Church to Check Backgrounds
It Plans to Investigate Coaches, Tutors, Helpers

By Patricia Montemurri
Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
March 13, 2003

Soon, being a parent won't get you an automatic pass into your kid's Catholic school as a volunteer coach, playground monitor or teacher's helper.

If you want to contribute as a Sunday school leader, reading tutor or PTA president, you'll need to undergo a State Police criminal background check and put in an hour learning how to spot the signs of sexual abuse.

It's part of the Catholic Church's response to the scandal over abusive priests that has shaken Catholics' faith in their leaders and institutions. The checks and training will affect volunteers in every Catholic facility in every U.S. diocese.

The Archdiocese of Detroit expects to roll out a plan this spring. It means thousands of volunteers at 300-plus parishes will need to submit Social Security numbers and identification to be cleared.

Volunteers and employees who spend time with children without another adult supervising will need clearance. Both public and private schools already are required by law to fingerprint teachers and administrators.

The policy shouldn't affect parents who go on field trips once or twice a year or help with a classroom holiday party, or people who pitch in for the annual church carnival. The background checks won't extend to choir members or eucharistic ministers who distribute communion.

"It's the relationship to children that triggers the check," Cathy Wagner, the archdiocese's Department of Parish Life director, said this week. "Being a parent is not a pass for you."

Archdiocese of Detroit officials said they will red-flag volunteers with histories of assaults or sexual misconduct.

One Macomb County pastor is a step ahead.

The Rev. Michael Cooney of St. Peter Church in Mt. Clemens spent $10,000 on State Police and FBI fingerprint checks of staff and volunteers.

The archdiocese's tentative plans don't require fingerprinting volunteers, but Cooney said he wanted the more expensiveFBI checks because they can reveal convictions from other states.

Cooney said 191 of 192 people agreed to be checked.

"And the one no longer works here as a volunteer," Cooney said. That person opted out because of privacy concerns, Cooney said.

"I told them, if you're not going to be part of this program, you will no longer be an employee or allowed to be a volunteer with kids," said Cooney, whose parish oversees St. Mary Elementary School.

The U.S. Bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection last week urged that so-called "Safe Environment" programs be ready for the 2003-04 school year.

In the past 15 months, hundreds of priests have been removed from ministry nationally because of abuse allegations. Few had any previous run-ins with the law. Most of the alleged crimes never were prosecuted because bishops didn't notify police and shuffled offending clergy from parish to parish. Even priests convicted of abuse were allowed to resume some limited ministry.

The Detroit archdiocese's new vigilance will have benefits beyond parish boundaries, officials said. Volunteers will attend training, with follow-up available through the Internet.

"While you might be a church volunteer, you might also be a soccer mom who will know what to look for in another setting," said archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath.

The Michigan State Police conducts criminal history background name checks for free for nonprofit institutions, and Catholic churches could qualify, said Tim Bolles, the state police's manager of criminal history.

The State Police system lists only Michigan convictions for felonies and misdemeanors, and doesn't record arrests or charges. National church guidelines suggest that employees and volunteers be asked if they've "even been accused of or investigated for an act of abuse or harassment."

Ron McGuire, the Detroit archdiocese's human resources director, said the church is determining which run-ins with the law will trigger an exclusion.

"I guess we're going to have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," McGuire said. A 20-year-old shoplifting conviction may not disqualify a parent from being a volunteer. "But anyone who's convicted of child abuse or child molestation, there's no way they'll be allowed in," McGuire said.

Drunken-driving convictions would prevent volunteers from doing work involving driving, McGuire said. Parents convicted of drug offenses will get added scrutiny. McGuire said one conviction for marijuana possession may be overlooked, but serious drug offenses would not.

Anne Cornillie of Troy, who volunteers at Holy Name Catholic School in Birmingham where her two daughters are students, applauded the plan.

"I think it's a great idea, especially if there's some training involved," she said. "But I think you'll see some percentage of volunteers who are turned off."

Ann Love, a past president of the Divine Child Elementary School Parents Guild in Dearborn, said she will welcome the checks.

"I have nothing to hide," she said.

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