Catholic Charities USA, the nation’s largest network of faith-based agencies providing services to the poor, has hired a Washington lobbying firm owned by a gay man to promote a recently launched anti-poverty initiative before Congress and the Obama administration.
In a little noticed development, Catholic Charities USA retained the Sheridan Group, founded in 1991 by social worker and gay rights advocate Tom Sheridan, to coordinate the development of legislation and related advocacy programs aimed at “starting a new national conversation on poverty and opportunity.”
Lobbying disclosure reports filed with the House and Senate show that Catholic Charities USA paid the Sheridan Group $476,750 between April 2010 and April 2011 for lobbying services and advocacy work related to the Catholic organization’s anti-poverty projects.
News of the Sheridan Group’s lobbying work for Catholic Charities USA comes at a time when local Catholic Charities agencies — including those in D.C., Massachusetts, and Illinois — have withdrawn from providing adoption services for state or local governments rather than be forced to provide such services to same-sex couples.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington spoke out against a same-sex marriage law at the time the D.C. City Council deliberated over the measure.
Executive Director Edward Orzechowski announced shortly after the D.C. Council passed the same-sex marriage law in December 2009 that Catholic Charities of Washington would discontinue providing adoption services in D.C. rather than be forced to facilitate adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.
Orzechowski also announced that his organization would no longer offer health insurance benefits to the spouses of its employees to avoid having to offer such benefits to same-sex partners.
“This allows us to continue providing services, comply with the city’s new requirements and remain faithful to our church’s teachings,” he said at the time.
Sheridan points out that Catholic Charities USA, while serving as a trade association that represents as many as 165 local Catholic Charities agencies linked to the Catholic Church, is independent from the local agencies, including those that have voiced opposition to same-sex marriage.
“They’re only together as service providers on poverty issues, which is why I have no problem representing them,” Sheridan said of Catholic Charities USA. “And I’m proud to represent them because they do such outstanding work.”
Sheridan said he began his career as a social worker. As a gay Catholic interested in social justice causes, he said he has long admired the dedicated social services work Catholic Charities groups have performed throughout the country.
Prior to founding the Sheridan Group, Sheridan worked as a lobbyist in the early 1980s for the AIDS Action Council, one of the nation’s first national advocacy organizations for people with AIDS. In subsequent years, he said the Sheridan Group has represented a number of AIDS advocacy organizations as well as other non-profit, social justice oriented groups as clients.
Sister Jeannine Gramick, a Catholic nun and one of the founders of New Ways Ministry, which provides support for LGBT Catholics, said Catholic Charities USA and some local Catholic Charities agencies have provided behind-the-scenes support for the LGBT Catholic community.
“Catholic Charities in general have been the most progressive wing of the church other than the nuns,” she said. “In some cases, Catholic Charities USA has supported our events. I feel they personally are pro-gay but they can’t do this publicly.”
Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s executive director, said Catholic Charities agencies on the local level shouldn’t be viewed as adversaries to the LGBT community.
“I feel the homophobia is there,” he said. “But that is due mostly to the bishops, who have an immense amount of power over Catholic Charities” on the local level.
When asked to comment on its decision to retain a lobbying firm owned by an openly gay man, Catholic Charities USA issued a written statement to the Blade from its president, Rev. Larry Snyder, a Roman Catholic priest.
Snyder said Catholic Charities USA has utilized the “strategic leadership of the Sheridan Group” to launch its centennial project that “incorporates policy development as well as legislative, communications, grassroots and fundraising efforts” to prevent and alleviate poverty over the next 100 years.
“We have been pleased with the success of this project to date and will continue to work with a bipartisan team of consultants on this campaign as we see our work grow in importance and urgency every day,” he said.
Among Sheridan and his firm’s key duties for Catholic Charities USA was the drafting of a bill called the National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act. Catholic Charities USA officials say they hope the bill, if approved by Congress, will serve as a catalyst for innovative new programs aimed at eradicating poverty in America in 10 years.
Sheridan said some of the money his firm received from Catholic Charities USA has gone to subcontractors that he hired in his role as “general contractor” on behalf of the anti-poverty initiative. The objective, he said, is to put together a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and community leaders to sign on to the legislation.
Although the bill has not attracted much support in Congress so far, Sheridan said its introduction last year was linked to Catholic Charities USA’s 100th anniversary and the group’s special centennial celebration.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act in the Senate last year with no other senator signing on as a co-sponsor. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) introduced the bill in the House, with just three co-sponsors signing on – all Democrats.
One congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said bills attracting so few co-sponsors usually have little or no chance of passing.
But Sheridan said he will be working closely with Catholic Charities USA and its allies and supporters over the next several months to build a broad-based, bipartisan coalition that he expects will prompt a sizable number of lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill.
Among other things, the bill would provide $100 million for 10 separate grants to fund anti-poverty demonstration projects on the state and local level.