New clergy screened more tightly

By on October 1, 1999

Not so long ago, it seems that clergy sex offenders could abuse their victims with near impunity. Clergy were respected pillars of their community and their young charges could hardly imagine naming them as sexual offenders. Nor could parishioners conceive that their priests, choir directors or youth volunteers might take advantage of their positions in such a way.

Times have changed. Canadian churches, including the Anglican Church, have all had to face up to the painful reality that sexual misconduct has been, if not rampant within the church, certainly far from unheard of.

The most recent wakeup call came in a British Columbia Supreme Court judgment. It blasts the church for laxness in allowing a man unrestricted access to vulnerable and defenceless Native children.

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That occurred in the early 1970s. As the century comes to a close, the church is “light years ahead” of where it was even at the beginning of this decade, says Mary Wells, a Toronto-based social worker and consultant.

It wasn’t until stories of sexual abuse by Newfoundland clergy followed by the Mt. Cashel scandal rocked the Roman Catholic Church a decade ago that churches got to work on the issue, Mrs. Wells said. Initially, guidelines were developed to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. Women then came forward with harassment complaints and churches eventually recognized that they needed new procedures to deal with adult complaints.

Most Anglican dioceses in Canada have implemented sexual misconduct protocols. They are now turning their attention to better screening measures for clergy and other staff and volunteers.

The Diocese of Toronto, with its full-time human resources officer and substantial resources, has probably the most extensive and sophisticated sexual misconduct protocol and screening process in the country. Other dioceses may need to follow suit. One expert says courts will hold dioceses liable for abuse if they fail to use the prevention information that’s available.

Toronto changed the emphasis from its 1992 focus on sexual abuse to a more wide-ranging concept of sexual misconduct that deals with harassment and exploitation.

Rev. Dawn Davis, the diocese’s human resources officer, said organizations known to have solid policies were consulted, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

“We know now that we just don’t want to deal with crises, we want to prevent them,” she said.

Parishes are responsible for ensuring their places of work and ministry are free of harassment, exploitation and assault. Every cleric must go through a full day of training every three years and sign on to the diocese’s misconduct policy. All volunteers, employees and clergy are subject to screening. For new clergy, that includes a psychosexual assessment and reference letters from various people including that person’s physician.

The idea for a letter from the family doctor came from Big Brothers and Big Sisters who said doctors are their most reliable reference check. The introductory letter to the doctor explains that the person will be put in an unsupervised, very demanding job in a faith community in which he or she will be working with vulnerable individuals. Doctors are asked to comment on whether their patients can handle that.

“The issue is to balance the privacy issue and confidentiality relationship with the need for society to put trusted, healthy individuals in positions of responsibility,” she said.

Just as the diocese does not ask for medical details, nor does it ask for the answers from the psychosexual assessment. Instead, the diocese simply asks whether the candidate can be trusted with children and vulnerable adults.

The courts expect the church to be this vigorous, says Chris Thomson, co-ordinator and instructor of sex offender awareness programs of the Justice Institute of B.C. Volunteers and clergy might be resentful of the hoops they are required to jump through but some toes may have to be stepped on, he said.

“Your alternative is very limited,” he said. Once the information is out there, as it is in the Diocese of Toronto, if other dioceses choose not to follow suit, they can be held liable for their employees’ abusive behaviour.

The Diocese of Toronto will share its updated policy with all other Canadian dioceses, Ms. Davis said. Although the policies are likely to help the diocese defend itself legally, she said that’s not the main reason for doing it.

“Everyone is a child of God and has incredible worth,” she said. “When they’re with us, they need to be able to trust us and to come to no harm.”

Toronto is not alone in developing tougher sceening measures. The Diocese of Nova Scotia and P.E.I. is currently developing hiring and workplace protocols for youth workers, camp leaders and other lay leaders, said Archbishop Arthur Peters. There’s a much more rigorous screening process in place for clergy now, he said, including a series of interviews, psychological testing, police background checks and various assessments.

“I think we are very conscious and aware that we need to do a better job than we have in the past,” the archbishop said.

“We hope we’re doing two things: making a better job of helping people understand where it is they’re being called to serve, and identifying their strengths and weaknesses; and we hope we’re creating a safe environment within the church community,” he said.

Bishop Malcolm Harding of Brandon said that diocese has begun police checks and child-abuse registry checks on all new staff and clergy as well as existing staff. The diocese of East Newfoundland and Labrador has had a sexual misconduct protocol in place for the last seven years, says Archdeacon Neil Kellett. The 12-page document outlines how to respond to a complaint of sexual harassment or assault.

Some dioceses may have to change their ways. The Arctic has not implemented any new screening measures recently, said Bishop Chris Williams. The diocese knows well their locally trained clergy by the end of their three years of training and their former bishops refer clergy from the south.

“One thing this whole system depends upon is honesty between bishops,” Bishop Williams said.

Other bishops agreed, suggesting communication between them is much more up front these days. No longer does “dumping” – quietly sending an undesirable priest from one diocese to another – take place.

Like some others, their policy may need some refining, he said.

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