Catholic charity criticised by commission

Subletting of hospital premises led to discovery of 'breakdowns in governance'

The Charity Commission has criticised a Catholic hospital charity for the way it dealt with the consequences of its decision to sublet part of its premises to GPs who prescribe contraceptives.

Angry Catholics petitioned the Vatican when it emerged that the SS John and Elizabeth Charity, a 153-year-old charity whose 520 staff operate a hospital in London's St John's Wood, planned to allow GPs to set up the NHS practice.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Catholic church in England and Wales, also expressed concerns about the GPs' work being contrary to catholic teaching.

The commission opened an inquiry and initially blocked the opening of the practice on the grounds that it breached a requirement in the charity's governing document that the organisation should operate "in accordance with the spiritual and ethical principles of the Roman Catholic teaching and traditions".

The commission eventually agreed to let the practice open in January last year after concluding that the scheme did not require "absolute compliance". The inquiry report, published last month, says "the hospital board must take ‘all reasonable steps' - as opposed to all possible steps - to ensure that all persons working in the hospital comply with the spiritual and ethical requirements".

Ten board members either resigned in protest or were not reappointed in a six-month period during the investigation.

The commission decided to open the inquiry after discovering "serious governance issues", including a lack of cooperation from trustees in responding to its concerns. "The inquiry was disappointed with the way the hospital board engaged with it, given the serious nature of the issues," the report says.

The inquiry discovered "governance breakdowns" and "serious disagreements" between board members and between the board and senior managers.

In September 2008, the board adopted an action plan, which commits it to producing a new code of ethics and a revised business plan.

"The commission's regulatory interest demonstrated to the hospital charity the importance of robust governance procedures," the report says. "In response to the concerns raised by the commission, the hospital charity's governance arrangements have been reviewed and strengthened and there have been changes within the hospital board."


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