Everybody is in favor of protecting youths from sexual predators, including religious organizations that in recent years have intensified requirements for criminal background checks for clergy, youth leaders and summer camp counselors.
But many people are unaware that the same rules increasingly are being applied to parents and other volunteers who work with children and teenagers in churches, synagogues and mosques. That includes volunteers in church-run schools and chaperones for skiing or camping trips and other extended outings.
"All paid and non-paid staff and volunteers that work with children at Metropolitan are required to complete the Children Abuse Prevention and Intervention training and to have a criminal background check," said a May 19 memo to parents at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest Washington who had volunteered to accompany the youth choir to Walt Disney World but had not completed the training and clearance process.
"Given the time constraints, we are not requiring you to complete the training but we are requiring . . . a criminal background check," wrote the Rev. Sherrill McMillan, minister of counseling and family services. "This is not a credit check."
Only after being assured that none of the potential chaperones had been arrested or convicted of any sex crime did the church allow them to go on last month's trip.
If you're a church volunteerwho has not been asked to submit to a criminal background check, it probably won't be long before you will be required to do so, said the Rev. David C. Parachini, an Episcopal priest and convener of the Nathan Network. The two-year-old organization, based in Windsor, Conn., was founded to prevent child abuse in the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church.
Parachini said criminal background checks are increasingly common in the religious community, "which quite honestly has not paid enough attention" to the issue compared to secular groups such as the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts.
"Absent that kind of screening procedure, you're hanging out a sign notifying pedophiles and ephebophiles, 'Here's open season on your victim group,' " Parachini said, referring to adults who lust after pre- or post-pubescent youth. In the past, people assumed "if it's church, everybody's motives are honorable and there's no need to worry. In an ideal world, that would be true. But it's not an ideal world."
Procedures vary from public records searches to police and FBI checks. Congregations with large staffs often conduct their own Internet searches of arrests, using forms filled out by applicants, while others hire agencies that do background checks, Parachini said.
Fingerprinting, also increasingly common, offers another level of search that guards against applicants using aliases. Typically, applicants go to their local police station to be fingerprinted, and many police departments will run the checks for little or no charge, Parachini said.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has required fingerprinting of volunteers since 1999, according to spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. To ensure compliance, the archdiocese recently purchased an electronic fingerprinting machine and requires each volunteer to come to a central location to receive a "live scan" that is forwarded to law enforcement agencies.
"Most people have participated in this process readily, which really doesn't take that much time considering children's safety is at sake," Gibbs said. A few parents have complained, but "the fact that our background checks have prevented five sex offenders from volunteering or working with children in our care shows the importance of doing all this."
The Rev. Richard McFail, stated clerk of the National Capital Presbytery, said the regional office of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) requires criminal background checks for clergy but does not have the authority to do so for staff members and volunteers -- that is up to individual congregations to decide. About one-fourth of the 112 churches have adopted child protection policies, some of which include criminal background checks for staff and volunteers.
In most cases, anyone who works with children must have "been involved and known in the congregation" at least six months and complete a training course before assuming such a role, McFail said. Two adults are required in every classroom -- or one adult with an open or glass door.
But recent allegations of abuse of children by lay members in the presbytery suggest that such safeguards may be inadequate, McFail said, and more churches are considering criminal background checks for all paid and unpaid workers.
One place where background checks for staff are required is Camp Glenkirk, a summer camp near Gainesville that is owned and operated by the presbytery. Because adults are with children 24 hours a day there, criminal background checks have been required for the camp's staff since the mid-1990s, director Cheryl Hartman said.
Local applicants for camp counselor submit their names, birth dates, Social Security numbers and five most recent addresses -- all of which is sent to National Background Investigations Inc., a private company in Stevensville, Md. Foreign applicants, whose numbers have increased in recent years, must bring a certified statement clearing them of convictions in their home country.
Ingrid Botes, a 22-year-old counselor from Pretoria, South Africa, said she applied for a Camp Glenkirk job through an international employment agency. As part of the screening process, she had to register with a police bureau near her home and fax the results to the employment agency.
"It's logical [to have a background check], especially when you're working in another country," said Botes, who plans a career in Web design and computer animation. "If I were a parent I would like to have that peace of mind, whether it's for a day in day care or a week."
Background checks are "a very necessary thing when you're working at a camp with children," agreed Ben Bear, 20, a counselor from Nokesville.
"You have to take it real seriously because it's somebody's kid entrusted to you for the entire week," said Bear, a member of the Church of the Brethren and a voice and bassoon major at West Liberty State College in West Virginia. Each group of weekly campers is not only his responsibility but also his "temporary family," he said.
Many denominations and individual churches began addressing the child protection issue long before the clergy sex abuse scandal in the 66 million-member Roman Catholic Church broke in 2002, said Parachini, whose Nathan Network grew out of an earlier committee to prevent sexual exploitation of adults and youth by clergy. But the unfolding revelations about the extent of abuse "raised the visibility and urgency," he said.
The growing number of sexual abuse lawsuits against nonprofit organizations has contributed to the sense of urgency, accompanied by increased liability insurance premiums and, in some cases, threats by by insurance companies to drop churches with inadequate child protection policies.
"People are scared and they ought to be scared," Parachini said. "This is a growth industry as far as trial lawyers are concerned."
The legal term for improved oversight is "tightening the standards of due diligence," which applies equally to paid staff and volunteers, Parachini said. That's why an increasing number of religious organizations are reexamining child protection policies or writing new ones that require everyone who works with children to have criminal background checks and to receive training in child abuse prevention.
The training course mentioned in Metropolitan Baptist's memo is one of several nationally recognized programs for teaching those who work with youths about appropriate behaviors and how to recognize signs of abuse.
Expediency sometimes prevents the preferred training course from being completed, as was the case with the youth choir trip to Disney World. And for parents who are willing to take vacation time for a five-day trip and spend hundreds of dollars to chaperone, getting a notice of the required criminal background check can be jarring.
Some youth choir parents were unaware they had to provide their names and birth dates for a background check. But once it was explained that the policy was for the protection of children and adults alike, McMillan said, "they were all open to it. None complained."
"It's not that people are bad, but bad things happen," she said. "It's all a preventive measure."
Staff writer Caryle Murphy contributed to this report.