Obama, Romney Banter Aside, Al Smith Dinner's Biggest Joke on Those Thinking Dollars Go Only to Needy Kids

When a host of business leaders, community leaders, and political luminaries, including President Barack Obama, attended the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner on October 18, they were supporting a religious group that has funded pro-life causes in the recent past.

While the dinner is billed as raising cash for a foundation serving disadvantaged children, there is no such foundation registered with the Internal Revenue Service or New York’s attorney general. Legally, the event is treated by the state and federal governments as part of the Archdiocese of New York.

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the current head of the archdiocese, is the board chair of the dinner and one of five Roman Catholic prelates or archdiocese staffers who sit on the 19-member board.

In an October 17 story, the New York Times reported that this year’s dinner was expected to raise $5 million. What most of that money will be spent on is anyone’s guess. While religious groups benefit from taxpayer subsidies because donations to them are tax-deductible, those groups are exempt from the requirement that they file annual reports that would detail how they spend the cash they raise. All other non-profits must file such reports.

Money from the event has gone to pro-life causes in the past. Among the 2011 recipients of cash from the dinner were two groups that provide alternatives to abortion.

Good Counsel Homes, which calls itself “a private Catholic agency whose primary mission is to help homeless pregnant women by providing a loving family environment in a safe and secure shelter,” was a 2011 grantee.

The organization was founded in 1985 by “Friar Benedict Groeschel and Christopher Bell, both leaders in the pro-life movement,” according to the group’s website. Groeschel remains its board chair.

Another 2011 grantee, the Pregnancy Care Center, describes itself as “a non-sectarian organization founded in 1974 offering positive alternatives to abortion” on its website.

“What’s wrong with that?” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who attended this year’s dinner and the 2011 dinner. “Choice doesn’t mean we’re for one choice. Choice means we’re for an array of choices and women getting to decide for themselves… If you say you’re pro-choice and you’re only for one choice, you’re hypocritical.”

With her eye on the mayor’s office, Quinn, an out lesbian who represents Chelsea, has been regularly visiting all five boroughs and checking in with multiple constituencies. Prior to Thanksgiving last year, she handed out meals with Dolan at a Harlem community center.

“In years past, it went to St. Vincent’s and this year, my understanding is it went to not-for-profit organizations that provide services to New Yorkers under various umbrellas and they are all organizations that I am proud to support,” Quinn said of the dollars raised at the dinner.

The dinners began in 1946 and were founded by Francis Cardinal Spellman, who headed the Archdiocese of New York from 1939 to 1967. Smith served three terms as New York’s governor and was the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. He was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party.

Since 1960, it has been common, though not consistent, for the Democratic and Republican nominees for president to come to the dinner, where they always sit on the dais on either side of whoever is heading the archdiocese, and make self-deprecating remarks. This year was no exception as Obama and Mitt Romney both attended and cracked wise.

Also attending this year’s event were Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo.