School Choice & Charters

Bishops Require Background Checks for Priests in Catholic Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 10, 2002 3 min read
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Local policies on screening personnel for past convictions for sexual abuse could change at some Roman Catholic schools as a result of the Catholic bishops’ recent approval of a new policy to curtail the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted June 14 in Dallas by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that from now on, Roman Catholic dioceses will use resources of law enforcement and other community agencies to evaluate the background of parish personnel who have regular contact with minors.

The biggest change for schools to be brought on by the charter, said Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, the secretary for education for the bishops’ conference, based in Washington, is that priests who become involved in Catholic schools in any way will now receive criminal-background checks. Previously, they generally did not.

Priests and religious brothers make up only 1.4 percent of the faculty members in Catholic schools, or 2,187 out of 155,658, according to the most recent figures from the National Catholic Educational Association.

When asked whether the bishops’ charter would now require all lay teachers and administrators to receive criminal-background checks, Sister McPhee said she believed that all Catholic schools already had such policies in place.

But the practice of conducting criminal-background checks of employees in Catholic schools shows some variation between dioceses and may depend on state requirements. For example, Maryland requires both private and public schools to conduct criminal-background checks on school personnel, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. New York state requires only public schools to do so.

State Requirements

The Archdiocese of New York, which includes the boroughs of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, plus seven counties, has for a long time asked its schools to thoroughly check employment references, but has not required them to conduct criminal-background checks. Joseph Zwilling, an archdiocesan spokesman, said the archdiocese hadn’t yet determined if the current policy would change under the bishops’ charter.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, on the other hand, in accordance with Maryland state law, conducts criminal-background checks for all employees of its schools.

In addition, for the past five years, the Baltimore Archdiocese has conducted criminal- background checks of anyone entering a Catholic seminary.

Currently, 38 states and the District of Columbia require teachers to undergo criminal- background checks before either being certified or employed in public schools, according to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification in Mashpee, Mass. A 2000 publication of the office of nonpublic education of the U.S. Department of Education says that 11 states require private schools to conduct criminal-background checks, upon hiring, for employees.

Meanwhile, it is not yet clear whether priests who serve in the roughly 10 percent of Catholic schools in the United States that are run by religious orders, such as the Jesuits and the Dominicans, will be affected by the same policies that have been spelled out in the bishops’ charter.. Religious orders will discuss the matter at an August meeting in Philadelphia, according to a spokeswoman for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Silver Spring, Md.

The policy adopted by the bishops’ conference last month says that any priest known to have ever sexually abused a minor “will be permanently removed from ministry,” and that dioceses will report allegations of such abuse to the public authorities.

The bishops acted in response to a succession of revelations about priests who were allowed to continue working in church ministries after sexually abusing children and youths. (“Catholic Church’s Priest Abuse Crisis Tests School Policies, Educators’ Faith,” April 3, 2002.)

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bishops Require Background Checks for Priests in Catholic Schools

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