Diocese to Require Background Checks; Policy to Affect Staff, Volunteers Who Work with Kids

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
August 13, 1997

The Catholic Diocese of Dallas has changed course and decided to require criminal background checks of staff and volunteers who work with children.

The new policy, which is still being formulated, comes after a Dallas Morning News story on a convicted child molester who supervised altar boys at St. Bernard of Clairvaux last year.

A top diocese official interviewed for that story said there were no plans to require background checks in all parishes. Such screening is expensive and offers no guarantees, Vicar General Glenn "Duffy" Gardner said.

This week, however, another high-ranking church leader said that checks would be implemented.

"More people realize its significance," said Monsignor John Bell, the diocese's chancellor and judicial vicar. "It's becoming more self-evident, the need for it."

The screening will begin with staff members at diocese headquarters in Oak Lawn, he said. Church officials haven't decided how far-reaching the checks will be.

Monsignor Gardner did not return calls Monday and Tuesday.

Mike Daniel, the St. Bernard parishioner who discovered the altar-boy supervisor's conviction, hailed the planned change.

News coverage of volunteer Dennis Jost "moved an institution that's made inflexibility a virtue for 2,000 years," he said.

St. Bernard, in Dallas' White Rock area, began performing criminal background checks after Mr. Jost was dismissed during 1996 Easter celebrations.

"We learned our lesson," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Gus Melito.

At least one other parish, Plano's St. Elizabeth Ann Seton - which has 17,000 members and is growing fast - runs criminal background checks on staff and volunteers. And the Catholic school system requires it of full-time staff.

St. Elizabeth started its checks two years ago, hoping to stop trouble before it started, said business manager Terry Wooliscroft.

He said he had been consulted recently as the diocese began devising its program.

"I will do everything in my power to see that our program is made available to all of the churches in the Dallas Diocese as well as churches of all denominations," Mr. Wooliscroft wrote in an open letter to the St. Elizabeth community this month.

He also cited The Morning News' article on Mr. Jost: "If we still have any people doubting whether or not it is necessary to screen volunteers, then perhaps the article . . . put that to rest once and for all."

Mr. Jost has admitted molesting boys as far back as 1977, when he took a 12-year-old home from a Catholic church in Southern California and got him drunk. He pleaded no contest in that case, which was dismissed after he completed probation.

A California priest then allowed him to keep working with altar boys until 1991, when an allegation of more sexual abuse led to a federal prosecution. Mr. Jost was sentenced in 1993 to six months' confinement and 21/2 years' probation for transporting a child across state lines for sex.

While completing probation in Dallas, and under orders not to associate with youth, he began working with altar boys at St. Bernard.

In Plano, St. Elizabeth has screened more than 1,200 people since August 1995. Mr. Wooliscroft would not say how many have been disqualified because of records for child abuse, sex crimes, violence or drug offenses.

He did say that the number of people disqualified or scared off by the checks had not cut significantly into the parish's volunteer ranks.

The church hired a part-time staffer from outside the parish, Jerry Waynant, to coordinate its program. He, in turn, hands over prospective volunteers' applications, references and fingerprints to a private investigation firm. The prints are sent on for study at the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Mr. Wooliscroft stressed that criminal background checks are only one part of a larger risk-reduction strategy.

Other elements include self-protection training for children in religious-education classes, a code of conduct for staff and volunteers and a requirement that two or more approved adults be present at all scheduled church events.

The program also has a requirement that volunteers be registered members of the parish for at least six months before being allowed to serve. Mr. Jost apparently began working with altar boys at St. Bernard shortly after beginning to worship there, Mr. Daniel said.

Mr. Wooliscroft said he wasn't sure whether his church's system of checks would have caught Mr. Jost. It doesn't provide for nationwide fingerprint checks but does include reference checks with previous churches.

The St. Elizabeth system also flags people who have registered as sex offenders with police in the nine-county diocese - something Mr. Jost has done in Dallas.

The checks cost $ 15 to $ 35 per volunteer, said Mr. Wooliscroft.

He acknowledged that the expense might be prohibitive for some churches and said that the diocese might want to consider a centralized program to spread the cost around.

Also, less comprehensive checks can be done more cheaply, he noted. "Some program," Mr. Wooliscroft said, "is better than no program at all."

What St. Elizabeth has pioneered, he added, emerged independently of the diocese's civil trial on allegations of covering up years of molestation by the Rev. Rudolph "Rudy" Kos.

The diocese and Mr. Kos were hit with a $ 119.6 million sexual abuse judgment. The diocese says it plans to appeal.

"I hope the victims and their families know there is a church that was doing something" to prevent abuse, Mr. Wooliscroft said.

"Maybe now a church in the very diocese where it happened can help with the healing."

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