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 CNS Story:

OSV-HOSPITALS Jul-3-2008 (770 words) With photo. xxxn

Newspaper looks at report alleging Catholic hospitals' ethical lapses

By Catholic News Service

HUNTINGTON, Ind. (CNS) -- A national Catholic newspaper said a report alleging that thousands of sterilizations, and possibly some abortions, took place in 23 Texas Catholic hospitals from 2000 to 2003 has prompted Catholic hospital officials in the state to scrutinize their records and stirred intense discussions among hospital officials, directors of the facilities' parent health systems and local bishops.

The newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor in Huntington, published an investigative story about the report in its July 13 edition.

The report was made by a group of anonymous whistle-blowers who compiled hospital diagnostic and procedure codes to determine there were 9,684 instances of allegedly unequivocal "sterilization for contraceptive purposes" from 2000 to 2003.

The group, which Our Sunday Visitor said it contacted through an intermediary, also cited data indicating 39 abortions were performed at Catholic hospitals.

Group members noted, however, the data could be subject to interpretation because it could include morally acceptable procedures such as surgery to remove a baby that has died in the mother's womb or emergency services for an abortion performed at another location.

Andrew Rivas, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, the official public policy arm of the state's bishops, told Our Sunday Visitor that Texas bishops were investigating the report and seeking information from hospital administrators.

In response to the newspaper's investigation, the six Catholic health systems cited in the report, along with the Catholic Health Association of Texas, issued a statement stressing the good work done by Catholic health care providers and their commitment to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2001 "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services," which govern Catholic health care facilities.

The statement also said Texas Catholic health care providers neither permit nor perform direct abortion and that some sterilization codes on hospital documents could indicate "indirect" sterilizations described as the morally permissible result of an attempt to cure a "present and serious" pathology.

"The Catholic health ministries in Texas are engaged in investigating and interpreting the meaning of the data in the report and are in direct conversations with their bishops," the statement said.

The whistle-blowers' report, titled "U.S. Catholic Hospitals Betray Mission," was posted June 16 on a Web site called Wikileaks -- www.wikileaks.org/wiki/Catholic_hospitals_betray_mission. A separate analysis of the report was mailed to Vatican and U.S. church officials.

One of the report's researchers who spoke with Our Sunday Visitor said the group wanted to inform the public about the practices of Catholic health care systems and encourage accountability for practices they believe are not just confined to Texas.

The newspaper consulted three professors of biostatistics to comment on the methodology of the researchers. All of the professors said a complete analysis of all the procedure codes would require extensive study, but that on the surface the methodology looked reasonable.

Our Sunday Visitor also spoke with John Haas, a moral theologian and president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, about why some Catholic hospitals might be providing direct sterilization.

Haas said that while U.S. bishops are "exercising far more ethical oversight of facilities than they have in the past," there are widespread misunderstandings about the U.S. bishops' ethical directives for health care facilities.

He attributed the misunderstanding not to "ill will, but just a shocking lack of understanding of the ethical principles and their application."

A sidebar story in Our Sunday Visitor, based on interviews with representatives from Texas Catholic hospitals, said they seemed confused about church teaching against sterilization.

An accompanying editorial in the newspaper's July 13 issue pointed out that the records in the whistle-blowers' report are at least five years old.

"It may well turn out that many of the hospitals named in the report have since done a better job of implementing the bishops' ethical directives for health care," it said.

But the editorial, signed by the newspaper's editorial board, also noted that some of the hospital representatives are confused about church teaching on sterilization, which "suggests the problem has not yet been fully addressed."

"Training in church teaching is a step in the right direction," the editorial said, but it also called for a stronger approach, urging Catholic social ministries "to step back and re-evaluate their role in society."

The editorial noted that as "disheartening as it is to learn of unethical practices in Catholic organizations," the whistle-blowers' report has "provided this country's bishops an excellent opportunity to review their relationships with the Catholic health institutions in their dioceses, to call for corrections where necessary, and, above all, to exhort them to fidelity to their Catholic identity."


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