Archdiocese Workers to Get Background Checks
All Paid, Volunteer Staffers Will Be Investigated; Teachers' Union Hasn't Yet OK'd Plan

By Leslie Palma-Simoncek
Staten Island Advance [New York]
October 30, 2003

In response to the sex abuse crisis that rocked the Roman Catholic Church last year, the Archdiocese of New York plans to begin mandatory background checks next month on all paid and volunteer staffers who work with children.

ChoicePoint, a Georgia-based company, has been contracted to perform checks on thousands of parish employees, youth ministers, Catholic school teachers, religious education instructors, custodians, coaches and anyone else who has contact with children.

But the union that represents 3,600 Catholic school teachers throughout the archdiocese has not yet agreed to the plan.

"That's something that was not part of our contractual agreement," said Mary-Ann Perry, president of the Staten Island Federation of Catholic Teachers. "We have not yet agreed to it; we'll be meeting over it."

An informational meeting is set for next week. Ms. Perry said the union will seek reassurances that "people's privacy is absolutely protected."

Background screenings of bishops, priests and deacons already are under way, according to a letter from Cardinal Edward Egan distributed to parishes over the last two weeks. Checks of priests, brothers and sisters in religious communities are expected to begin soon.

The plan was called for in the "Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children & Young People," which was approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 2002 and by the Vatican last December.

"All of these screenings are intended only to make known criminal records about which we need to be informed in order to determine whether there should be contact with minors," Cardinal Egan said in his letter. The background checks will not delve into credit histories or financial records.


All parish and school workers "must participate in these screenings or discontinue their involvement with children and young people in the church," the cardinal wrote.

Paid and volunteer staff in the targeted positions must first sign an authorization to allow ChoicePoint to perform the checks.

"It's a large undertaking," said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese.

The 10-county archdiocese has 413 parishes and 287 schools, as well as numerous sports programs, youth groups and religious education programs for public school children.

Zwilling declined to disclose how much the archdiocese will pay ChoicePoint.

"Cost is not important," he said. "It's doing the right thing."

Baxter Gillespie, assistant vice president in the Workplace Solutions Group for ChoicePoint, said among the searches the company could perform for the archdiocese are criminal background checks, sexual offender searches and proprietary checks that search 88 million computer-based records of felony convictions.

"If ChoicePoint returns any information that is derogatory, the individual has to be provided a copy of the report and must have a chance to dispute the information," Gillespie said.

The company has been hired to perform background checks by a number of Catholic dioceses and churches of other denominations across the country, he noted.


Anthony Navarino, county director of the Catholic Youth Organization, called the searches "a good safeguard for the kids."

Navarino doesn't anticipate any objections from his 1,200 volunteer coaches, nor does he expect the searches to turn up any surprising information. The plan also has value as a deterrent, he said.

"If any nuts out there had any ideas," he said, "it's a good safeguard to keep them away."

While the cardinal said he can understand feelings of surprise or hesitancy among people who suddenly find themselves under a microscope, "comprehensive screening is an essential part of our national and archdiocesan commitment to provide the safest possible environment for our children and youth."

Additionally, a "Code of Conduct for Employees and Volunteers" is being developed and the Archdiocesan Priests' Council already has approved a similar "Code of Conduct for Clergy." The cardinal said the two codes would be published together once he has approved them.

The archdiocese is also finalizing a contract with a firm that will provide training to employees and volunteers to help them learn to avoid, detect and report sexual misconduct.

"A series of regional workshops for clergy, administrators and all who work with children and young people will be held throughout the archdiocese in the coming year, to be attended by all," Cardinal Egan said in his letter.

The effort is "probably long overdue," said Barbara Bortle-Gainey, president of the Staten Island Federation of Catholic School Parents.

"Anybody who works with children should have background checks," said the Grymes Hill resident. "Children cannot protect themselves."

Leslie Palma-Simoncek is the religious editor for the Advance.


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