Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story in the print edition of The Washington Post and on misidentified Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.) as a Republican.

Congressmen Seek Chaplain Probe

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007; 11:02 AM

A bipartisan group of House members is trying to force Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to order an inspector general's investigation into allegations of religious bias and mismanagement at the spiritual ministry department in the nation's largest clinical research hospital.

The spiritual ministry office, whose chaplains tend to the spiritual needs of thousands of patients at the National Institutes of Health's clinical center in Bethesda, has been the target of complaints by current and former chaplains about religious intolerance and poor leadership.

Two chaplains filed complaints with the Equal Opportunity Commission, and a third is suing HHS, all alleging that NIH officials retaliated against them when they spoke up, inventing reasons to terminate them.

This month, HHS brought in outside experts to conduct a review of the department. But, in a letter this month to Leavitt, 14 House members rejected that probe as inadequate, saying that they had not received assurances from NIH that it would look into the conduct of the former head of the spiritual ministry department, the Rev. O. Ray Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was demoted in April after the EEOC ordered the hospital to reinstate the Rev. Henry Heffernan, a Catholic chaplain who had been fired after accusing Fitzgerald of anti-Catholic bias. The EEOC ruled that Heffernan was the target of "discriminatory and retaliatory animus."

Rabbi Reeve Brenner, a chaplain who was fired after supporting Heffernan in his case against NIH, recently settled his complaint with the EEOC. Brenner declined to reveal the terms, but in a statement yesterday, HHS said that the case has been settled "to the mutual benefit of the parties" and that Brenner is no longer employed at NIH.

A third chaplain, Greek Orthodox lay minister Edar Rogler, has filed suit in U.S. District Court in Maryland, alleging that she was also ousted after testifying to the EEOC that Fitzgerald made anti-Catholic comments to her and referred to Brenner by an anti-Semitic slur.

Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.), who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, has inserted language into the Department of Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which was approved last week by the full House, authorizing an investigation of the department by the inspector general.

"I have no confidence in their internal review," Rothman said this week. "It is just outrageous that the NIH could be tolerant of this kind of bigotry in its own ranks and in its own building."

In its statement, HHS defended its investigation, saying that a working group of the NIH Advisory Board for Clinical Research conducted a detailed and independent review of the spiritual ministry department, including its management and oversight. The group's draft report is due in September, the statement said.

But a particular focus of House members' ire is Fitzgerald, a Methodist minister who remains on the staff of the chaplain's department. Fitzgerald did not return calls for comment.

"While Rev. Fitzgerald has been replaced as Director of the Spiritual Ministry Department, we were distressed to learn that he is still employed by NIH as a chaplain," said the letter to Leavitt, dated July 9. It was signed by Rothman and, among others, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We do not believe that the NIH management has acted sufficiently to remedy this serious matter," the letter said.

Rothman also questioned why Fitzgerald had a prominent role at an NIH ceremony last week honoring U.S. Public Health Service employees. Fitzgerald gave the invocation and the benediction, according to the program and NIH employees who were present.

"It is outrageous, and, to me, it indicates to me a monumental lack of judgment on the part of the people at the NIH . . . and a slap in the face to Congress," Rothman said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company