Excerpted from The Columbian by Claudia Lauer and Maghan Hoyer
In the wake of revelations that scores of Roman Catholic priests and religious workers credibly accused of child sexual abuse are living unsupervised in communities across the country, state officials face a quandary: Should they screen former clergy members who seek licenses for jobs that put them in contact with children? And, if so, how?
An Associated Press investigation last fall found nearly 200 accused clergy members had been granted teaching, mental health or social work licenses, with roughly six dozen still holding valid licenses to work in those fields in 2019.
Since then, at least 20 states have started using church-released lists of priests and employees who faced credible allegations to screen applicants or check for current state teaching, foster care and therapy licenses — and, in some cases, have revoked credentials.
As part of the church’s attempt to be more transparent about its ongoing sexual abuse crisis, more than 170 dioceses and religious orders have publicly released lists of clergy members they found to be credibly accused of abuses ranging from rape to child pornography.
Over 5,300 priests, clergy members and a handful of lay employees — more than 2,000 of them still living — are on the lists. But because most were never convicted of a crime, the allegations of child abuse never appeared in licensing background checks, the AP’s investigation revealed.
Church and law enforcement officials have said there is little they can do to monitor or restrict the nearly 1,700 mostly former clergy members the AP found living without supervision because many voluntarily left the church or were laicized, which means they are permanently restricted from the priesthood and return to private citizenship.
For close to two decades, the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has been advocating for church officials to report allegations to law enforcement, child protection and other state agencies, but it says state agencies haven’t figured out their role in responding to the clergy abuse scandal.
“These agencies need to refocus their priorities,” said David Clohessy, the former executive director of SNAP, who now leads the group’s St. Louis chapter. “They’re here to protect the public from predators, not to make getting a license to be a shrink or doctor easier.”
AP reporters called agencies in all 50 states, determining that dozens have started discussions, checked their lists of licenses for named clergy or begun using the diocesan lists released in their areas to flag applications.
The license reviews and background check changes have come across all areas of state licensing — from foster care to education boards – in states ranging from New Hampshire to Oklahoma.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the state Department of Job and Family Services to review how county-level child service agencies and private placement agencies could incorporate the diocesan lists into background checks used to determine where children are placed. A spokesman for DeWine said the directive came after the AP published its investigation, calling the action “warranted to protect Ohio’s children.”
Conducting a comprehensive review is complicated because no official national master database of accused clergy exists, meaning states must choose how many of the more than 170 lists to consult.
Pennsylvania’s education licensing department has conducted perhaps the most comprehensive search of its licensing database, checking for nearly 500 clergy members’ names that were released in three state or local grand jury reports over the last decade– including the landmark 2018 Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report that looked at how abuse allegations were handled in six dioceses.
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