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Catholic agencies face dilemma Vatican stance against allowing same-sex couples to adopt children conflicts with state anti-bias law

A 3-year-old Vatican document that condemns the adoption of children by gay couples appears to put some area Catholic human service agencies at odds with state anti-discrimination laws.

The document characterizes the adoption of children by same-sex couples as "gravely immoral."

Some states, including New York, prohibit discrimination against gay couples trying to adopt children.

Catholic Charities of Boston already decided to pull out of adoption services because it was unable to reconcile church teaching with Massachusetts law.

In this area, two Catholic agencies -- Catholic Charities of Buffalo and Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna -- appear to face the same dilemma.

"This is one of our seminal services. We've been doing it since we started," said Dennis C. Walczyk, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Buffalo. "If it ever came to that point with us as it had in Boston, my hope would be that there could be a reconciliation between the teachings of the church and the regulations that govern adoption."

State law now bans Catholic agencies providing foster care adoption services from discriminating against same-sex couples, adoption and legal experts say.

>Lobbyist cites need for exceptions

All Catholic human service agencies comply with state adoption regulations, and no statewide policy on same-sex adoptions has been discussed, said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm in Albany.

But exceptions should be made, he said.

"We certainly feel the church ought to be exempt from any requirement to place children in same-sex households," he explained.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has not commented publicly on the decision in the Archdiocese of Boston or its effect here.

Through diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan, Kmiec said Catholic Charities fully complies with state guidelines on adoptions.

The adoption program, Keenan added, may be reviewed at some point.

Although no one formally has challenged the diocese's position, Erie County officials say all adoption agencies with county contracts must abide by the non-discriminatory language of state law.

"We're not in a position to question their belief systems, but they would have to comply with the laws and regulations that the county requires," said Pat Dietrich, adoption supervisor for the county Social Services Department. "By law, we can't differentiate between a same-sex couple and a heterosexual couple."

A policy prohibiting same-sex foster care adoptions "would be contrary to the law," said Rudy Estrada, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, a national organization that handles gay and lesbian civil rights litigation.

Estrada said he wasn't aware of any such policies at Catholic agencies in this state.

>Agencies lack official policies

The heads of Catholic Charities of Buffalo and Baker-Victory Services, nonetheless, expressed concerns about the fate of their foster care adoption programs, funded in part with state contract money and, therefore, subject to anti-discrimination laws.

Catholic Charities handled 17 foster care adoptions in the last three years and currently is overseeing care of 21 foster children who have been freed for adoption. Baker Victory Services has 12 foster children in its care who have been freed for adoption, but hasn't completed any foster care adoptions in several years, according to county records.

"So far, this has not been an issue with us," said James Casion, chief executive officer of Baker Victory Services. "We don't currently have a policy [on same-sex adoptions]. It's not come up. I guess we hadn't really thought about it. . . . If the bishop makes a proclamation about it, it will be law then. Whatever the bishop says will be the position."

Catholic Charities also does not have a policy on same-sex adoptions.

Casion noted that the state has made religious exemptions in other cases, and he was optimistic that a resolution could be reached.

"They don't require that we provide birth control for people who ask us," Casion said. "They've allowed us to maintain a particular posture as long as the clients' needs are met."

A handful of same-sex couples in the county has adopted foster children in recent years.

Casion and Walczyk said they were not aware of any same-sex couples seeking to adopt children through their agencies. But a gay individual might have adopted through Catholic Charities, Walczyk said.

>San Francisco programs reviewed

In Massachusetts, same-sex adoption wasn't a big issue for Catholic Charities until the 2003 Vatican document, which proclaims that allowing such adoptions "would actually mean doing violence to these children."

Out of 720 adoptions over the past 20 years, Catholic Charities of Boston placed 13 children with same-sex families.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference unsuccessfully sought an exemption from the anti-discrimination statute, arguing that state law conflicts with the church's right to religious freedom.

Ultimately, the agency, which has handled adoptions for more than a century, "encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve," said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, its president.

Archbishop George H. Niederauer of the Archdiocese of San Francisco also announced last week that he was reviewing Catholic Charities adoption programs there, with the understanding that same-sex adoptions were not compatible with the church's teachings on homosexuality.

Some professionals in the adoption field expressed concern that the Vatican teaching could lead other Catholic agencies to drop high-quality adoption programs.

"I hope that this doesn't start some kind of sweep throughout the country," said Judith O'Mara, director of adoption and foster care at Baker Victory Services.

Erie County handles most of its foster care adoptions in-house and contracts with several agencies for the rest.

Losing the services of Catholic Charities and Baker Victory Services "would certainly be difficult for us," Dietrich said.

"They're both fine agencies, and they've both been involved in adoption programs for many years."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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