Alms for the poor?

Catholic Charities plays hardball with a local nonprofit in need of funding

Jan 27, 2010 at 6:00 am

The words “Women in Transition” — written in black marker across the glass door — have faded and are barely legible. Inside, the office is cluttered with used furniture, archaic computer monitors and worn cubicles. The building rumbles, and noticeably aging pipes poke through holes in the ceiling.

Located in the basement of a senior community center in Old Louisville, the nonprofit economic justice group’s headquarters is decorated with pictures of iconic anti-poverty advocates. The modest space is adorned with dozens of poster boards listing handwritten phone numbers and PowerPoint lessons on everything from capitalism to state government.

For most of its 12 years of existence, the grassroots organization dedicated to assisting the city’s poor has operated on a shoestring budget with a handful of committed staff members and volunteers.

“This is the only group that is run for and by poor people. The people who are dealing with poverty are the ones deciding what the group addresses,” says Drew Tucker, a University of Louisville student who volunteers with the organization. “It’s incredibly difficult because almost every member has some sort of real-life economic injustice in their life.”

Not surprisingly, the group relies heavily on support from charitable donations, which are scarce during such tough economic times. Making a dire financial situation even worse is the fact that WIT is now in jeopardy of losing funding from one of its most consistent and generous contributors — the Catholic Church.

Late last year, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz reportedly received complaints from several Catholics outraged by the fact that WIT has been known to work closely with Wench Self-Care Collective, a local women’s health organization that is pro-choice. Although one of Wench’s main functions is to escort women to and from the city’s only abortion clinic, the group also focuses on a variety of women’s health initiatives. WIT has never worked with the nonprofit on issues related to reproductive rights, instead collaborating with Wench to promote healthy eating habits in low-income communities.

Regardless, complaints about their partnership were forwarded to Catholic Charities of Louisville, which disseminates grants — including a yearly $25,000 grant to WIT — to local nonprofits.

As a result, Catholic Charities demanded that WIT write a letter in December disassociating itself from all organizations that do not uphold the teachings of Catholicism, including Wench.

Faced with a dilemma of either accepting much-needed financial backing or alienating social-justice allies, WIT ultimately refused to comply with the demand, leaving a large chunk of their funding in limbo.

“It’s the only funding we’ve had consistently. It’s all we’ve had really,” says Khalilah Collins, executive director of WIT. “(The grant) is the only real money we can depend on and they know that.”

According to Collins, Catholic Charities Executive Director Steve Bogus said abortion foes complained to the archdiocese about WIT’s relationship with Wench. In turn, Bogus reportedly gave WIT leaders the opportunity to salvage their grant money by writing the letter.

“It was explained that it was in order to keep Archbishop Joseph Kurtz’s endorsement and to ensure the grant would be approved,” says Collins.

Bart Weigel, a Catholic Charities spokesman, acknowledges WIT’s relationship with Wench focuses solely on healthy food, but says the agency’s staff is reviewing the matter nonetheless. He also says no final decision has been made regarding the fate of the $25,000 grant, which WIT has received every year since 2005 as part of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the anti-poverty wing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“As of today, no grant funding has been withheld,” Weigel says. “We’re just looking into issues raised. It’s all about the contract and agreement with CCHD and working through that process with WIT.”

Upon being asked whether the funding might ultimately be withheld if the church’s demands aren’t met, Weigel says simply that he is hopeful the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible and that he cannot comment further.

Given everything that’s transpired, WIT’s financial future is uncertain at best.

“I’m hesitant to take Catholic Church money,” says Collins. “I’m not trying to burn any bridges. I’m trying to build a movement. But I know next time to choose funding more carefully.”

Since refusing to write the letter distancing WIT from Wench and other “non-Catholic” groups, Collins has had several conversations with Catholic Charities and she isn’t confident the grant funding will be awarded. At this point, bills are overdue and expenditures are at a halt, but Collins says she doesn’t regret standing up to the archdiocese.

“I believe writing a letter like that would admit to something that we didn’t do,” says Collins. “We didn’t do anything wrong and I’m not going to turn down Wench as our partner because they do abortion work and clinic escorting.”

In recent years, national media outlets from Time magazine to The Boston Globe have quoted Archbishop Kurtz on issues including gay marriage and abortion, giving him a reputation as an outspoken church leader.

Some critics believe the recent efforts to pressure WIT suggest the archdiocese is becoming increasingly retaliatory against those with whom it disagrees.

“The organizations that have been supported by the Catholic Church or that may seek support are now likely to think twice about what they’re getting themselves into,” says Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville nonprofit dedicated to achieving equal rights for LGBT individuals. WIT has worked with the Fairness Campaign on equality initiatives, and officials with both groups believe Catholic Charities’ efforts to end WIT’s relationships with certain groups would likely apply to their collaboration. “The (groups) currently being supported by the church may fear for their future and financial stability based on this instance of the church withholding funds.”