Just to be sure, diocese is checking all volunteers everyone

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When the 17 lectors at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Shadyside learned they would have to undergo national criminal background checks to continue reading the Bible aloud at Mass, two quit.

Dr. Mark Stehlik, the lector coordinator, says he doesn't think the two were hiding anything. They simply resented the intrusion into their privacy and were hurt by the church's lack of trust, he says.

In 2004 Dr. Stehlik cheerfully submitted to a state background check in order to coach at the parish school. But now he wonders whether expanding the requirement to volunteers with little official interaction with minors is wise or even helpful in preventing child sexual abuse.

"For a community, meaning the Catholic community, that has been built up on the backs of willing parish volunteers, there had better be a really good, verifiable return to justify putting anything onerous in the way of that volunteerism. In my mind, that return is just not there," said Dr. Stehlik, 49, a father of two and a lector since eighth grade.

"We are paying a huge price for a very small likelihood of something actually happening."

The screening is a response to a national mandate adopted five years ago by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But to many volunteers it seems like a draconian response to the priest sex-abuse scandal.

The bishops' child-protection charter requires each diocese to do criminal background checks on church volunteers who have regular contact with children and to keep that information in a database.

Lawyers and insurance companies that work with non-Catholic churches have long recommended background checks. ChoicePoint, a leading industry provider, says that one in 18 of the 1.6 million screens it did for nonprofit organizations between 2002 and 2005 turned up undisclosed criminal convictions. Drunk driving and theft topped the list of convictions, while sex offenses ranked seventh. Among the latter were 506 registered sex offenders.

The diocese expects to screen up to 30,000 volunteers. So far, 11,325 have completed the application. The diocese will pay the $7 fee for a national criminal record check for applications submitted by July 31. Most parishes are paying the additional $10 for each child abuse history clearance, said Ron Ragan, director of the diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Young People

Some volunteers resent the time required to fill out the application, others worry about confidentiality, he said. To protect privacy, the database will not be stored at the diocese, but at Austin Computing Solutions in Texas, which has high-level security, he said.

Mr. Ragan said he recognized that longtime volunteers feel hurt by the request, but said predators are often beloved members of their community.

"We need to ensure that those adults who are acting in the name of the church and have regular contact with children have nothing in their background to suggest that they may be a threat to children," he said.

He acknowledged that many volunteer tasks are "gray areas" for contact with youth, but that diocesan officials decided to err on the side of safety.

If a child often sees someone reading the Bible from the front of the church, for example, it affects how they view that person in the social hall or on the playground, he said. "They are seen as people who are trusted in the eyes of the church, and therefore children are inclined to view them as someone who is trustworthy," he said.

A diocesan committee will decide whether those with questionable pasts should be rejected or restricted in their ministry, Mr. Ragan said.

Not just sex crimes

"We're not interested in minor traffic violations. But if you're talking about someone who has been convicted of driving under the influence, and they are involved in transporting youth in the parish, yes, of course we would need to take a serious look at that," he said.

Mr. Ragan cited an anonymous letter of gratitude that the diocese received from a victim of sexual abuse. But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests isn't backing the effort.

Barbara Blaine, SNAP's founder and president, would rather see church's focus put on holding bishops accountable for the predators they allowed to stay in ministry. "Rather than looking at the heart of the problem, they create these diversions," she said.

SNAP has heard from a few people molested by church volunteers, but says the number is nothing compared to the thousands who reported abuse by a priest, she said.

"If someone could point to 10,000 volunteers that have molested kids, then I would say that would make sense to use resources that way," she said.

Nationally, 1.6 million Catholic Church staff and volunteers have been screened, said Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.

Still, Dr. Stehlik asks if the money spent on screening lectors and ushers could be better used elsewhere. A professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, he also believes the diocese is too confident about the security of its database in Texas.

"It's precisely because I'm a computer scientist that I find this troubling. Despite our best efforts, these databases cannot be safeguarded," he said.

"The world is a dangerous place. We'd like to protect everybody from everything, but we can't.."

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, thinks Dr. Stehlik makes valid points, but says the Catholic Church has reason to go the extra mile.

He believes the church has done a good job of weeding predators from its clergy.

"Going forward it's likely that the patterns of misdeeds in the Catholic Church will probably parallel that of other youth-serving organizations. I do think that volunteers are a risk group," he said.

Screening no guarantee

But there is no data on whether screening protects children.

"Most of the people who abuse kids do not have records, so the vast majority of people are not going to be removed from the risk pool by those checks," he said.

He praised the church for also doing prevention training for staff, volunteers and children.

"My sense is that the Catholic Church, maybe because of its history, is doing a lot more of the comprehensive approach to prevention than a lot of other organizations do. A lot of organizations just do the background checks and think that keeps kids safe," he said.

Dr. Finkelhor, a Unitarian, agrees that checking lectors and others who don't work directly with youth "is going overboard." But he knows what he would say if he were a bishop responding to complaints about screening.

"I would say that I know this is an imposition, but we have to restore the good reputation of the church and the only way to do that is to show that we are bending over backward to protect kids. Maybe we are overdoing things here for a while, but it's important for the future of the church," he said.

Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law, served on the U.S. bishops' National Review Board, and said it was that lay group, not the bishops, who called for screening volunteers.

"When I was on the [review board], and we were insisting that the bishops adopt safe-environment programs, the question came up of who should be covered by this policy and there was no easy place to draw the line. We made the decision to include everybody," he said.

Church Mutual Insurance, the nation's largest insurer of places of worship, with 96,000 congregations, urges criminal background checks for volunteers. A video it produced on the topic says that 50 percent of sexual misconduct cases in places of worship involve volunteers.

ChoicePoint's Web site has letters from non-profit organizations that have used their background check services. Most are from churches. An unidentified church in Indianapolis wrote that it had "discovered child molestation charges for a volunteer who had applied to work around children."

The Valley Program for Aging Services in Waynesboro, Va., discovered that a longtime volunteer who was the leading candidate to become director of a center had a five-page rap sheet, including a conviction for theft from an 80-year-old in her care.

Richard Hammar, general counsel of the Assemblies of God and a national expert on church-related legal issues, also urges background screening. So far, its not about protection from lawsuits, but about protecting children, he said.

"No court has found a church liable for the molestation of a minor on the ground that it failed to conduct a criminal records check on the offender," he said.

However, screening is becoming common among other organizations that serve youth, which means that the "community standard" by which a court may determine negligence is rising, he said. He considers it only a matter of time before a court finds a church negligent for failure to screen.

His best guess is that 10 to 20 percent of churches now do some type of criminal record check.

If volunteers feel hurt that they aren't trusted, he said, "my response is to reply with Ronald Reagan's theory of negotiating with the Soviets: Trust, but verify."

Of the two lectors who dropped out at Sacred Heart, one believed the church was giving in to a culture of "security paranoia," Dr. Stehlik said. The other, a 22-year volunteer, appeared to object to "a presumption of guilt" and declared himself "on leave until the situation improves."

Dr. Stehlik has submitted his application for screening.

"Despite all of my reservations, I care more about my church than I do about the invasion of my privacy," he said.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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