier this year, press accounts reported that Health and Human Services awarded the bishops a $19 million grant to help foreign refugees in America.
Now I think that roughly would be seven times the amount that they requested in the grant we talked about today," he said. "So a lot of people would probably like to be discriminated against like that."
McMullen said the HHS has given more than that.
"More than $650 million has gone from HHS to Catholic groups in the last three years. This is more than went to them in the last three years of the Bush Administration," she said.
Rep. Eleanor Norton attempted to refocus the debate.
"Public money in our country comes from people with many different backgrounds and many different views," the Democrat said. "Whoever is the organization, I don't see how congress can be concerned with any but two issues: were the procedures followed, and are we paying attention first and foremost to the victims...?"
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