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States Begin to Use Church Abuse Lists as Part of License Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 2/18/2020

More and more states are screening names against lists of accused Catholic church abusers when licensing prospective teachers, social workers, and other professionals who work with children. According to a recent report from the Associated Press, at least 20 states are now using church-related abuse lists as part of the licensing process for jobs in education, foster care, and therapy.

These church background checks affect former members of the Catholic clergy who may not have been officially convicted of criminal activity but have “faced credible allegations” of abuse within the church.

The trend stems from the well-known (and long-running) Catholic church sex abuse scandal and a 2019 Associated Press investigation which identified possible safety issues in how accused members of the clergy were permitted to move on to other job opportunities after leaving the Catholic church. In that investigation, AP found that some 200 Catholic priests and employees who had faced abuse allegations in the past became licensed teachers, social workers, or mental health professionals.

Many of those licenses were still valid at the time of the article’s publishing, enabling the ex-clergy members to work closely with children. The investigation prompted many states to revamp their strategies for church background checks at the state licensing level to spot Catholic church abusers.

Over the years, more than 170 Catholic dioceses have publicly shared lists of priests and other employees who have faced credible accusations of sexual abuse. Those allegations have ranged from possession of child pornography to molestation and rape. In total, the lists include 5,300 members of the clergy—about 2,000 of them are alive.

Most of these allegations were never reported to law enforcement agencies or criminally investigated, which means that they are primarily not reflected on criminal history databases or sex offender registries. The fact that the average criminal background check would not spot these allegations explains why many ex-priests accused of child sexual abuse have successfully earned licenses that allow them to work with kids.

States including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are incorporating these clergy lists into their licensing investigations and, in certain situations, revoking credentials from licensed individuals whose names appear on these church background checks. Some states are reviewing the lists and accusations against ex-clergy to determine whether to add their names to child protection registries.

The challenge is that the 170-plus lists are bound by state: there is not a central, searchable database that compiles names and accusations from each list into a single source. That development could come in the future, but for now, searching the lists for name matches is a time-consuming process. In addition, there is controversy about what to do with future allegation within the church because the lists aren’t updated regularly.

The Associated Press article notes that Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is advocating for churches to improve their methods for reporting abuse allegations to law enforcement agencies rather than expelling priests or letting them walk away. SNAP has been making that push for almost 20 years with little progress.

The situation underlines the importance of church background checks. To avoid issues with abuse, religious organizations should be extremely diligent about vetting prospective hires with church background checks. At backgroundchecks.com, we regularly work with religious employers to help them design comprehensive church background checks for new employees and volunteers.

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