Priests defend right to visit the sick
At government urging, hospitals update COVID-19 policies to allow clergy visits
Patients facing death or serious illness can take comfort in visits from their faith leaders. But pandemic-related restrictions have closed many hospital doors to priests, pastors, and rabbis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights recently helped two Catholics resolve disputes with hospitals about the balance between health concerns and patients’ religious freedom.
In one case, the Office of Civil Rights intervened after a Mary Washington Healthcare facility in Fredericksburg, Va., did not allow a priest to administer the last rites to a Catholic patient dying from COVID-19. After the federal office contacted the hospital, it allowed the priest to visit. In the other case, the office talked to a MedStar Health System hospital in southern Maryland after it stopped a priest from visiting a mother who was separated from her newborn because she tested positive for the coronavirus.
Roger Severino, director of the Office of Civil Rights, told reporters both hospitals have since updated their policies to allow clergy to call on COVID-19 patients as long as they wear protective clothing and undergo infection control training. Patients not on coronavirus units can receive pastoral visits at any reasonable time, he said.
As the pandemic has dragged on, other hospitals have also developed more clergy-friendly COVID-19 policies. Federal intervention led the University of Maryland Medical System to align its policy in July with HHS requirements that healthcare facilities make sure those under their care can access chaplains and clergy. “You can safely treat the patient without neglecting the whole patient—that’s mind, body, and soul,” Severino said.
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