Volunteer agency helps develop selection process

Published February 1, 2000

Screening potential volunteers in the church doesn’t mean a police records check on altar guild members, but that and more is required when it comes to youth leaders, says a new guidebook on the subject.

Youth leaders, clergy and choir leaders are considered the three riskiest positions in a typical Anglican church, according to Volunteer Canada’s executive director, Paddy Bowen.

And although it may seem callous and unchristian to evaluate members of a parish in such a way, ignoring the potential risks would be more unchristian, said Betty Livingston, an active lay person and Anglican representative on the faith group of a provincial screening initiative.

“People in the parishes may feel something secular is intruding,” Mrs. Livingston said. “But the reality is, it’s our Christian responsibility” to prevent potential abusers from contact with vulnerable people in the church.

Brochures on the new screening program are being mailed now to Anglican churches in Ontario and are to be handed out to all parishioners. In the Diocese of Huron, clergy will be learning about volunteer screening at an April 6 meeting, after which the program will be introduced at a synod meeting.

“We all hear or read about predators but we never think they’re likely to be on our doorstep,” said Archdeacon Bill Graham, director of human resources for Huron. “This is a way to screen unfavourable elements out.”

Rev. Dawn Davis, head of human resources for the Diocese of Toronto and an adviser on the project, said she hopes to get the manual into every single church in the diocese. Called Screening in Faith, it advises church leaders, step by step, who and how to screen.

The three Anglicans were among 16 from six dioceses at a workshop led by Ms. Bowen, who heads the driving organization behind the program. The initiative grew out of a Liberal Red Book promise in which it promised to make it easier for charities and non-profit groups to access police record information on pedophiles, Ms. Bowen said.

As more and more court cases and charges against clergy and others came to light in the 1990s, faith groups were more willing to talk about screening, Ms. Bowen said.

In 1997 Volunteer Canada approached the Anglican Church, which readily agreed to work with it, she said. Then the Ontario government jumped on board and offered resources and the Ontario Screening Initiative was born. The United, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Unitarian churches got involved in a faith consortium as did sports and recreation groups, rural groups and others.

Screening had to be tailored to the churches specifically, Ms. Bowen said. The daughter of an Anglican priest, (the late Desmond Bowen), Ms. Bowen is also a Sunday school superintendent in Ottawa.

She’s heard the accusation a screening program is unchristian.

“There are people in the church who don’t even like the term volunteer,” Ms. Bowen said. “They think that’s secular language and that they’re secular norms and they think that’s what’s wrong with the church today: that we are imposing unchristian and secular views on a community of faith.

“We have to look at the evidence, that the church is not immune from, not above being affected by evil, if we want to put it in that kind of language. And that there is nothing wrong with borrowing from the secular world in terms of practices.”

The church does it all the time, she said, pointing to budgeting, human resource management and the like. Ten steps for screening volunteers

  • determine the risk
  • write a clear volunteer ministry description
  • establish a formal recruitment process
  • use an application form
  • conduct interviews
  • follow up on references
  • request a police records check
  • conduct orientation and training sessions
  • supervise and evaluate
  • follow up with program participants

“It is possible to do all of this in a Christian and loving manner. It’s not about witch hunts and discouraging people. And that really boils down to the fact that you never think of this in terms of individual people. That was something I could see really hit a chord in the faith workshop I did. Because everyone’s sitting there thinking about the person in the church who’s a bit odd. And you can’t do that. I mean, your gut may or may not be right. Your instincts are so affected by all your prejudices.”

Ms. Bowen also rejects a second argument people have used against screening: that it will offend and discourage people from stepping forward to take on a ministry. “Our answer to that is that anybody who doesn’t want to be screened, are you sure you want them in that ministry anyway?”

Ms. Bowen said there’s nothing wrong with the church adopting some secular practices, but said in this case the language needed to be changed to reflect the faith context.

That’s when the agency turned to Glen Carley, chief social worker for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, and Ms. Davis to help rewite the manual. Screening in Faith is what resulted.

The manual distinguishes between low-risk volunteers, such as altar guild members, and volunteers in high-risk positions, such as youth leaders.

While someone should have a list of who’s on the altar guild, with their names, addresses and phone numbers, all 10 steps are recommended for high-risk jobs, Ms. Bowen said.

In the case of youth leaders, it suggests checking in with the group periodically to ask participants how things are going. Ask them what they would change if they could, giving them permission to be negative, she advised.

“And then you’ll catch on,” if there’s a problem.

Regardless of the position, “everybody in the congregation should know the rules about kids.

“We’ve developed an example of eight or nine rules in our church that get posted: You don’t go alone with a child to the washroom, you don’t pick up a child off site.”

Sunday school teachers are considered medium risk sinceother adults tend to be around during classes.

In addition to making brochures available to parishioners and manuals to churches, Volunteer Canada is administering a fund the Ontario government set up to train groups in screening.

Ms. Bowen hopes the program will eventually go Canadawide. It won’t cost much to replicate the congregational brochures or manuals. But providing access to training and developing “champions” in the middle level of the church to push this in the parishes will cost money. So far, B.C. and Quebec are the only two provinces to show interest.

“One of the things we might do is work with the national level of the churches that we’re working with in Ontario to help us to bring some pressure to bear in the other provinces,” Ms. Bowen said.


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