Diocese Gives Precedence to Background Checks

By Paul Storer
Catholic Explorer
November 19, 2007

ROMEOVILLE—A potential predator will "think twice" before attempting to gain a paid or volunteer position that calls for him or her to work with children at parishes in the Diocese of Joliet, said Franciscan Sister Judith Davies, chancellor of the diocese, speaking about background checks that are mandatory for staff and volunteers who deal with youngsters in church or school settings.

"They are good deterrents," the church leader, who serves as safe environment program coordinator for the diocese, told the Catholic Explorer Nov. 8.

Article 13 of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People states: "Dioceses/eparchies are to evaluate the background of all incardinated and non-incardinated priests and deacons who are engaged in ecclesiastical ministry in the diocese/eparchy and of all diocesan/eparchial and parish/school or other paid personnel and volunteers whose duties include ongoing, unsupervised contact with minors. Specifically, they are to utilize the resources of law enforcement and other community agencies. In addition, they are to employ adequate screening and evaluative techniques in deciding the fitness of candidates for ordination."

Sister Davies was quick to point out that background checks aren't perfect when it comes to screening possible perpetrators. These procedures are, however, a step in the right direction in the diocese's ongoing commitment to keeping young people safe from those who might abuse them, she said.

Any new school employee, including administrators, teachers, coaches and maintenance workers, is required to be fingerprinted as part of the background check, said Sister Davies. Their fingerprints are submitted to the Illinois State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for clearance. The procedure works to keep children safe from potential abusers and gives law enforcement professionals the ability to let schools know immediately if an employee has broken the law while still associated with the school, the chancellor explained.

New parish staff and volunteers who are expected to work with children are required to submit themselves to smaller scale background checks, according to Sister Davies. The Joliet Diocese has authorized the use of three background check organizations, Premier InfoSource, Illinois State Police and Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking System and ChoicePoint. Checks include Social Security number, sex offender and criminal file searches. Costs are typically covered by the parish. Persons who refuse background checks may not work with children at parishes or Catholic schools in the diocese, she added. An independent auditing firm commissioned by the USCCB inspects the diocese annually to confirm that it is in compliance with the charter, said Sister Davies. Deans of the six deaneries across the seven-county Joliet Diocese are also responsible for making periodic visits to the parishes in their regions to look into onsite safe environment programs, make recommendations and report back to diocesan officials, she said.

Since the U.S. bishops drafted the first version of the charter in 2002, the Catholic Church has "taken tremendous steps," said Sister Davies. The public outcry worked to spur the church into considerable action to keep young people safe, she added.

According to Michael Merz, chair of the National Review Board, more than 1 million background checks of potential Catholic school employees and parish volunteers expected to work with children have been performed since the USCCB adopted its child protection policies in 2002. The review board oversees the U.S. bishops' compliance with the guidelines of the charter.

In a telephone conversation with the Explorer, the Ohio judge said background checks are crucial to help ensure that individuals "don't slip through the cracks." The checks "broaden the protection" of children, added the member of St. Helen Parish in Dayton.

Speaking about the impact of background checks and other precautions enacted in the last several years in dioceses across the country, Merz noted, "The number of new complaints is down."

Safe environment programs at parishes work to educate children and parents about the techniques abusers use to enable them to victimize youngsters, said Father William Donnelly, pastor of St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Hinsdale. "They're clever and manipulative," the priest said, describing those who prey on young people.

Background checks and other safety measures are components of overall initiatives to safeguard children in parish settings, said Father Donnelly. While there are several procedures involved in the general process, the pastor said, "It's just a matter of scheduling." He added, "Most people are understanding."


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