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Churches Require Background Checks Incidents Of Sex Abuse, Insurance Prompts Rules

TUESDAY, AUG. 8, 1995

Background checks, once reserved for lawmen or lawbreakers, now are being done on a whole new class of people: priests.

Following stories about sexual abuse and other transgressions among clergymen, the Episcopal dioceses in New England are requiring priests to fill out background questionnaires. Two Roman Catholic dioceses in Ohio are using the police to investigate clergy and lay leaders.

Some religious leaders say the checks are needed to restore confidence in the church. And some insurance companies are requiring them before giving churches coverage for sexual misconduct.

But some priests believe the policy violates their right to privacy, and 40 of the 600 members of the clergy in the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese who received the form in May have refused to fill it out. The diocese plans to meet in September with those priests.

Among the questions they are being asked:

“Have you ever been charged or adjudicated with sexual misconduct?”

“Do you have a history of drug abuse?”

“Have you ever been charged with misappropriating funds?”

The responses are being forwarded to a Minnesota records company, which then verifies them with the references the ministers also are asked to provide.

“I’m in favor of accountability and background checks, but my concern is that we’re running off with a sort of McCarthyesque, ‘let’s cover ourselves’ attitude,” said the Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School.

The Massachusetts diocese - with 95,000 members, the largest in the country - joined with the four other New England dioceses in requiring the background questionnaire after its former bishop was involved in a sexual scandal.

Former Bishop David Johnson committed suicide in January, and shortly afterward three women stepped forward to say Johnson had affairs with them. The church called the affairs “sexual exploitation.”

“The church wants to take responsibility for the authority it places in its leadership,” said Julia Slayton, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts diocese.

Insurance also is a driving factor. The Church Insurance Co., the diocese’s primary insurer, announced two years ago that it would separate sexual misconduct liability from other coverage.

To qualify for that coverage, churches must have sexual misconduct policies, prevention workshops for clergy and lay members, plus background checks.

In Ohio, the Roman Catholic dioceses in Cincinnati and Youngstown require all employees and regular volunteers to sign affidavits certifying that they have never been involved in child abuse. Some are then subjected to police checks.


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