To Volunteer at Church, First Be Fingerprinted

By Daniel J. Wakin
The New York Times [Madison NJ]
December 2, 2003

MADISON, N.J., Nov. 30 Theresa Mulvoy keeps track of sheet music, takes attendance and gives a vocal boost as a volunteer for the children's choir at St. Vincent Martyr Church here.

Soon she will also give her fingerprints.

Mrs. Mulvoy is one of thousands of volunteers and members of the staff and clergy in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson who are expected to undergo criminal background checks in the coming months. The scrutiny is part of efforts by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to repair the damage from the clerical sexual abuse scandal and to reassure members that children are safe in the hands of the church.

Dioceses around the country are at various stages of investigating their volunteers and employees, and many have been doing so to some degree for years. But the efforts have grown more focused as auditors hired by the bishop's conference are due to report in January on compliance with new church guidelines.

Here in Madison, the prospect has stirred complicated emotions, particularly among parents angered by the revelations of the abuse of children by priests across the country in recent decades.

For them, it is hard to object to measures intended to protect children and repair the church they love. But it is also hard to square the fingerprinting of parents with the fact that it was priests, not volunteers, who were the focus of the abuse scandal. And in some cases, it will lead volunteers to decide between protecting their privacy and serving their church.

Mrs. Mulvoy said she and most parishioners she has talked to would acquiesce to the fingerprinting. "But we sort of feel we're not the ones who had the problem," she said.

"We're sort of feeling, `Hey, you know what, you're the guys with the problem,' " she continued, referring to church officials.

When they adopted the guidelines, called the Charter for the Protection of Children, in June 2002, the bishops threw in a less-noticed requirement for dioceses to "evaluate the background" of parish personnel who have "regular contact" with minors. Local church officials generally interpreted the guideline to apply also to volunteers like music directors, basketball coaches and parochial-school class mothers.

In the Diocese of Paterson, which includes St. Vincent Martyr, all priests are to be fingerprinted by Dec. 8, said the diocese spokeswoman, Marianna Thompson. While the diocese required fingerprints for new church workers starting in 2001, compliance was lax, she said. All volunteers and staff members will now be scrutinized. The bishop of Paterson, Frank J. Rodimer, was printed in mid-November.

"It is for the shepherds to lead the way," Ms. Thompson said.

Faced with skepticism and the need to show action, dioceses are trying to convince people that the scrutiny is necessary.

"One-tenth of 1 percent of all abuse is carried out by Catholic priests in this country," Ms. Thompson said. "If we are searching out only that abuse, we are not protecting your children."

She argued that background scrutiny would not detract from the church's spirit. "This is what's called for by the times we live in," she said. "I think it will actually help to restore trust in Catholic settings."

In practice, the way the checks are conducted varies.

All the New Jersey dioceses but Newark require fingerprints for clergy members, and for staff members and volunteers who work with children. The prints are checked against records of the state police and, in some cases, the F.B.I. Grounds for dismissal extend to felony convictions involving sex crimes, drugs, violence, theft or weapons. Some dioceses examine arrest records, too.

New York State law forbids fingerprinting as a condition of employment, except for certain categories of workers, so the Archdiocese of New York has contracted with ChoicePoint Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., a background-check company handling a number of dioceses, to run an individual through its databases of conviction, prison and sex offender records.

Fewer than half the nation's dioceses are using fingerprints for background checks, said Kathleen McChesney, director of the Office of Child Protection of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the method was best because it guaranteed that an individual was vetted, not just a name.

Dioceses opting out of fingerprinting, like Newark and Bridgeport, Conn., say the high cost is a reason.

At St. Vincent Martyr, staff members will pay for their own checks, while the parish will pay for each volunteer. The cost is expected to be $72 a person.

Msgr. Christopher C. Di Lella, the pastor, went to the Madison police station two weeks ago to record his prints. "Just the feeling that you had to do this was kind of I don't want to say the word degrading, because that's not it but sad but necessary," he said. "It's just something never in my priesthood I thought I would do."

Monsignor Di Lella, a bit reluctantly perhaps, said he embraced the fingerprinting policy. "We understand what bishops are saying and why they're doing it," he said.

But at the same time, he added, "It depletes the spirit of what ministry is all about."

St. Vincent Martyr Parish, affluent and close-knit, has 2,000 families, a flourishing elementary school and a full slate of after-school programs and ministries. Monsignor Di Lella predicts that 200 to 300 parish and school volunteers will have to be fingerprinted.

"I think it's worth it," said Robert Kautzmann of Chatham, a member of the parish who runs its peewee basketball program. With 24 teams and three coaches per team, that is a lot of background checks. "I would want to know if I've got a pedophile coaching my son," he said. But he said he saw the possibility of some coaches' dropping out because they felt the checks would be an invasion of privacy.

Robert Bearden, a former coach in the league, wondered if a cloud of suspicion would gather over the head of a church member who, for purely innocent reasons, suddenly stopped volunteering.

"If there is any message they are sending me," he said of the bishops, "it is, `We in the church did some pretty stupid stuff and we're reacting to this by saying you volunteers have to pay for sins we committed.' "


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