Hospitals resolve complaints of clergy access amid pandemic

CLINTON, Md. (AP) — Hospitals in Maryland and Virginia have resolved religious discrimination complaints with federal officials over the hospitals' decisions to block clergy access to patients during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday.

In response to the complaints, MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton, Maryland, and Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg, Virginia, revised their visitation policies to allow patients to receive religious services as long as clergy members follow infection prevention practices.

The complaint against Medstar was filed in July by a patient, while two complaints against Mary Washington were brought by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

“Compassionate care requires treating the body without sacrificing the soul, and these resolutions show how hospitals can do that safely even during a pandemic,” Roger Severino, director of the federal agency’s Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement.

A mother in July filed the complaint against Medstar alleging the facility denied her request to have a Catholic priest baptize her newborn son after she was separated from him because she had tested positive for COVID-19 upon admission. The agency said it provided technical guidance to the MedStar Health System, which then revised the visitation policy for its 10 hospitals.

The diocese filed a complaint against Mary Washington in August alleging a priest was initially denied access to provide the sacraments of the Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was in an end-of-life situation.

Shortly after, the diocese filed another complaint arguing that the hospital would not allow a priest to visit a surgery patient in the intensive care unit who was not suspected of being infected with the virus and was not in an end-of-life situation. The federal agency said the health system had designated the ICU as a COVID unit with visitation restricted to end-of-life situations.