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Conservative Catholics question past donations by bishops' lobbyist

He gave to politicians at odds with church

The new lobbyist for the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts has in the past given money to lawmakers who support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, causing concern among some conservative Catholics.

But the lobbyist, Edward F. Saunders Jr., says the contributions, made when he was lobbying for credit unions, simply reflect ''the nature of the business," and some conservative Catholics say the contributions are to be expected.

The mini-controversy, playing out largely in the form of an e-mail whisper campaign and blog entries, reflects a larger debate within Catholicism over how the church hierarchy should relate to the sizable fraction of Catholic laypeople who disagree with or act against church teachings. Some conservatives have criticized the appointment to church panels of Catholics who support abortion rights or gay marriage, and a few bishops, although none in Massachusetts, have suggested that they would deny Communion to such Catholics.

Saunders, a registered Democrat and a longtime lobbyist on Beacon Hill, declined to discuss his personal views on social issues, saying only, ''Whatever the position of the church is, that's my position."

Asked about his contributions, Saunders said, ''You can't be a legislative agent today and not participate in many of those things.

''I've been around the State House for close to 20 years, and if you go back through the years, you can see the relationships I've developed, and many of them are personal friendships," he said. ''But I was wearing a different hat, representing the credit union industry, and I'm wearing a different hat now."

Saunders said that he had not discussed political contributions with the Massachusetts bishops who hired him and that any future contributions ''will have to be evaluated at that time." Saunders, who starts his job as executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference on July 25, will represent the bishops of Boston, Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester.

According to records on file with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Saunders gave $200 in 2002 to Treasurer Shannon P. O'Brien, who was a candidate for governor; $100 in 2003 and $200 in 2004 to Senator Robert E. Travaglini of East Boston, now the Senate president; and $100 each in 2001, 2003, and 2004 to state Senator Marian Walsh of West Roxbury. Those three Catholic Democrats all support same sex marriage or civil unions, both of which are opposed by their church. O'Brien and Travaglini also support abortion rights. Walsh, a longtime legislative ally of church leaders who became critical of the diocese because of the clergy abuse crisis, was unsuccessfully targeted for defeat by the church last year, when the Catholic Conference issued a scorecard on same-sex marriage in which she and 75 other legislators ranked last.

Under Massachusetts state law, each year lobbyists can give no more than $200 to a candidate.

Saunders also gave $100 to Boston City Council President Michael F. Flaherty Jr. last month, four days before Flaherty marched in the city's gay pride parade. Several other Catholic politicians also marched, and some marchers carried banners from three Catholic parishes, Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, St. Ignatius of Loyola in Chestnut Hill, and the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston.

But Saunders also gave $125 in 2002 and $125 in 2003 to House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a staunch opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage.

Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said the group is ''investigating" Saunders's background. ''I realize lobbyists do what they have to do, but we're talking about principles here, and strong beliefs in some fundamental human rights," she said. ''There's a side of me that wonders, if there are personal contributions given to lawmakers or political candidates who are not in synch with what the church teaches, then doesn't that call into serious question the motives of this individual?"

A spokesman for Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley defended the appointment.

''Ed Saunders is personally and professionally committed to advocate the full range of Catholic social and moral teachings," said the spokesman, Terrence C. Donilon. ''On that basis and his many qualifications, he was a strong candidate for the position for which he was hired."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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