New Clergy Screened More Tightly

Article excerpt

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.

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. …