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Ex-executive of Catholic Charities criticizes health-plan change

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 5, 2010

The former chief operating officer of Catholic Charities has called on the organization to reverse its recent decision to change health benefits for employees' spouses, a move designed to avoid legitimizing same-sex marriage.

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Tim Sawina, who was until last year one of the group's highest-ranking executives, called the elimination of spousal health benefits "devastating" and "wrong" in a letter Wednesday to the governing boards of the social service organization.

The move to change benefits is the most recent fallout from a struggle between the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and District officials, who passed legislation last year to legalize same-sex marriage.

Rather than provide health coverage to same-sex partners, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl decided to cut benefits for spouses of all future Catholic Charities employees, new spouses of current employees and existing spouses of current employees not already on the plan. Wuerl has said the benefits change is justifiable under Catholic teaching as long as the employees are paid a just wage.

But by eliminating such benefits, Sawina said, Catholic Charities is driving current employees to look for jobs elsewhere, handicapping the group's recruitment efforts and losing the respect of the D.C. community.

"Some, including the archbishop, have argued that by providing health care to a gay or lesbian spouse we are somehow legitimizing gay marriage," said Sawina, a former priest. "Providing health care to a gay or lesbian partner -- a basic human right, according to Church teaching -- is an end in itself and no more legitimizes that marriage than giving communion to a divorced person legitimizes divorce, or giving food or shelter to an alcoholic legitimizes alcoholism."

The archdiocese responded to Sawina's letter Thursday, calling it an inaccurate portrayal of the Church's position and saying that his appeal to the organization's board of directors would have no effect, because the board can't overturn the archbishop's decision.

Spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said that Wuerl made his decision working with a committee of theologians, Catholic Charities executives and legal experts. He presented his final decision to the board Saturday. Afterward, he asked board members for a show of hands in support of the policy, and they responded with "overwhelming support," Gibbs said.

Board member Mary Burke Morris declined to elaborate on the board's actions but said that for some, it was "a reluctant decision."

Sawina worked at Catholic Charities for 12 years. He left in July, and he and the organization said they had agreed to keep the circumstances of his departure confidential.

In his letter, Sawina expressed concern over the organization's future. "Its goodwill and name are being squandered," he wrote. "More importantly, the greatest asset of the agency -- its staff -- feel a profound sense of humiliation and shame. Many are actively looking to leave. Catholic Charities will be forever handicapped in attracting new staff with such a draconian benefit plan."

Many Catholic Charities employees did not return calls or declined to talk, citing worries of being fired.

"People are really upset," one employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. "You don't do this kind of job for the money. You're not getting paid a lot to start with. You're working in pretty rough areas, doing pretty tough work for the needy. If recruiting was hard before, it's going to be even worse now."

One employee provided by Catholic Charities this week agreed to be named. Michelle Mendez, staff attorney for immigrant legal services, also described dismay about the spousal benefit reduction but said she remained committed to the organization's work and mission.

Gibbs said that the archdiocese is not surprised that workers expressed discouragement but blamed it in part on media coverage of the issue.

"Part of the problem is that they're coming in hearing this stuff every day -- not all of it accurate -- about the organization they work at," she said. "It's been a tough few months for all of us. It was a hard decision but one that allows us to continue the important work we're doing. "

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