Irish branch of US anti-abortion Catholic group has income of nearly €1m per year and runs rogue crisis pregnancy agency

Irish branch of US anti-abortion Catholic group has income of nearly €1m per year and runs rogue crisis pregnancy agency

The accounts for the Irish branch of US anti-abortion and anti-gender rights group Human Life International (HLI) show annual income of almost €1m for the last number of years. In returns made to the Companies Registration Office (CRO), and which are also available on the group’s website, income of €781,992 is recorded for the 2020 financial year. The previous year shows income of €900,085 for the registered charity. HLI Ireland’s stated mission purpose is to promote “the authentic teachings of the religion of the Catholic Church in life, faith and family, by prayer, service and education”. And this means running the anti-abortion pregnancy counselling service Ask Majella, campaigning against the use of contraceptives, and “Unmasking the truth about the dangers of [sic] new age movement” as well as a host of other Catholic endeavours.

Co-director and chairperson of HLI Ireland, Patrick Buckley, has also been linked to a Russian oligarch closely associated with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.

The costs of Catholicism

HLI Ireland seems to have a large but underreported role in the anti-gender rights movement in Ireland. And its most recent accounts for the financial year ended 31 March 2020 reveal substantial income as well as expenditure.

Its 2020 financial statements note €234,547 in the form of “Tangible assets”, meaning anything physical with a monetary value which can include cash, equipment, and property, amongst other things. HLI Ireland records property to the value of €202,460 and various fixtures and equipment coming to €17,653 after charges and depreciation. The accounts for 2020 also show considerable income originating from donations adding up to €778,224 with a further €3,768 from a “VAT refund”. Unfortunately there’s no line by line breakdown of the individual donations the group’s received. But listed under “Members [sic] funds” is €349,806 as well as €78,382 in the form of “Cash at bank and in hand”.

Despite the large amount of income the organisation ran a deficit in 2020. Figures show expenditure adding up to €804,173 leaving HLI Ireland with a shortfall of €22,181 for the year. As a result of employing an average of 14 people during 2020 the cost of salaries and wages constitute the single biggest expense, totalling €311,820. On top of that, another €33,049 was spent on PRSI contributions. But the more notable expenses appear to be in line with HLI Ireland’s declared mission purpose, with it recording large outgoings for religious items on top of advertising and the associated costs. Its accounts show it spent €31,552 on “Religious objects and materials”, €118,613 on “Printing, postage and stationery”, and another €118,575 on advertising. By comparison the Iona Institute, which covers similar ideological ground to HLI Ireland, spent €10,954 for “Advertising and Market research” in the same time period.

HLI Ireland’s 2019 accounts are less detailed although the group ended the year in the black. With income of €900,085 and expenses of €865,524, it was left with a tax-free profit of €173,676. Wages and salaries for 11 employees for the year came to €263,989, with a further €26,696 spent on “Social insurance costs”. The report also divulges that the group raised €210,000 in order to acquire office space in Knock.

International activism and Russian links

Fr. Paul Benno Marx originally founded what was then called the Human Life Center in 1972, later renaming it to HLI. Today on its website it writes that it’s “the world’s largest global pro-life apostolate”. During a tour of Ireland in the 1970s Marx exhibited a 14-week-old foetus in a container to teenagers. 

Since its founding HLI’s expanded to dozens of countries around the globe and viciously campaigns against abortion rights as well as the use of contraceptives and sex education. In 2006 its PR director even went so far as to claim that “homosexuals reproduce sexually by molesting children”. It also has consultative status at the United Nations (UN) where it asserts its purported expertise in the areas of children, the family, HIV/AIDS, human rights, population growth, and reproduction. A report last year revealed that HLI had flooded Europe with $4m in funding for anti-gender and pro-Christian initiatives between 2008 and 2019.

When it comes to the Irish branch, HLI Ireland was founded in 1994 and is currently headquartered in the Guadalupe Centre in Knock, Co. Mayo. At the time of its first appearance in Ireland, Peter Scully, aka Dr. Peadar Ó Scolaí, had acted as HLI Ireland’s director, having left the far-right, anti-abortion group Youth Defence. Eventually he also left HLI Ireland after “claiming its work in Ireland was being interfered with by Americans” and set up his own anti-abortion group, Family and Life. Annual returns show that Scully hasn’t been on the board Family & Life since at least 2002. But documents uploaded by WikiLeaks appear to show that he was recently involved with the far-right-aligned and anti-gender rights Agenda Europe summits, with a 2014 letter listing him as a member of the Executive Committee.

HLI Ireland’s international links are documented in its financial statements, clearly showing that the group looks beyond the borders of Ireland.

Its directors’ report for 2020 highlights conferences and speaking engagements members of the group have attended, such as the Heartbeat International (HBI) Annual Conference in 2019 in Dallas, Texas. These conferences offer anti-abortion and anti-contraception activists and groups a chance to undergo training and attend lectures on topics such as the supposed health effects of abortion and “Strategic Planning” for organisations. Vice has described HBI as “the biggest crisis pregnancy center network in the world”, with the group having over 2,000 affiliates in 50 countries. A 2020 investigation by openDemocracy found that clinics run by HBI associates have made false claims about the consequences of abortion and questioned the effectiveness of contraceptives. HBI also obtained support from the Donald Trump White House, with the organisation describing the administration as their “friends in Washington”.

But HLI Ireland also has connections to Russia via Buckley, it’s co-director and chairperson. As a result of leaks uploaded by Shaltai Boltai, the Russian equivalent of WikiLeaks, we now know he attended an anti-gender rights conference in Moscow in 2014. Initially supposed to be a meeting of the World Congress of Families, the organisers were forced to “rebrand” the conference as a result of sanctions world governments placed on Russia. Although there as a representative of the anti-abortion European Life Network and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), Buckley’s attendance was part of a pattern of Russian backing of various anti-gender and anti-LGBTQIA+ rights groups in Europe.

The St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, an organisation created by oligarch Vladimir Yakunin, sponsored his presence at the conference. With an estimated net worth of $1bn, Yakunin is allegedly such a close ally of Putin’s that he was at one stage considered a possible successor. Over a ten-year period from 2009 to 2018, the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation spent over $1.5m on anti-gender rights initiatives in Europe. Yakunin also created the Istoki Endowment Foundation, the Centre for National Glory, and a think tank called the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. These organisations promote a conservative, Orthodox Christian worldview which rails against abortion, contraceptives, and LGBTQIA+ rights. In total, Yakunin’s groups have spent over $110m between 2009 and 2018 to promote his ideology in Europe.

Given this, Buckley is likely an important figure in HLI Ireland. Aside from his connections to the Russian anti-gender rights movement, he also represents SPUC at the UN. The anti-abortion group claims there’s an “agenda” at the heart of the UN to reduce the population by making contraceptives easier to access as well as accusing it of trying to “Sexualize young people” by providing them sex education. SPUC also campaigned against the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK, arguing that it “lacks basic elements of true marriage” and ends up “undermining marriage” which it defines as the “exclusive union of one man and one woman”. Going further back, SPUC famously initiated legal proceedings against three Irish students’ unions in 1989. The anti-choice group wanted to bar them from providing information on abortion and sought an injunction to that end, which the High Court granted. Eventually the Supreme Court overturned it in 1997, but by that stage the entire fiasco had cost the students’ unions roughly £100,000.

The Beacon contacted HLI Ireland regarding Buckley’s attendance at the Russian conference and Yakunin’s sponsorship of his presence. A spokesperson replied that the co-director “was not representing HLI Ireland at this conference”. We received no further comment.

Abortion is “pushing your child in front of a moving car”

Although the presence of SPUC in Ireland is infrequent, the same obviously can’t be said for HLI Ireland, the majority of whose activism is clearly focused here. Even the choice of location for its headquarters is obviously no mistake given the nature of Knock as a focal point for many Irish Catholics. With a large amount of funding available to it and its presence in Knock, HLI Ireland appears to be extremely active in various Catholic and anti-gender rights campaigns.

In keeping with its mission statement HLI Ireland’s 2020 directors’ report points out that it continued with its operation of the Ask Majella pregnancy counselling service. Highlighted in the report was that it “saved” approximately 18 babies from abortion between 2019 and 2020. Founded in 2002, the HLI Ireland spinoff has long promoted scare tactics in order to dissuade vulnerable people from proceeding with abortions. A 2009 article in the Irish Examiner revealed that staff at the Limerick-based facility told an undercover reporter that abortion could result in cancers, vulnerability to addiction, “judgment from her baby in the afterlife”, and even death.

Another investigation by the Times in 2017 uncovered that the same tactics were still in use. In that case staff members in a Dublin branch of Ask Majella told an undercover reporter that having an abortion is the same as “pushing your child in front of a moving car”. One of the two staff members, both of whom claimed to be professionally trained, described abortion as “a ridiculous decision”. The other related a series of impossible medical complications that can arise if a person goes ahead with an abortion. In 2016 Patrick McCrystal, the executive director of HLI Ireland, made a submission to the government on behalf of the rogue service in relation to the proposed regulation of counselling services. McCrystal stood by the claims that abortion can cause breast cancer and warned against “excessive reliance on psychology”.

HLI Ireland was also involved in other medical areas. Although it now appears to be discontinued, it hosts a link on its website to the Positive Pharmacy. On its homepage, which can still be viewed online, Positive Pharmacy claimed to be “a group of pharmacists and healthcare professionals who have had serious ethical problems with dispensing abortifacient and contraceptive products”. The website contained substantial disinformation about contraception, with one page insisting that the use of contraception leads to abortion. Also included on the website was a download of McCrystal’s anti-contraception book. In it he writes that the use of contraception results in higher rates of divorce amongst married couples. And approvingly referencing Pope John Paul VI’s 1968 anti-contraception encyclical, Humane Vitae, he declares “contraception can have no part in marriage”.

Although the Positive Pharmacy link no longer works, HLI Ireland’s website continues to share disinformation about other related areas, like vaccines. In a section on the topic it’s claimed that research shows an “increase in autism after vaccine jabs”, especially since the use of “aborted human fetal tissues fetal cell line” in vaccines. But this is completely false. No research has ever shown any link between vaccinations and diagnoses of autism.

The movement also hosts prayer groups across the country, both in person and online. It regularly organises pilgrimages in various parts of the country, including at Knock and Croagh Patrick. In 2019 it says it launched a Holy Face campaign which involved advertisements across 50 billboards, with 150 DART and 200 bus posters. It also took out adverts in three Northern Ireland newspapers on the topics of “reparation and repentance”. Other campaigns include encouraging followers to pray the rosary which also involved distributing 10,000 rosary calendars as well as mailing 12 newsletters to 2,500 supporters.

Considering the amount of revenue involved in HLI Ireland and its co-director’s links to Russian anti-gender rights movements, the group should be under greater scrutiny. It represents a force of US conservative Catholic influence in Ireland and, ironically, a possible Russian influence at the same time. What binds them all is contempt for the rights of women and the LGBTQIA+ community. The old days of a totalitarian Catholic theocracy in Ireland are long gone. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t those who don’t yearn for their return.

Featured image via Pexels

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