The second week of March started out badly for the American Red Cross. 60 Minutes devoted a segment of its Sunday program to searing criticism of the way in which the organization handles the big bucks it collects ostensibly to provide assistance to victims of major disasters.
That was followed the next day by a blast from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It asked over 100 organizations to drop their support for the American Red Cross because its chapter in Orange County, California, had canceled its invitation to a student choir to perform at a large function the previous day because it was planning to sing a medley consisting of “America the Beautiful,” “Prayer of the Children” and “God Bless the U.S.A.”
A spokeswoman for the Orange County Chapter explained the cancellation saying, “We wanted songs representative of all races, all creeds. We are not a religious organization. We have to be neutral and impartial in all situations.” The national headquarters in Washington, D.C., supported the cancellation of the invitation, issuing a news release that said, “The dispute was over the music program and has nothing to do with patriotism…. The dispute centers only on our sensitivity to religious diversity and a preference for a music program that would be inclusive and not offend different populations participating in this particular event.”
Cherilyn Bacon, the director of the group from the Orange County High School of the Arts that had been invited to sing, had arranged the medley, titling it the “Heroes Trilogy.” It was her intention to honor those involved in rescue efforts following the September 11 attacks. A Red Cross representative objected to the medley, saying the lyrics might be offensive to some of the 400 guests at the annual Volunteer Recognition Awards.
Ms. Bacon told the AP, “We have never had a complaint about the medley. People have cried when they heard it. I think the Red Cross is taking the issue too seriously.” They took it so seriously that they disinvited Ms. Bacon’s group and substituted another one from the same school, perhaps a group that promised not to sing any songs that used the words “God” or “prayer.”
In a news release accompanying his letter asking over 100 groups to withhold support from the American Red Cross, Catholic League President William Donohue said, “The American Red Cross has every right to adopt the platform of political correctness by censoring the free speech of young men and women who want to honor God and country. And we have every right to ask our friends to send the Red Cross an unmistakable message by refusing to donate one more dime to the organization. Our request is being sent to our allies in virtually every faith community. The time to put an end to this anti-religious madness is now.”
Apparently the way to get the attention of the American Red Cross is to take an action that threatens its income. With no big stories in the media applying pressure, a lengthy apology was issued by the Orange County Chapter and distributed by national headquarters the same day the Donohue letter went out. It said they “did not intend to hurt or offend anyone,” but that it was clear that the judgment they made to exclude certain songs from the Sunday program was a mistake. It concluded, “We want to apologize to the community and to any people who were hurt or disappointed by our actions.”
The “60 Minutes” program on the handling of the large donations the Red Cross gets to help victims of major disasters will not help the money roll in. It summarized the tardy disbursal of the $930 million given to the Red Cross to help the families of the 9/11 victims. It showed that it had taken 18 months to disburse the $16 million collected to assist the victims of the huge Red River flood in Minnesota in 1997. It finished with the Red Cross response to a fire that destroyed many homes in a canyon near San Diego last year. The Red Cross put a photo on its Web site of a woman who lost her home in the fire. It helped raise nearly $400,000, but that woman and others had received no help.
After six months, a group of them met with the woman who heads the San Diego Red Cross chapter to ask how the money had been used. She was paid $309,000 last year, but she gave them no answers. Both she and the head of the Red Cross national office refused to be interviewed by “60 Minutes.”