Diocese Performs Criminal Checks

By Jonathan Tamari
Gannett New Jersey [New Jersey]
Downloaded November 17, 2003

PISCATAWAY -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen has begun criminal background checks on all its priests and deacons and soon will extend the checks to every diocesan volunteer or employee who works with children.

As part of an effort to fight sexual abuse, fingerprinting began last week when diocesan employees, including Bishop Paul Bootkoski, submitted their prints to the state police to check for any criminal history.

When the process is completed throughout the diocese, Monsignor William Benwell expects more than 10,000 people will be checked.

The Diocese of Metuchen serves more than 500,000 Catholics in Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties.

Bootkoski sent a letter to the diocese's priests last week informing them of the policy.

"Let people look back and see that we here in this local church did all that was humanly possible to guard against and eradicate crimes against our children," Bootkoski wrote.

The checks are part of a national policy adopted last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but a victims' advocacy group praised the Diocese of Metuchen for being a leader in acting on the new rules.

"Bishop Bootkoski of Metuchen is one of the very few bishops in the country that prioritizes implementing the Dallas Charter (mandating background checks) in his diocese," said Ben "Buddy" Cotton, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I wish more bishops would" do the same.

But Cotton said background checks will catch only abusers whose crimes have been reported and prosecuted. He called for the church to open all files on accusations of pedophilia in order to find anyone who may have a history of abuse that did not get reported to police. Bootkoski, Cotton said, already has done so.

In the Diocese of Metuchen, five priests have been recently removed from the ministry because of abuse charges.

The finger printing and background checks will be performed by police, who will either "recommend" or "not recommend" the person for contact with children, Benwell said.

If the person is not recommended and wants to continue as a volunteer or employee, the diocese will examine the person's criminal history and make individual decisions about the person's future.

"There are some actions (such as sexual assault, kidnapping or child abuse) we will not tolerate," Benwell said.

Some less serious offenses, however, may allow for the person to stay on, he said.

The background checks cost $46 for volunteers and $55 for employees. The diocese is paying for checks on its more than 400 priests and deacons, but individual parishes will have to pay for their own employees and volunteers.

Those who must submit to a check include any diocesan school employee, all priests, seminarians and deacons and anyone with direct contact with a minor more than once or who has contact with a minor on an overnight activity.

The list includes directors of youth ministry programs, summer camp personnel and maintenance staff. Vendors hired by the diocese who have contact with children also must be checked.

Once the existing employees and volunteers are checked, all new workers will be checked as they begin work in the diocese, Benwell said.

from the Courier News website

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