Background Checks Aim to Protect Kids:
More Churches Screen Flocks

By Doug Guthrie and Max Ortiz
The Detroit News [Detroit MI]
July 27, 2004

"We are a church that is struggling with our numbers, so offending people is something you never want to do, but this simply is something that must be done," says the Rev. Michael Nkachukwu, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Detroit.

Church security

Most churches now run background checks through criminal databases on anyone who volunteers for the church nursery or other tasks involving children. Some have video cameras. Some require identification before parents can pick up children they dropped off at Sunday school. How satisfied are you with security measures at your house of worship?

TROY — Dennis Nicholas figured most of the 6,000 regulars attending Sunday services at Kensington Community Church knew and trusted him.

As a member of the Troy church’s executive staff, a grandfather of six and a retired veteran of the Detroit Police Department, he never imagined someone would suggest he wasn’t to be trusted alone in the church nursery. But his clean record notwithstanding, he was subjected to a new practice being used to protect children: background checks.

“That stung a tad,” said Nicholas, 53. “I’ve been a parent. I spent my professional life trying to make people feel safe. But, the blow to the ego only lasted a minute. I feel pretty good about our system. Even I can’t break it.”

Churches everywhere have reacted to nationwide revelations of sexual abuse of children by implementing background screening and increased training for volunteers and workers — even if their direct contact with children may be minimal.

Many congregations forsake forgiveness by giving no second chances to anyone with a blemish on his or her record. Jo Kudela, Catholic chaplain at Macomb County Jail, explained there is a difference between religious forgiveness and real- world caution.

“Some of them, it’s hard for them to see that, but nowadays we all need to be more on our toes about everything,” Kudela said. “I don’t know that it is fair in every case, considering the circumstances, but we have to protect kids.”

Since 2002, more than 20 Metro Detroit priests have been investigated or removed for alleged sexual improprieties with children. While there have been relatively few publicly known incidents involving workers or volunteers, churches aren’t taking any chances.

Many churches do background checks on clergy.

But volunteering now means providing name, date of birth and Social Security number so a church can run a check, usually through an Internet criminal record repository maintained by the Michigan State Police.

At Kensington Community Church, parents are given identification tags with a number that matches the child they drop off at the Sunday service nursery. Halls, stairs and exits have video cameras. Two people stand watch on each floor during services.

Nicholas said an applicant for a custodial job was turned down recently when an alcohol- and drug-related conviction turned up.

“We want to go the extra distance to be safe,” he said, adding that all of Kensington’s 132 employees and 300 nursery volunteers, including Nicholas, have had their backgrounds checked.

Brad Nettles of Warren, who has three young children and volunteers at Kensington Community Church, says the checks are important.

“Whatever it takes to protect the kids — that’s the most important thing,” he said. “I’ve got three kids myself, so I know how important security is. They do a good job at Kensington: They have security checks at each entrance, and parents have to have an identification card in order to pick up the kids.” At St. Michael Lutheran Church in Canton, background checks have been made on volunteers for at least five years. Classrooms for preschoolers through fifth-graders have glass doors so passers-by can see inside. The tops of the nursery Dutch doors are kept open.

Office manager Bettiann Page said, contrary to popular belief, precautions weren’t mandated by the church’s liability insurance carrier.

“We’re not doing things because we are forced to. It’s because we want to keep our children safe,” she said. “We have never had an incident in 20 years, but we have insurance because we know it is possible.”

The size of the task for some organizations is daunting. The Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit estimates it undertook up to 30,000 background checks after an assembly of U.S. bishops made the commitment two years ago. The task in Detroit is expected to take until 2006.

The Detroit Metro YMCA included $22,000 in its annual budget for security checks and training of volunteers and workers at 17 branches and two summer camps.

State police report a steady increase in the use of their computerized criminal background check system that most nonprofit organizations access for free on the Internet. The same service, ICHAT (Internet Criminal History Access Tool), is available to everyone else for $10 per check.

The check takes minutes, but only includes convictions in Michigan. There is no indication of arrests or unsuccessful prosecution attempts or even criminal convictions out of state. Nationwide criminal checks can be performed for a price by private investigators.

The state police check “isn’t as complete as we’d like. I’d like to see more detail, but it’s not that often we get people from out of state,” said Pat Helmer of the Detroit Conference of the United Methodist Church. “Mostly, we have college students and church pastors.”

The organization checks the backgrounds of workers at its seven summer camps. The policy was adopted four years ago and remains a guideline for the conference’s 475 churches. Performing checks usually is left to individual churches while training and seminars on keeping children safe are often overseen by conferences and authorities.

The Archdiocese of Detroit estimates a third of up to 30,000 staff members and volunteers have been checked so far. Almost 6,000 have received training in 99 workshop sessions hosted by the diocese. And 33 sessions are planned this year.

“If all goes well, we should be able to complete training by June 2006,” said Ned McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese. That date would be a year ahead of the deadline imposed under agreements signed by the nation’s Catholic bishops almost two years ago.

The Rev. Michael Nkachukwu, pastor of Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Detroit, said, “It’s quite a hassle. We are a church that is struggling with our numbers, so offending people is something you never want to do, but this simply is something that must be done.”

The priest said the solution is trust and credibility, something that he laments has eroded with every accusation against a priest, minister or church-associated worker.

“What has been done is not cheap, and I am not talking about money,” Nkachukwu said. “At least it presents a good image of the church, that they are presenting an effort.”

You can reach Doug Guthrie at (313) 222-2359 or


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