Hours before Holy Week began, a U.S. major military medical center ended a long-standing contract to provide Catholic pastoral care to veterans and service members, violating their religious freedom, according to Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for Military Services.
On March 31, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, issued a "cease and desist" order to Holy Name College Friary, a community of Franciscan priests and brothers who have served the center's service members and veterans for close to two decades, the archdiocese said in an April 7 news release.
The center is one of several major medical facilities operated within the U.S. Department of Defense and the Defense Health Agency, and so falls within the pastoral jurisdiction of the military archdiocese. According to the archdiocese, the March 31 order directed Catholic priests to halt religious services on the center's grounds, ahead of the church's commemorations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The contract for pastoral care was instead "awarded to a secular defense contracting firm that cannot fulfill the statement of the work" required, said the archdiocese's news release. "As a result, adequate pastoral care is not available for service members and veterans in the U.S.'s largest Defense Health Agency medical center either during Holy Week or beyond."
Sources familiar with the contract told OSV News the cost differences between the nonreligious contractor and the Franciscans were minimal.
The release noted "there is one Catholic Army chaplain assigned to Walter Reed Medical Center, but he is in the process of separating from the Army."
In a written statement provided to OSV News, the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province said Walter Reed's decision was "certainly disappointing after 20 years of service … after building trust and so many wonderful relationships and friendships." However, it stated the friars also "respect the process."
Archbishop Broglio, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the medical center's decision in his statement "incomprehensible," one that denies "essential pastoral care … (for) the sick and aged when it (is) so readily available."
The archbishop also said he fears "giving a contract to the lowest bidder overlooked the fact that the bidder cannot provide the necessary service. I earnestly hope that this disdain for the sick will be remedied at once and their First Amendment rights will be respected."
In comments to OSV News late April 7, Archbishop Broglio faulted those overseeing contracting at Walter Reed "for not doing their homework on what it takes to ensure Catholic coverage."
The secular firm that underbid for the contract "is incapable of providing priestly care," he said, adding that under this contract "priests wouldn't have endorsements" needed to provide pastoral care to veterans and service members. "(It's like) hiring a brain surgeon who didn't go to med school," he said.
Archbishop Broglio said the archdiocese has been trying "all week to get ahold of the Protestant chaplain there" at Walter Reed about the situation "but he has little control over contracting."
In its release, the archdiocese said the contract termination, along with the award of a contract to a for-profit company with "no way of providing Catholic priests to the medical center," represents "a glaring violation of service members' and veterans' right to the free exercise of religion."
The timing of the move ahead of Holy Week "causes untold and irreparable harm to Catholics who are hospitalized and therefore a captive population whose religious rights the government has a constitutional duty to provide for and protect," said the news release.
In their statement to OSV News, friars said they had been "blessed for two decades" to provide "this ministry of presence, peace, and compassionate pastoral care to our service men and women, and their families, in the hopes of helping them to heal physically, emotionally and spiritually during the most difficult and challenging times of their lives."
The "very powerful ministerial experience" enabled the friars "to be invited into the lives of these true American heroes who have sacrificed so much for our country," said the statement. "From administering the sacraments and celebrating Mass, to bedside visits and quiet chats, to being a comforting voice or a good listener, to emergency visits, the Franciscan Friars have ministered with the dignity and respect that these suffering military men and women deserve."
The military archdiocese's general counsel, Elizabeth A. Tomlin, has reached out to Walter Reed's contracting officers "numerous times throughout Holy Week asking for the Franciscans' Catholic ministry to be reinstated at least through Easter," but had not received a response, according to the archdiocese's news release.
Calls and emails placed by OSV News April 7-8 to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center have not yet been returned.