By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer
For the first time, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is conducting criminal background checks on its legions of volunteers.
Up to 30,000 parochial school soccer coaches, religious class leaders and other volunteers who work with children must undergo checks if they're serious about wanting to help out at the nation's ninth-largest Roman Catholic school system.
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No one will be grandfathered in, making this the archdiocese's most ambitious attempt to protect the 55,000 children enrolled in its 133 schools, which stretch from downtown Cincinnati across 19 Ohio counties.
All volunteers must be fingerprinted by June 30.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati became a proponent of criminal background checks in 2002, after parishioners and former Catholics in Boston, Cincinnati, Louisville and other U.S. cities began sharing tales of abuse by priests. The nation's bishops mandated criminal background checks for volunteers when they met in Dallas that year.
Archdiocese officials were already looking into new protective measures, following a 2001 case in which two volunteers were convicted of sex charges at St. Antoninus School in Green Township.
"We haven't had a big problem with volunteers; we don't expect to have a problem with volunteers. This is just another level of protection we can institute for change," said Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Molly Savarese, from Loveland, gets fingerprinted by Alex Henties, background check coordinator for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, as her kids Harrison, 6, and Emma, 4, watch on Monday night at All Saints parish center in Montgomery.
(Leigh Patton photo)
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"This is worth it if it stops one kid from being abused."
But 30,000 criminal background checks dwarf the 400 that the archdiocese conducts annually for its teachers and employees. Each volunteer will be required to learn about the archdiocese's Decree on Child Protection, watch a video, fill out a special form and have his fingerprints taken.
Archdiocese officials expect their decision to purchase 10 mobile WebCheck units for about $2,800 apiece last spring will allow them to get the job done by next summer. WebCheck, a fingerprinting system introduced by the state of Ohio in 1999, can cut the time needed to do criminal background checks from a month to hours. It is far more sophisticated than the old-fashioned roll prints that the Diocese of Covington uses.
Dioceses in Youngstown, Columbus and Cleveland also are using the equipment that has proven successful for public schools, police departments, day-care centers and nursing homes.
Last week, about 100 potential volunteers gathered at All Saints Catholic Church in Montgomery for one of the WebCheck sessions the archdiocese is offering this school year.
Despite lines several people deep, patience prevailed.
In a matter of five minutes, they greased their thumbs and index fingers with Corn Huskers Lotion for background check coordinator Alex Henties and had their fingerprints electronically scanned.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification will use the fingerprints to search for a criminal history. About 91 percent of fingerprints submitted by public and private schools come back clean - with no criminal record, according to the state Attorney General's Office.
"It just takes a minute! It won't take long!" called out Molly Savarese of Loveland to fellow volunteers as she walked out the door at All Saints last week.
The mother of three young children has volunteered at All Saints' elementary school for three years.
"Anything to help the safety of the kids is an excellent idea," Savarese said.
Monica Pieper has taught catechism classes for 10 years. The 42-year-old Blue Ash woman considers the familiar faces family. However, she believes all volunteers, which number about 500 at All Saints, should go through the background checks.
"Whenever you work with children, you have to do whatever it takes to keep them safe and to keep whoever isn't safe away from them."
Chancellor Joseph Binzer, pastor of St. Louis Church downtown, helped convince the archdiocese to purchase the WebCheck equipment after his fingerprints were scanned by the Diocese of Youngstown last spring.
Archdiocese officials had been struggling with how to handle the daunting task of getting fingerprints for each and every volunteer. That task was mandated in the 2003 revisions of the Archbishop's Decree on Child Protection.
Last year, while the abuse scandals were brewing across the nation, the Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter, a former Elder High School principal, was accused of molesting at least four students in the late 1970s to mid-1980s. On Monday, six more plaintiffs were added to that suit, all alleging similar sexual abuse by Strittmatter.
In August 2001, Tom Rohrkasse of Villa Hills, a former girls basketball coach, pleaded guilty to a sex abuse charge because of his actions at a party he held for players from St. Antoninus School in Green Township.
Lisa C. Dunaway, a former volunteer boys soccer coach at the same school, was convicted of stalking a 15-year-old player.
Just one safeguard
David Clohessy, director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said the Roman Catholic Church needed the wake-up call. But he wonders if fingerprints and background checks are enough.
The best way to protect children, he said, is to teach children that it's important to tell an adult if they've been abused.
"The value of fingerprinting (and) background checks can be easily overstated,'' Clohessy said. "The fact that someone may not have a criminal record does not mean that (children) are safe."
"One reason abusers are so successful is that they're typically very shrewd and charismatic people,'' he added.
"They seem very charming and, if they're not, no child wants to be around them."
Results of the fingerprinting sessions go to Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk within 48 hours. He determines whether to allow the volunteer to work in the schools. Anyone convicted of murder, kidnapping, sexual battery and robbery is disqualified.
But his discretion will be used in cases of volunteers with minor infractions, such as smoking marijuana in college.
As of Friday, none of the 1,300 results that came across his desk was rejected.
Ginny Rush, a Blue Ash resident who has volunteered at All Saints for 12 years, had her fingerprints scanned recently. Having volunteers undergo criminal background checks comforts her as a parent, church member and volunteer.
"It's unfortunate that it had to come to this," Rush said, "but we live in a different world than when I was growing up."
To become a volunteer for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, visit www.catholiccincinnati.org or call (513) 421-3131. All volunteers must:
Take a child protection class.
Watch a child protection video.
Fill out a background check form.
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