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Ohio Catholic bishops spent big on failed effort to defeat abortion-rights amendment


Ohio Catholic bishops spent big on failed effort to defeat abortion-rights amendment

Nov 27, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
Ohio Catholic bishops spent big on failed effort to defeat abortion-rights amendment
COLUMBUS, Ohio — OCTOBER 06: Columbus Catholic Diocese Bishop Earl Fernandes leads a prayer to open the Ohio March for Life rally against November’s Issue 1 reproductive rights amendment, October 6, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original article.)

Ohio’s Catholic bishops spent $1.7 million in an attempt to defeat an abortion-rights measure that passed easily on Nov. 7, according to an analysis by a group of Catholics that urges the church to change its stance on the issue. 

The expenditure mostly comes from donations by a laity most of whom disagree with the bishops’ stance that abortion is wrong in just about every circumstance. It was also made by bishops who — despite their claims to care for children — have paid out millions of parishioner dollars to settle lawsuits claiming bishops covered up sexual abuse of kids by their priests.

Catholics for Choice is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group founded in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld abortion rights in Roe v Wade. It works to stop “religiously-based obstructions to abortion care, contraceptive access and comprehensive health care, particularly because these barriers disproportionately affect people of color, the poor and the vulnerable,” its website says.

After the current Supreme Court overturned Roe in June 2022, Ohio abortion restrictions that were on the books since 2019 suddenly took effect. They outlawed the vast majority of abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — a point at which many women don’t yet know they’re pregnant — including in cases of rape and incest.

Abortion-rights activists put Issue 1, a constitutional amendment, on the Nov. 7 ballot. Among other things, it allows abortions up to the point that a fetus can survive outside the uterus. After heavy spending by both sides, Issue 1 passed by a 57-43 margin, continuing an unbroken winning streak by abortion-rights supporters since the high court overturned Roe in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health

Ohio’s Catholic bishops and other Catholic groups spent heavily on the losing side of the effort, according to the Catholics for Choice analysis of campaign-finance data from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. The Catholic dioceses of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland contributed $1.7 million, while the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, gave another $1 million, the analysis said. 

Meanwhile, the Concord Fund gave $9.7 million. It’s tied to conservative Catholic Leonard Leo, who is best known for helping to appoint some of the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe — and for facilitating their friendships with gift-giving billionaires.

Difference in opinion

In an interview earlier this month, Catholics for Choice President Jamie L. Manson said that it’s important to remember that most of the money the Ohio bishops plowed into opposing Issue 1 came from parishioners.

“That’s their main source of income,” she said. “Every parish has to pay a certain amount to the diocese.”

And it comes from a laity, most of whom don’t agree with the bishops’ extreme opposition to abortion. 

A fact sheet by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said “abortion is gravely wrong at every stage.” The bishops also oppose abortions in cases of rape or incest.

A headline in the National Catholic Reporter last year said that “US bishops support abortion laws with exceptions for mother.” But the article only quoted Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, the head of the bishops’ pro-life committee, speaking elliptically about health threats to pregnant women and girls.

“The Catholic Church recognizes that all people, born and unborn, have been created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have inherent dignity, and the right to life,” it said. “When a woman is carrying a child, both mother and child are valued and should be protected, and the life of one should not be set against the life of another.”

Meanwhile, an AP-NORC poll conducted just before Roe was overturned said 63% of Catholics thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 68% said Roe should be left alone.

Practicing what they preach?

There are also questions about the bishops’ consistency. If they’re so concerned about children, why do they make common cause on abortion with conservative politicians who tanked an enhanced child tax credit and thereby dumped an estimated 3 million more American children into poverty last year?

Brian Hickey, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio said the bishops support the credit — and a number of other things many conservatives don’t like.

The Catholic Church in Ohio and our colleagues nationally have been leaders in advocating for a Child Tax credit, expansion of Medicaid, ending the death penalty, and establishing a culture opposed to the throwaway mindset that devalues the vulnerable and brings destruction to our common home,” Hickey said in an email. “We are also regularly criticized for serving immigrants and refugees, but the Church does not give up on advocating for the dignity of the human person, no matter the current political circumstances.”

With their high-dollar fight against abortion, the bishops also might be defying Pope Francis, although his position on abortion seems a little confusing.

In 2013, at the beginning of his papacy, Francis criticized the church as being “obsessed” with abortion, birth control and homosexuality. And in August, Francis said there was “a very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” among many U.S. bishops.

Despite those declarations, the bishops on Nov. 15 said that fighting abortion would continue to be their “preeminent priority” in their political guidance to American Catholics. 

“So they have gone rogue from what Pope Francis has said,” said Manson, of Catholics for Choice.

However, the pope has also said that abortion is “murder,” so the bishops might not be defying him very starkly in making it a priority.

“Pope Francis has likened abortion to ‘hiring a hitman’ in its violent disregard for the dignity of life, so the Catholic Church in Ohio will never give up on children in the womb and women who are so often coerced into abortion,” said Hickey, of the Catholic Conference of Ohio.

Forced abortion is illegal in Ohio. But some opponents of Issue 1 claimed without evidence that it created a nexus between sex traffickers and abortion providers.

In the interest of children?

While the bishops say they care deeply about vulnerable people, that claim is belied by their conduct toward one such group: children who were victims of priest sexual abuse. Nationally, the Catholic church has paid out billions to settle sex-abuse claims. Many of the cases were made worse by bishops who — instead of reporting the abuse to police — simply moved priests to places where they had access to more victims when abuse claims arose.

In Cincinnati, for example, Fr. George Cooley was kept on as chaplain at a Catholic youth camp even after he was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy in the summer of 1978. 

After Cooley was again accused the following summer, the archdiocese moved him to Guardian Angels Parish, where he was accused of molesting six other boys. The father of one, frustrated with church inaction, went to the rectory and punched Cooley in the face.

At least 54 clergy in the Cincinnati Archdiocese have been accused of sexual misconduct, and church leadership has kept offenders in places where they could continue to abuse as recently as 2018. The archdiocese has paid out at least $10.9 million to settle sex-abuse claims.

Hundreds of others have been accused in the dioceses of Cleveland, Columbus, Steubenville, Toledo and Youngstown, according to data compiled by BishopAccountability.org.

Ohio Catholic Conference spokesman Hickey didn’t respond to a question asking whether — in light of their negligence in the abuse crisis — bishops should be taken seriously when they claim to have the interests of the most vulnerable at heart. But Manson of Catholics for Choice said it illustrates how empty the bishops’ claims are.

“There’s a hypocrisy in claiming to be concerned about unborn life while they’ve been derelict in protecting the lives of children,” she said. “It’s incalculable, how many lives have been destroyed — how many families have been destroyed — by their coverup. When they say they’re concerned about babies and families, it kind of rings hollow when you consider what a destructive force they were in these coverups.”

Other victims

Also open to question is the Bishops’ concern for vulnerable pregnant women and children. In opposing abortions when pregnancy is caused by rape or incest, they presumably would have stopped a pregnant 10-year-old from going from Ohio to Indianapolis last year to avoid giving birth to her rapist’s child.

Other women found themselves in harrowing situations while Ohio’s six-week ban was in effect. They include cancer patients who couldn’t get chemotherapy, women whose fetuses had severe abnormalities or other conditions that made a successful pregnancy impossible, and at least two other rape victims who were children.

In an article about abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops makes a confusing statement about permitting abortions when a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life.

“Very rarely, continuing a pregnancy may put a mother’s life at risk — for example, because of a tubal pregnancy or aggressive uterine cancer,” it says. “It is morally licit to remove the threat to the mother’s life by removing the cancerous uterus or the fallopian tube where the child implanted, even though it is foreseeable that the child will die as an indirect and unintended result of such surgery. But abortion — a direct and intentional taking of a child’s life — is never morally permissible.”

And in a separate statement the bishops make the dubious claim that it’s a “scientific fact that a human life begins at conception…” As evidence, it cites a paper by the American Medical Association — that was issued in 1871.

More modern scientists have more difficulty agreeing on when “life” or “personhood” begins or even agreeing on what those words mean.

Pastoral politics

In contributing so heavily to block a popular abortion-rights measure, Ohio’s Catholic bishops are taking a political position opposite that of most of the laity. It’s likely they also are when they threaten to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights such as President Joe Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“This is supposed to be a fraternity of leaders who are part of a global church,” Manson said. “But they pursue this agenda of denying communion to politicians who support abortion rights… while Pope Francis has stated unequivocally that he has never denied communion to anyone.”

Meanwhile, the church is hemorrhaging people, priests and money. 

The Catholic News Agency in 2021 reported that the number of Americans identifying as being Catholic church members had fallen 20% since 2000. And in Columbus, the diocese is in the process of closing 15 churches.

The problem for the church might get worse before it gets better.

Manson was asked what Catholics should do if they object to bishops spending their money on hardcore opposition to abortion.

“It’s hard because the Catholic Church is not a democracy,” she said. “It’s a patriarchy… Lay people do not have authority or power or a real voice in the church. Even the sex-abuse crisis did not open up any decision-making power for lay Catholics.” 

She added, “So I think the best you can do is obviously withhold your money and make it clear to the bishops that you think they are misusing it and that it’s an abuse of their own authority and make it clear that you refuse to participate in this. I think it’s really important that Catholics speak their minds.”