Diocese Fingerprint Program Resisted
Workers, Volunteers Not Cleared by Dec. 1 Are out

By Guy Kovner
The Press Democrat [Santa Rosa CA]
October 18, 2003

The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese's move to fingerprint church employees and volunteers to weed out sex offenders is hitting resistance from some pastors, the diocese's new sexual abuse victims assistance coordinator said.

But any volunteers whose fingerprints have not been checked and cleared by the state Department of Justice and the FBI by Dec. 1 will be excluded from church programs.

That's the deadline imposed by Julie Sparacio, a former Southern California school counselor hired April 1 by Bishop Daniel Walsh to the coordinator's position, a job created as a result of the sex abuse policy adopted last year by U.S. bishops.

The policy, adopted under orders from the Vatican and pressure from the American public, required all dioceses to develop a system for responding to sex abuse victims' complaints and dealing with accused clergy.

It also created a national review board, which commissioned teams of auditors with law enforcement and accounting backgrounds to visit each of the nation's 195 dioceses and assess compliance with the policy. A two-member audit team was in Santa Rosa last week.

Diocese spokeswoman Deirdre Frontczak and Sparacio said the auditors found Santa Rosa "in compliance" with the policy. Priests and most other diocese employees have been fingerprinted and checked against state and federal databases for criminal history.

But some priests and church volunteers question why every volunteer must go through the process.

"Frankly, there's a little bit of resistance," Frontczak said.

Some pastors are "dragging their feet," Sparacio said, on fingerprinting the legion of volunteers -- many of them parents -- who serve as teachers, coaches, choir directors and in other parish roles.

Pastors in nine of the diocese's 43 parishes have not submitted a list of the volunteers to be fingerprinted, Sparacio said. Other lists are incomplete. Sparacio declined to name the pastors who have not provided a list, saying it would alienate them.

A lifelong Catholic, Sparacio said she is taking a hard line on recalcitrant priests and on arguments that Latino volunteers who are undocumented residents may quit their posts rather than be fingerprinted.

"We are putting a blanket over our children," Sparacio said. No one with a record of child abuse or other serious crime will be allowed access to children at Catholic churches, schools, sports leagues or other programs.

"I am the bad guy," Sparacio told 16 laypeople meeting Thursday night at the St. Rose Parish Center to hear from her.

Joan Panaro, a Resurrection Parish member who attended the meeting, said she was not surprised by the pastors' slow response. Traditionalist clergy are not accustomed to having laypeople give them orders, she said.

"I can see why they resist with all their might," Panaro said.

Frontczak said the bishop supports Sparacio's efforts. "We are not a corporation," Frontczak said. "He really is relying on the pastors' good will."

Sparacio said she is sympathetic to the concern that some parish Latino ministries may be dismantled by the mandatory fingerprinting. Undocumented residents fear the process could put them in jeopardy with immigration authorities, a possibility Sparacio said she cannot dispel.

But the issue has been discussed in other dioceses, and no exceptions will be made.

Though the misconduct in the Santa Rosa Diocese involved priests, Sparacio said the screening must cover everyone who has regular contact with Catholic children. In her 16 years as an elementary and high school counselor, Sparacio said she dealt with cases of sex abuse by family members.

Priests account for a fraction of the child sex abuse in the nation, she said. But Sparacio acknowledged that fingerprinting will not catch a molester who has no criminal record.

Also moving slowly are sex abuse prevention training programs for church employees and families throughout the 140,000-member Santa Rosa Diocese, which stretches from Petaluma to the Oregon border.

"We're a little behind the eight ball," Sparacio said. "We're getting there, but we're a little behind."

An abuse prevention training program for diocese employees and volunteers will start later this month and should be completed by Nov. 15. But a more extensive and "strongly recommended" education program for Catholic parents and children won't get started until December and won't spread throughout the diocese until spring.

The training programs are also stipulated by the bishops' policy.

Sparacio, who has reviewed the diocese's private files on victims of sex abuse by priests, also said she has found cases in which the diocese's response was incomplete and is recommending additional measures, including paying for more counseling.

"We've got to open the purse strings," Sparacio said.

Frontczak said the diocese will do what it can with limited resources. The diocese's funds for victim assistance are "fairly depleted," she said.

Sparacio said some local victims remain wounded and angry. "It breaks my heart that they have lost their faith altogether," she said.

Twelve Santa Rosa priests have been accused of sexual misconduct since 1994, and the diocese has acknowledged paying $7.4 million to settle victims' claims.

The diocese currently faces five sex abuse lawsuits alleging decades-old abuse by priests and cover-ups by church officials. Walsh and other California bishops last year warned parishioners that legal settlements could drain the church's resources for spiritual and social missions.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or


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