Fingerprinting may be required for church volunteers

Things just got better — and more complicated — for churches and charitable organizations seeking to protect the vulnerable.

Fingerprinting for Church & Charity VolunteersDue to changes in Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) procedures, many volunteers at churches and other charities will need to be fingerprinted – a process which could take months – before they will be allowed to serve.

A generation ago or two, when a church needed a new volunteer for Sunday school or a clubs program, an announcement was made on Sunday morning, and any church member who volunteered could be involved in the ministry by the next week.

That all changed in recent decades when it was realized that some volunteers and paid ministry staff had abused those they were supposed to be ministering to. The media have reported cases of abuse at Indian residential schools, of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests and of similar abuse in evangelical churches, schools and organizations such as the Boy Scouts. It became clear that sexual predators in particular would seek positions where they would have access to children.

As a result, it is now common practice for churches and other organizations to require a criminal record check for any volunteers who will be working with “the vulnerable sector” (children, youth, seniors and people with disabilities).

Heather Card, vice president of member services for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC) told CC.com that two things have changed in the past year to make this process more cumbersome. Previously, some of these checks were performed by approved outside agencies which were given access to police data bases. In December 2009, this practice was discontinued out of a concern to protect the confidential information of those being checked. The police must now do all the checks themselves, resulting in backlogs and delays in some cases.

The second change came on July 9, 2010, when the RCMP announced that many criminal checks will also require fingerprinting. There are about 14,000 pardoned sex offenders in the national data base, some of whom have changed their names. For this reason, checks by the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) are no longer done by name but only by gender and birth date. If the person being checked has the same gender and birth date as a sex offender, that person’s criminal check will come back as “not clear.” The person will need to be fingerprinted to prove that he or she is not the sex offender.

This means that about 20 percent of women and over 40 percent of men volunteers have had to be fingerprinted. While only 2500 volunteers were fingerprinted in 2009, many times that number have already been fingerprinted in 2010.

The fingerprinting is part of a vulnerable sector search which also includes a check of a registry of pardoned sex offenders and a check of local police files for recent offenses.

This also has created a backlog. While a normal check can be completed in two to four weeks, a check that requires fingerprinting can take as long as four months.

This has been a major inconvenience for churches and other organizations. Not only does it cause delays, but some potential volunteers become upset when their criminal checks come back as “unclear.”

However, the inconvenience pales in comparison to the damage that can be done to vulnerable people and to the churches and ministries themselves by abusers, Card said. Courts have assessed the damage caused by a single abuser in the millions of dollars. Abuse can “destroy a life and a community,” Card said. Therefore, in spite of the difficulties, protecting the vulnerable should be a priority.

A recent CCCC survey found that 71 percent of churches and ministries require criminal checks of volunteers. It should be 100 percent, Card said.

According to Card, there are a number of things churches and other organizations can do to deal with the new situation.

One is to communicate clearly and assure volunteers that just because a criminal check comes back as “not clear,” it “does not mean you are a criminal.” The fingerprints taken from the volunteers for such checks are destroyed after the check and are not kept in the RCMP data base.

Another thing churches can do is start the process of looking for volunteers much earlier. In fact, Card said, some churches and organizations have a policy that requires a six-month waiting period for any new volunteer. Experience has shown that such waiting periods deter many abusers from even applying.

Checks should also be repeated every two to three years, Card said, because a criminal check from the past may no longer be valid.

Further, criminal checks should only be one part of churches’ work to protect the vulnerable. Interviews, reference checks and other screening processes should also be used.

As well, it is wise for churches and organizations to have insurance coverage for abuse. Not only will this protect the churches from million-dollar settlements, but the insurance companies can offer advice on how to keep abuse from occurring in the first place.

In addition, churches and ministries should take training from agencies such as Winning Kids on how to set up a “tight system” where abuse won’t happen. This involves careful implementation of practices such as always having two unrelated people with the vulnerable, keeping doors open or putting windows in doors, and making sure rooms are kept locked when they are not in use.

Churches need to balance safety and ministry, Card added. Criminal checks don’t mean that people redeemed from a criminal past can never serve in ministry. Churches and other organizations must carefully examine such volunteers on a case by case basis, and select what ministries an individual can safely be involved in.

The reality of abuse means that churches and ministries have to do “things we hope we didn’t have to do,” Card said.

Churches should be “a place of trust and forgiveness and God’s love,” Card said – and protecting the vulnerable confirms that rather than contradicting it.

A more detailed report on this issue is available from CCCC at www.cccc.org/freeresources.