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Feb 20, 11:31 AM EST

Oxfam apologizes over handling of Haiti abuse scandal

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LONDON (AP) -- Oxfam's leadership apologized Tuesday for downplaying the significance of a sexual misconduct scandal in Haiti as they were grilled by British lawmakers and sought to stem the tide of cancelled donations.

Appearing before Parliament's International Development Committee, Oxfam Great Britain CEO Mark Goldring repeatedly apologized for a lack of transparency and urgency in handling the original allegations.

Goldring said he regretted making comments in the Guardian newspaper suggesting that the response to the scandal had been out of proportion because no one had "murdered babies in their cots."

"I should not have said those things. It is not for Oxfam to judge issues of proportionality or motivation," he said. "I am sorry, we are sorry, for the damage Oxfam has done both to the people of Haiti but also to wider efforts for aid and development by possibly undermining public support."

The committee called the urgent session amid fury over Oxfam's response to allegations that some of its staff in Haiti used prostitutes, including some who may have been minors. The scandal has shaken the aid group to the core, with the government suspending funding for the agency.

In addition, Oxfam said Tuesday that about 7,000 individual donors have canceled regular donations in the past 10 days and some corporate sponsors are reserving judgment.

Seven Oxfam workers were fired or resigned in 2011 after a whistleblower accused staff members of misconduct while working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. Government officials and Britain's charity regulator have said that Oxfam didn't tell them the allegations included sexual misconduct until Britain's Times newspaper revealed details of the case earlier this month.

Goldring said that with hindsight, the charity's leaders made the wrong call at the time of their initial investigation about how much information to give to the public and government authorities. But he said he believed those decisions were made in the interest of continuing vital aid to desperate people.

"At the time, I suspect there was a balance of saying 'Oxfam is delivering life-saving assistance to a million people in Haiti ... We have got to keep that work going'," he said.

But some members of the panel were having none of it. Conservative committee member Pauline Latham noted that she had heard allegations of aid workers abusing women as early as two years ago at an international conference - and that no one was doing anything about it.

"That's shocking," she said. "You are all supposed to be good people trying to help the world, but it would appear you are not as good as you should be."

British lawmakers also questioned officials from Save the Children UK amid concern sex predators are targeting aid organizations because of the chaotic environments in which they work.

CEO Kevin Watkins said the organization had produced two reports warning that "predatory men" were seeking to use aid work as an opportunity for abuse. The reports underscored the imbalance of power between those providing food, shelter and security and those in need of aid.

"I have seen it argued that if you work in a difficult and dangerous place, you should somehow be subjected to a different set of rules, that the standards should be lower," he testified. "There is only one rule that should apply to our mission and our organization. That is that you treat other people as you would expect to be treated yourself."

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