How Catholic adoption agencies are coping with gay rights regulations

On 31 December 2008, the 20-month breathing space given by the government to allow Catholic adoption agencies in England and Wales to comply with the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 came to an end. The agencies will now have to consider gay couples as potential adopters. But can they continue to function and maintain their links with the Catholic Church?

The act includes adoption under “the provision of goods and services” for which it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. This has put the government at loggerheads with the Catholic Church’s teaching that children are best raised within marriage, which it says is a God-given sacramental state.

Much comment about the issue has overlooked the nature and diversity of Catholic family agencies’ governance arrangements. For example, one has an independent sister adoption agency set up with the Anglican Church that welcomes people of any sexual orientation. They do much more than simply offer adoption placements, with work ranging from schools counselling to services for older people; from family support to work with learning disabled adults.

But although adoption is a small part of the total work, it is still significant. A confidential 2007 report compiled for the government by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering estimated that more than a quarter of the 300 placements made by Catholic agencies were with adopters from ethnic minority backgrounds. The report highlighted the low placement disruption rate (7%) of Catholic agencies compared with the rate among agencies generally (20%). This success was despite the fact that the Church agencies focused on finding homes for “hard-to-place” children. The Church also heavily subsidised the work, and the report cast doubt over whether there was capacity elsewhere if the agencies to close.

Response to the law

Agencies with formal Church connections were, prior to the 31 December, responsible not to a bishop but to trustees (who included clergy and bishops). Unsurprisingly, then, their response to the new law has differed. For example, the Catholic Children’s Rescue Society, Salford, has closed its adoption service but has created a new charity, Caritas Salford Diocese, to merge the CCRS and Catholic Welfare Societies.

Other agencies decided they would have to cut their formal links with the Church to continue their adoption work, while continuing to promote a Catholic identity and ethos. The Catholic Children’s Society (Arundel and Brighton, Portsmouth and Southwark) changed its name to the Cabrini Children’s Society while in Nottingham the Catholic Children’s Society, with its adoption arm Families are Best, has become Faith in Families. In Wales, St David’s Children Society has severed its links with the Church.

Cutting links

Terry Connor (pictured right), director of Cabrini, says: “We felt cutting formal links was in the best interests of the children we serve because potential adopters are a wide cross-section of people who should be assessed on their individual qualities. Non-compliance with the legislation, or use of supposed loopholes to bypass it, would mark us out as discriminatory, and to risk closure of our adoption service would damage many children and families.”

Almost all bishops have supported the new bodies and authorised parish appeals to go towards non-adoption work provided by the agencies. The only acrimonious break came in Lancaster diocese where Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue not only forbade money raised by parishes to go to the new agency that has replaced Catholic Caring Services, but has also warned it may no longer be allowed to use properties owned by the diocese.

Ability to parent

By contrast, in Liverpool, Archbishop Patrick Kelly has stated several times that the welfare of children must be paramount. He remains chair of Nugent Care, the diocesan agency, which is a major employer and provider in Merseyside. Its chief executive Kathleen Pitt says: “All applicants undergo a very thorough assessment to ensure that they can fully meet the spiritual, emotional, physical and financial needs of a child. This requires a wide variety of applicants and our assessment is based purely on the ability to parent a child to adulthood or beyond.”

Philippa Gitlin, chief executive of Caritas Social Action Network, the welfare umbrella body of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, underlines that it is down to the agencies’ trustees to base their decisions on what is in children’s best interests. “The bishops understood that each set of trustees would make a judgment according to their ultimate responsibility as trustees – which is to protect all the beneficiaries of each charity,” she says.

Three agencies, however, are continuing their fight to amend their constitutions to allow them to refer specifically only to married couples and so continue as adoption agencies. Having failed in applications to the Charity Commission, Father Hudson’s Society in Birmingham and Catholic Care in Leeds will have appeals to the Charity Tribunal heard in February, while the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster), with its application refused, awaits an internal review by the commission.

Rights co-existing

Jim Richards (pictured right), director of the Westminster agency, says that gay people are free to approach numerous other agencies as potential adopters. “This is about faith-based organisations being able to practise and stay true to the teachings which guide them,” he says. “This is a tussle between two rights – ours as a faith-based organisation wishing to practise and be true to the Church’s teaching, and the rights of gays not to be discriminated against. We believe that the two rights can co-exist.”

However, according to Charles Wookey, assistant general secretary of the Bishops Conference, there may be wider implications in what has happened. “Religious-based charities do a great deal of good and often provide a valuable and distinctive contribution,” he says. “Their religious faith inspires and motivates their work. It makes them go the extra mile and the outstanding track record of Catholic adoption agencies in finding loving adoptive homes for many so-called ‘hard-to-place’ children is a case in point. The reason those placements are so often successful is because of the agencies’ commitment to family life as part of its religious ethos. If government seeks to deny charities the right to express their religious faith through their social action then the added value these agencies bring could be in jeopardy.”

Whatever the implications for adoption, this controversy may create long-term repercussions in the relationship between faith-based agencies and a secular state.

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This article is published in the 22 January issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Keeping the Faith

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