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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops’ charter

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Transmitted 04/13/2004 4:50 PM ET

Lack of Social Security number an obstacle to some background checks

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As dioceses across the United States began doing background checks on people who work with minors, some ran into a snag.

Many of their volunteers do not have Social Security numbers because they are undocumented immigrants. A Social Security number is a staple for many types of background checks to see if people have a record of child sex abuse.

This problem is especially acute within the church's growing Hispanic community.

"We have many, many Hispanic volunteers who don't have Social Security numbers," said Elisa Montalvo, president of the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministries.

"We are also concerned about child safety," she said.

The U.S. bishops 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" requires background checks on all clergy and for lay employees and volunteers who have direct contact with minors. The aim is to weed out child sex offenders.

Montalvo said that many dioceses, including the Diocese of Richmond, Va., where she is director of Hispanic ministry, use private companies to conduct background checks and the forms they use ask volunteers to list their Social Security number.

Lack of a Social Security number is not a problem for background checks on employees or job applicants because a person cannot be hired without it.

People involved in Hispanic ministry noted that most of the work in Hispanic parishes, including youth ministry and religious instruction of minors, is done by volunteers.

They added that in close-knit Hispanic families it is normal for volunteers to bring their children to parish events even if the activity is not for young people, heightening the interest to protect their children.

The U.S. bishops' national Office of Child and Youth Protection is investigating whether adequate background checks can be done on volunteers lacking Social Security numbers.

Kathleen L. McChesney, executive director of the youth protection office, said she hopes to have an answer by the end of May.

Complicating the situation is that there are many ways of doing background checks and dioceses are adopting different systems, many times dictated by state requirements which themselves are not uniform.

There are several basic identity characteristics that can be used in background checks. They include name, address, date of birth, gender, fingerprints, race and Social Security number. Different systems all start with the name and then use different combinations of the other factors.

Experts said that while background checks are needed no system is foolproof as child sex abuse is vastly underreported, meaning a small percentage of abusers are officially registered as sex offenders.

Dioceses have responded differently to the situation of having volunteers who are without Social Security numbers.

In the Boston Archdiocese, Social Security numbers are optional as Massachusetts organizations are required to use a state system that relies primarily on name and address for background checks, said Ann Lally, director of the archdiocesan volunteer resources office.

The state checks the person against Massachusetts records and tells the archdiocese how to get background checks from other states in which a person lived, said Lally. Her office is responsible for coordinating all the background checks on archdiocesan clergy, employees and volunteers.

Several dioceses have adopted interim systems for checks of volunteers without Social Security numbers, pending the findings of McChesney's office.

In the California Diocese of Orange, volunteers who do not have Social Security numbers have to give references and sign an affidavit that they have not sexually abused children, said Shirl Giacomi, diocesan chancellor and coordinator for diocesan implementation of child sex abuse policies.

While his or her clearance is pending, a volunteer cannot be alone with children, she added. Giacomi cited the example of a catechist awaiting clearance who would be required to have another adult in the room while teaching.

In the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., volunteers who cannot provide Social Security numbers need a letter from their pastor vouching for their integrity, said Sister Mary Jude Lazarus, a Sister of Charity who is diocesan director of Hispanic ministry. She also is a member of the committee that formulated diocesan sex abuse policies.

"In many of our parishes, about half the people do not have Social Security numbers," she said.

Volunteers who lack Social Security numbers are still checked using their names and addresses against local police records and through the national sex offender registry, said Sister Lazarus.

The national sex offender registry, also known as the Megan's Law database, cannot be used for employees or job applicants but can be used for volunteers.

In the Washington Archdiocese, how to treat volunteers without Social Security numbers has been a "hot topic," said Susan Gibbs, archdiocesan communications director.

The archdiocese first tried to accommodate such volunteers, but ended the effort after the bishops' adopted the 2002 charter, she said.

"Now, you can't volunteer if you won't go through a background check" that requires a Social Security number and fingerprinting, she said.

"It's hard, but they (undocumented immigrants) understand that the reason is to protect children," she said.

Bob Bonacci, general manager of Premier Info Source, a private firm which does background checks for several dioceses, said it is possible to do a background check without a Social Security number, but it is more difficult.

Basically, the more identifying characteristics a person has, the easier and faster it is to do the check, he said.

According to Bonacci, Social Security numbers are becoming less significant as many local jurisdictions are eliminating parts of the number in people's files.

The FBI, which does national background checks, has two different systems, said Steve Fischer, spokesman for the FBI's National Crime Investigation Center. One requires fingerprinting with the Social Security number being optional, and the other is a name check plus at least one other identifying characteristic, he said.


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