Seminaries may be the first line of defense in protecting church members from sexual abuse by clergy, but in congregationally governed parishes the ultimate responsibility is with the local church, according to screening experts.
The Roman Catholic Church has paid more than a billion dollars in settlement costs to victims of pedophile priests. Now, some Catholic seminaries are screening future priests before they graduate.
At the historically Baptist Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y., each applicant must submit academic credentials, answer questions about any felony convictions and provide character recommendations from a pastor, former professor, an immediate supervisor from work and a colleague before they are invited for an interview at the seminary.
“We have a policy of Zero Tolerance for any kind of improper sexual conduct,” said David Garland,associate dean for academic affairs, at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. “If we catch anything that is improper, they are gone.”
Garland said the school has declined admission to some students and dismissed a few others who were not behaving according to the high standards people expect of a minister.
“I know everyone is concerned about pedophilia because of what’s been in the news, but we all have to be concerned and on guard about every kind of sexual abuse,” Garland told EthicsDaily.com. “There is no place for this type of behavior in churches.”
Like other seminaries, Truett relies on essays, recommendations and applications to screen prospective students.
“There is no reliable test that I know of for screening applicants,” Garland said. He noted that he has been associated with schools that have used psychological tests for screening, but they were not as effective as Truett’s current process.
Potential students must complete an application, provide an official transcript or transcripts from schools where more than six hours of study were completed, a recommendation from a local church and three personal recommendations from ministers, professors or employers, according to Rob Fox, director of admissions at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.
Fox told EthicsDaily.com that every application is reviewed and screened by BTSR staff. “If an application raises questions, it is given special treatment and reviewed carefully by the staff,” Fox said.
Likewise, Garland said that he and other staff members read materials of all applicants.
“Any discrepancy in a student’s application or references is a red flag for further investigation,” he said. “The problem comes when the people making the recommendations are not totally honest in what they write. People are so afraid of being sued, that sometimes they leave out important details about a person.”
Garland said that while seminaries are effective in screening prospective students, they are not equipped with the personnel or other resources needed to identify or rehabilitate mentally ill people.
“We are an academic institution charged with the responsibility of teaching and preparing ministers to serve in churches,” Garland said. “A seminary is not a hospital or therapy center. We are here to help students prepare for the Christian ministry.”
“Seminaries cannot do background screening for churches,” said Nikki McCarty, an investigator for BTI, a background screening organization located in Dallas, Texas.
“We have an extensive, sophisticated computer system that helps us probe into the background of prospective employees for large companies and churches,” McCarty told EthicsDaily.com.
Guideone, a property insurance provider for churches, recommends churches use BTI or a similar agency to screen volunteers and church staff.
McCarty said that more churches are contacting them to screen church staff and volunteers.
“Churches are starting to realize that a simple investigation now can save them from a lot of problems in the future,” she said.
Background investigations, she said, usually take a day or so and are not very expensive. Investigations begin at $50 and go up to $75 per person and can be done anywhere in the United States.
Background investigations are becoming popular in all areas of life, McCarty said. “I know people who will not leave their pets with a sitter until they have seen a background investigation on the person staying in their homes.”
Ray Furr is a freelance writer and operates his own communications / marketing business in Poquoson, Va.