Adoptee rights bills are a hard sell in state legislatures, because their main opponents come from two powerful and moneyed groups: the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and trade associations representing adoption practitioners, whose income depends on their success at "selling" adoption as a simple, win-win solution to complex societal problems.
We'll never know exactly why New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "conditionally" vetoed an adoptee rights bill last year that had been approved by both the State Senate and Assembly. But we do know that he received considerable pressure from the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops and the NJ State Bar Association to do exactly what he did -- replace a simple civil rights bill with an unworkable and unacceptable system of state-appointed confidential intermediaries.
Shortly before he issued his directive last June, Gov. Christie received a letter from Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, president of the NJ Catholic Conference of Bishops, asking him to "conditionally" veto the bill. Expressing concern for "birth mother privacy," Myers wrote, "Reunion between adoptees and birth parents should only be after mutual consent."
Now to the uneducated reader, such a statement might seem logical. But studies have shown that mutual consent registries have a failure rate of over 90 percent. Confidential intermediary systems are expensive, obstructive and demeaning to the adopted adult, who is asking only for what every other citizen takes for granted: access to his or her own legal document of birth.
Not all adoptees search, and not all seek reunions, but most would like access to their own truth. One would think from the Bishops' and the NJ Bar Association's position that original mothers live in dire fear that their grown offspring might someday contact them. However, DYFS Adoption Registry statistics show that 95 percent of original parents welcome contact, and in Oregon, where adult adoptees have had access to their original birth certificates for 11 years, fewer than a quarter of one percent of original mothers have filed "no contact" preferences.
Whatever reason the Catholic hierarchy has for opposing adoptee rights bills, it would seem that "birth mother privacy" is not really the issue. One has to wonder at this point just what it is that the Catholic Church is so eager to hide. Is it their unsavory adoption practices of the past, which profoundly hurt so many young, vulnerable women? Or is it their desire to shield the Church from any scandal or controversy at all costs?
Recently, I came across a most interesting website entitled "Children of Catholic Priests." Possibly, at least some of the Bishops' motivation for opposing truth in adoption can be uncovered there.
Ronald A. Sarno, Esq., has published a paper entitled "A Legal Guide" for mothers or expectant mothers of the children of Catholic clergy. In it, he cautions the women explicitly not to seek any help from the Church itself.
"Be wary of attorneys who represent the Catholic clergy," he writes, "who offer to tell you what legal rights you and your child have; they are being paid to help the institution and to save it as much money and scandal as possible."
Later, he explains, "There is no point in using any canonical procedure to seek help. No matter what the canons say in theory, in practice canonical courts and/or inquiries have as their sole purpose the protection of the Church from financial responsibility, and to keep embarrassing facts out of the media."
Sarno wants women to know that the Church currently "discourages any showing of parental responsibility on the part of the 'celibate' official who has fathered children and frequently handles the situation by seeking "settlements" and transferring the father out of the state where the mother resides.
A settlement offer, Sarno explains, is an agreement in which the parties pledge not to go to trial. "The father and the Church want secrecy," he writes to expectant mothers, "and a promise from you not to continue a lawsuit or to go to the media."
The terms of a settlement may require the Church to make regular money payments to the mother until the child is "emancipated," or financially independent. In some cases, says Sarno, the mother may be prohibited by a court order or settlement agreement from telling her child who the father is. If she does disclose the truth, she may be in danger of losing her financial settlement.
While none of this information is surprising, given what we know about the Catholic hierarchy's history, it does offer some insight, I believe, into the Bishops' position regarding adoptee rights.
What I would like to know is this: Why doesn't the media further explore these issues? Why are the lame objections to adoptee rights that the Bishops and the Bar Association make year after year not subject to more scrutiny? "Birth mother privacy" is not the issue, and these groups would not fight for so long and so hard if it were.
Truth, transparency and accountability are good values, and ones we should be striving to incorporate into every area of life. Why should adoption be the lone exception? The answer, sadly, is quite simple. In the world of politics, money and power tend to speak louder than established facts.