BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE LAST remaining Catholic adoption agency in England and Wales has lost its legal battle to stay open.
The Charity Tribunal ruled that Catholic Care, the agency of the Leeds, Hallam and Middlesbrough dioceses, could not use a loophole in the 2010 Equality Act to turn away same-sex couples as potential adopters and foster parents.
The decision means that the charity, which each year finds new homes for about 10 children, many of whom are “hard to place”, is faced with the dilemma of having either to sever ties with the Church or to end its adoption services.
Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds said the trustees were also considering “whether or not to appeal”. “It is unfortunate that those who will suffer as a consequence of this ruling will be the most vulnerable children for whom Catholic Care has provided an excellent service for many years,” said Bishop Roche. “It is an important point of principle that the charity should be able to prepare potential adoptive parents, a service recognised for its excellence by the local authorities who are responsible for placing children, according to the tenets of the Catholic faith.” The agency has previously mounted two unsuccessful legal attempts to persuade the Charity Commission to allow it to change its statutes so it could use Section 193 of the 2010 Equality Act to continue its policy of assessing married couples and single people only. The Act, which incorporates the Sexual Orientation Regulations of 2007, says charities can discriminate if their actions represent a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim or for the purpose of preventing or compensating a disadvantage” linked to a charity’s characteristics.
Catholic Care insisted that the clause meant it was legally able both to comply with the law and to operate according to the teaching of the Catholic Church that gay adoption is “gravely immoral”.
But the commission had argued each time that the regulations were not designed for that purpose and that such a change would be in breach of British and European gay equality legislation. The case went before the Charity Tribunal when Catholic Care’s position was last year supported by High Courtjudge Mr Justice Michael Briggs who described the regulator’s stance as “neither logical, rational, purposive nor responsive to any reasonable linguistic interpretation”.
But the three tribunal judges hearing the appeal ruled that eradicating discrimination against samesex couples was more important than the risk that children in the state care system may not be found new families if the adoption service closed its doors to them.
“The tribunal must consider the risk of closure of the Charity’s adoption service... against the detriment to same-sex couples and the detriment to society generally of permitting the discrimination proposed,” said the judges, led by Alison McKenna, who had worked for the Charity Commission for five years. “The tribunal agrees with the commission’s approach to this issue and with its conclusion.” The judges recognised that Catholic Care was four times more likely than local councils to win a permanent adoptive home for such children. But because the agency’s services were of such a high standard they also concluded it was a “significant detriment” to gay couples to be denied access to them.
The judges singled out Bishop Roche for criticism, saying he failed to give evidence to support his opinion that Catholics would cease to find £130,000 in annual funding of the agency if it assessed same-sex couples as adopters and foster parents. “In the absence of cogent evidence that any of the charity’s supporters had intended to support the adoption service in particular, it follows that the tribunal could not be satisfied that there exists an identifiable subset of donors who take a particular view of the adoption service that the charity should provide and who would withdraw their financial support for its adoption work if the charity offered an open adoption service,” the judges wrote. They noted, however, that the Roman Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement had offered some evidence to show that some Catholics, including bishops, were happy to offer financial support to agencies which had broken from the Church.
“There is a wide range of opinion amongst donating Catholics,” they said, adding that “some Catholics do offer financial support to adoption agencies which provide services to same-sex adopters”.
Catholic Care is exploring the possibility of handing on its adoption work to a secular agency.
Catholic Care is the only Catholic adoption agency of 11 in England and Wales to fight through the courts the regulations to prohibit discrimination against gay people in the provision of services. Most of the others, which together had found homes for about 250 children a year, have either broken from the Church or closed down.
Between 2007 and 2010 there was one instance of a gay couple approaching a Catholic agency, and they were referred elsewhere.