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The Church’s Response to the Latest Scandals Over Sex Abuse

Taken from the Catholic News Service

To weed out potential church lay employees or volunteers who might sexually abuse children, a growing number of Catholic dioceses are requiring extensive background checks, fingerprinting or other screening procedures for all workers, paid or not.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, for example, announced March 12 that it will require all new volunteers working with children to undergo a criminal background check. The archdiocese already requires criminal background checks on clergy and lay employees who have contact with children.

Two incidents last year of sexual misconduct by school athletic coaches -- one male and one female -- led to the decision, which will go into effect March 21, 2003.

No decisions have been made yet on how the cost of background checks -- which normally range from $14 to $25 per person -- will be covered.

The new requirement adds another layer of protection with regard to church volunteers, who already are required to attend a training session in child protection before they can work with children.

For the past nine years, the Cincinnati Archdiocese has been guided in these matters by its Decree on Child Protection, which mandates such safeguards as: the presence of two adults at any parish- or school-sponsored activity; individual instruction or counseling from a volunteer only with consent of a parent or guardian; a ban on using corporal punishment or abusive language on a child; and the need to obtain parental consent before a volunteer may invite a child to his or her home.

Some dioceses, like Joliet, Ill., are in the process of considering revisions in their existing volunteer policies, with criminal background checks a possibility.

"What's happening now is kind of disturbing," said Tom Quinlan, director of the diocesan Office of Religious Education. "We are in the process of revising policies for catechists. We are still in the process of nuancing policies."

Requiring background checks of the 6,000 volunteer catechists working in the diocese would place a heavy burden on the office that previously relied solely on a system of reference checks.

The Diocese of Dallas has the strictest human resources code in the nation when it comes to ensuring a safe environment for those who come in contact with church staff and volunteers, according to representatives of the National Catechetical Conference. An 11-page manual, a full-time safety officer and a fingerprint background check serve as the backbone of the program called "Safe Environment and Prevention of Sexual Abuse."

The program costs the Dallas Diocese between $25 and $35 per person; parishes and schools pay separately.

Unfortunately, the program was "lawsuit-driven," said Bronson Havard, spokesman for the Diocese of Dallas, in an interview with The Catholic Explorer, Joliet diocesan newspaper.

In 1997, former Dallas priest Rudolph Kos was convicted on numerous counts of child abuse; he is currently serving a term of life in prison. As part of a court order in a civil lawsuit, which was settled for $30 million, the diocese implemented a program for all employees and volunteers at the chancery, associated offices, parishes and schools, said Havard.

"In the Dallas church, an extensive Safe Environment program, coupled with some basic reforms in personnel management, has led to renewed confidence among the faithful here," he said.

The screening process is confidential, Havard said, and is intended to flag relevant situations, such as a history of violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, battery charges and the like. In addition, an oversight committee was formed in the fall in response to news that several parishes failed to fully observe the strict guidelines.

Havard told Catholic News Service, however, that criminal background checks have their limits and "have caught no pedophiles that I know of." Such checks also could fail to uncover crimes that occurred in other states, he said.

In Austin, Texas, Bishop Gregory M. Aymond implemented a new policy Jan. 1 called "Ethics and Integrity in Ministry," which requires anyone who ministers to minors or vulnerable adults in the diocese to complete a three-page application, undergo a criminal background check and attend a four-hour workshop on diocesan policies and ways to prevent sexual abuse.

The Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, has had a policy in place since May 1999 that outlines "proactive measures to prevent harm to children and minors." It was approved by Bishop Joseph A. Galante when he was head of the diocese. He is now coadjutor of Dallas.

Noting that "all risk in the hiring of employees or the selection of volunteers cannot be eliminated," the Beaumont policy asks, "what are some reasonable screening steps that can be taken to reduce risk?"

The policy requires applicants and potential volunteers to fill out an extensive background questionnaire and agree to a criminal records check. The chancellor of the diocese also mails periodically to pastors the confidential sex-offender registration lists compiled by county officials.

In the Diocese of Richmond, Va., potential volunteers who would be working with minors are screened by Child Protective Services of the Virginia Department of Social Services, while the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., has been checking for years with the Missouri Division of Family Services for possible problems with those who work with children.

But since the state of Missouri does not collect records from each county about people charged with sexual crimes, the diocesan personnel office began keeping such a list in November 2001. The list for Jackson County, in which Kansas City is located, is 37 pages long.

Contributing to this roundup were Tricia Hempel in Cincinnati, Ann Piasecki in Joliet, Helen Osman in Austin, Karen Gilman in Beaumont, Charles Mahon in Richmond and Al de Zutter in Kansas City.