(AP) — The management of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has drawn criticism from a prominent archbishop — and some members of Congress — by choosing not to renew a contract for Franciscan priests to provide pastoral care, and instead hiring a secular firm to oversee provision of those services going forward.
For nearly two decades, priests from the Holy Name College Friary in Silver Spring, Maryland, had ministered to service members and veterans hospitalized at Walter Reed, a renowned medical facility in nearby Bethesda.
Walter Reed said it notified the Franciscans in March that their contract would not be renewed, and that another bidder for the new contract had been selected — secular defense contractor Mack Global LLC.
The medical center said it issued a cease-and-desist order on April 4 — in the midst of Holy Week — when Franciscans continued to provide pastoral services after their contract expired on March 31.
The events dismayed Timothy Broglio, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and also is archbishop for the Military Services.
“I fear that giving a contract to the lowest bidder overlooked the fact that the bidder cannot provide the necessary service,” Broglio said in a statement last week. “
On Wednesday, Broglio provided an updated response to The Associated Press.
“The Archdiocese has been assured that the situation will be rectified and waits to learn of the outcome of the efforts to ensure appropriate care so that the First Amendment rights of patients and staff at the Medical Center will be respected,” he said.
Walter Reed, in a lengthy statement of its own, said it “honors and supports a full range of religious, spiritual, and cultural needs.”
The statement said the new contract offered to Mack Global “is under review to ensure it adequately supports the religious needs of our patients and beneficiaries.”
For now, the medical center said, an active-duty Army priest on its staff is providing Catholic pastoral services, supplemented as warranted by other priests in the region.
The medical center declined to say whether it was dissatisfied in any way with the services provided by the Franciscans. It also declined to provide any monetary figure for the new and previous contracts.
Asked for comment, the Franciscans provided a statement Wednesday expressing pride in the services they had provided to Walter Reed.
“While this is certainly disappointing after 20 years of service – after building trust and so many wonderful relationships and friendships – the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province respect the process,” the statement said. “It has been an incredible privilege – and, really, a very powerful ministerial experience – for the Franciscan Friars to be invited into the lives of these true American heroes who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
Walter Reed is one of many U.S. military medical centers whose pastoral care lies within the Archdiocese for Military Services, headed by Broglio.
The statement issued by Broglio’s office last week was stinging: “The refusal to provide adequate pastoral care while awarding a contract for Catholic ministry to a for-profit company that has no way of providing Catholic priests to the medical center is a glaring violation of service members’ and veterans’ Right to the Free Exercise of Religion.”
The developments have drawn the attention of several Republican members of Congress who criticize Walter Reed’s action. Among them was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who tweeted that the decision was “incredibly embarrassing and wrong.”
Eleven other members of Congress, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Roger Marshall of Kansas, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin inquiring why the contract was awarded to a secular contractor “which cannot fulfill the statement of work.”
“We have made promises to our service members and veterans that if they take care of us, we will take care of them,” the letter said. “This extends to not just providing quality healthcare at our nation’s military medical facilities, but by also providing the ability to freely practice their religion to those under the care at these facilities.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.