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LGBT advocates urge county, state to reconsider Catholic Charities funding

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Protesters gathered Tuesday morning outside the Buffalo headquarters of Catholic Charities, speaking out against the organization's August decision to phase out its foster care and adoption services. Saying the decision was an act against the LGBT community, the activists urged Erie County and New York State to rethink its public funding of the organization.

Participants in the protest included religious, community and public leaders. They say Catholic Charities announced its decision to cease its foster care and adoption services after a same-sex couple inquired about adopting a child. Reverend Kirk Laubenstein, director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, says when the institution made that decision, they made a decision to discriminate.

"They closed their foster and adoption care program because of bigotry, because of hatred," said Laubenstein. "As a United Church of Christ pastor, I want to call them back into love."

Catholic Charities, when announcing its decision in August, explained it was doing so because it could not reconcile Catholic teaching which identifies marriage as a union between a man and woman and state laws protecting rights for same-sex couples including adoption.

On Tuesday, chief executive officer Dennis Walczyk told WBFO his organization continues to serve all who come through their front doors regardless of race, creed, gender and even sexual orientation. Serving a homosexual client is not a violation of church teaching, he explained.

But the church does make clear, he added, where it stands on marriage and raising children. And rather than discriminate against a certain demographic, Catholic Charities opted to end the service entirely.

"The service of adoption and foster care, and placing the child into a union that the Catholic Church does not recognize, that was very unique and a difficult situation," Walczyk said.

Prior to Walczyk's interview with WBFO, Catholic Charities issued a statement expressing its commitment to non-discrimination: "Since the August announcement, Catholic Charities’ leaders have met and communicated with many key stakeholders. Our goal is to reassure our partners that the agency continues to provide the same high quality service it has always provided people in need across Western New York, and is equally committed to non-discrimination of clients in the provision of services and of our employees and volunteers – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, color, religion (creed), age, national origin, disability, marital status, or military status."

Activists on the sidewalk, though, insist the decision has sent a message to the LGBT community that they're not welcome. 

"In reality, they are perpetuating discrimination against LGBT people and using children as vulnerable pawns in a political struggle," said Annmarie Szpakowska, president of Dignity USA, a LGBTQ Catholic organization. "This is shameful, sinful and wrong."

Laubenstein estimates Catholic Charities is receiving about $18 million in funding from Erie County and New York State. He and other activists are urging those governments to force the charity to ensure it will protect and not discriminate against vulnerable populations, or else withhold the funding. 

Barbara Turner, a self-identifying "Black Queer Catholic," says Catholic Charities helped her amidst her battle with cocaine in the 1980s by helping her place her son in a safe, loving home. Now, she says, amidst an opioid epidemic many children are being orphaned and the institution needs to step up again but do so while making changes to end any discrimination.

"Catholic Charities has an obligation to the community. They have an obligation to the United States. We as Catholics have an obligation to humanity," she said. 

Activists are also calling for the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, whom they blame for leading the August decision. Kathy Aman, a former Catholic Charities employee, was among the speakers. She resigned in September, just shy of completing 19 years of employment. 

"There was an effort in the agency to advocate for this program and for the LGBT community," Aman said. "But it became clear that the power lies with the bishop to make any decisions he chooses, no matter the diversity language in our policy and procedure manual."

Walczyk told WBFO of the nine staff members affected by the decision, six followed their client families to the other agencies which have taken on those cases. Two have taken different positions within Catholic Charities and one has left.

Aman stated she would no longer donate to the Diocese of Buffalo's Upon This Rock capital fund nor to Catholic Charities until change is made. Walczyk, when asked, admitted there are concerns about how the public will act when the 2019 Appeal formally begins.

"We understand now, and understood after the decision was made, the potential impact this would have on many of the facets of the community that work with Catholic Charities, people that we serve, people that donate, people that work here," he said. "What we're trying to do is explain why the decision was made and reiterate and reinforce the fact that we will continue in all our programs to serve everybody."

Last year, according to Walczyk, Catholic Charities served more than 150,000 people. More than 50 percent of those served were non-Catholics. 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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