The Catholic Church and PA House Bill 162

This picture was taken in 1985, the day of my First Holy Communion. 1st CommunionMy wooden stance and expression say it all. I remember receiving a white chocolate cross. I despise white chocolate, but I choked down that poor excuse for the real thing because it was expected.

Something was amiss, and my subconscious knew it. At that time, institution I was taught to trust had just convinced the Pennsylvania State Legislature to revoke my right to receive my Original Birth Certificate (OBC) because of my adopted status.

In the 30 years since, there have been multiple attempts to reverse this unjust law. Every time, the PA Catholic Conference has shown up to thwart those efforts.

The latest, House Bill 162, would treat adopted adults equally to other Pennsylvanians by restoring their right to access their OBCs. This past week, the PACC successfully convinced the Senate Aging & Youth Committee to tack on an amendment that would give birth parents the power to revoke this right. A large group of us (adoptees, original mothers, adoptive parents, and a representative from a progressive adoption agency) filled the front benches of the gallery as politicians discussed our rights as if they were negotiable. The few-but-powerful sat behind us, thinly smiling as the Committee did their bidding.

Why does the PA Catholic Conference have such a vested interest in locking away our information? At the Committee Hearing last March, they testified that relinquishing mothers were promised their names would be kept secret from their children. No such promise is (or was ever) written in relinquishment papers. One has to wonder who might have verbally made this false promise, and why.

The PACC also claims that mothers would be more likely to have abortions if the State could not promise them anonymity in adoption. When asked by the Senate Aging & Youth Committee how they arrived at this conclusion, Francis Viglietta of the Catholic Conference stammered that this was “just common sense.” Common sense would dictate backing up one’s assertions with data.

American Adoption Congress has compiled abortion and adoption statistics from states that allow adoptees access to their OBCs. It shows the number of abortions actually declined in these states after OBCs were unsealed, most falling lower than the national average. Alaska and Kansas, the two states that have never sealed adoptees’ OBCs, rank 1st and 5th in the nation for number of adoptions. This research can be read here:

The PACC has to know this by now (we’ve only been shouting it from the rooftops for years). If they were going for sheer numbers in terms less abortion, one would think they’d support open records. So why don’t they?

Closed records are a money-maker. Under Act 101 in Pennsylvania, we have a convoluted system that an adoptee must navigate in order to receive any information about their origins. The adoptee must approach the Orphan’s Court (I love how it’s still called that in the 21st century) in the County where their adoption was finalized. The courts will often outsource the search procedure to the agency that handled the adoption. That agency can then charge the adoptee whatever they wish (often hundreds of dollars) to pull their file and perform what usually amounts to an internet search for the birth parent(s)… something the average person can do in one day, sometimes for free. They will send a certified letter to the birth parent(s), with very ambiguous language, asking them to contact the agency. If no reply is received, this is considered a “no” to contact, and the adoptee is out of luck… not to mention a few hundred dollars. Worse, these paid searchers are not required to provide any proof to the adoptee that they did any of this work in the first place.

So not only can Catholic Charities charge an obscene amount of money for adoptions, but they get to charge their adoptees later in life when the State forces them to crawl back for information about their origins.

At least one county here in Pennsylvania makes adoptees go through Catholic Charities regardless of who handled their adoption. You read correctly: A government agency is forcing citizens to pay a religious institution for information any other citizen in the state can request from the Department of Health for $20.00.

It’s not uncommon for adoptees forced to go through Catholic Charities and other agencies to experience misinformation, lies, and unprofessional behavior. One PA adoptee spoke to me recently about her experience with a court-appointed searcher from Catholic Charities. The searcher bragged that they, “Fought HB 162 tooth-and-nail and won,” with the current amendment, “because all those women are going to end up having abortions,” if the law passes as originally written. She went on to say that if she found any “bad news” in the adoptee’s file that she had the right to “seal it” forever.

If this is what Catholic Charities would say to an adult’s face, I shudder to imagine what they tell a scared 16-year-old considering relinquishment. My “common sense” says an entity that fights transparency usually has shenanigans to hide.

The PA Catholic Conference continues to hide behind the “open records cause abortion” myth because it works. They have trained people to have a knee-jerk opposition to anything even rumored to cause women to terminate pregnancies.

The following is directed to the majority Catholics who are capable of critical thinking: I get it. I get that expressing dissention seems futile because no individual is going to change how the core of this institution functions. Most of us give an eye-roll at certain Papal mandates, promptly ignore them, and get on with church. We eat the metaphorical white chocolate we believe to be par-for-the-course, but therein lies to problem… they count on that culture of complacency.

When asked by our Senate Committee if there was an official Church policy, Viglietta admitted there’s no specific doctrine concerning an adoptee’s access to his or her OBC. In fact, Catholic Conference branches in some other states have supported open records legislation. We can turn this around in Pennsylvania too.

If you are a Pennsylvania Catholic, or a Catholic living in a closed-records state, please consider taking the time to write your state’s Catholic Conference. Tell them you believe adopted adults deserve equal access to their original birth certificates.


For more information on HB 162: