Got news? (Criminal) check, please

800px-MountainBrookPoliceCar-SnowAlthough often restrained by their position from writing stories that reveal serious denominational problems, or using quotes that reveal dissenting viewpoints, in-house religious journalists are often a big resource for journalists covering religion stories. First of all, they have to be very careful about what they say -- so they aren't as likely to make mistakes. They are normally closer to leaders in a denominational hierarchy than secular journalists. And they are usually "safe quotes" whose stories, albeit often laden with jargon, are parsed carefully by writers trying to understand the intricacies of a particular doctrine, event or dispute.

Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press provided us last Friday with a story with implications far beyond that of his (mostly) Southern Baptist readership. The subject matter? How routine criminal background checks for church volunteers turned up hopeful volunteers with real criminal backgrounds!

The article raises so many questions that it could be the catalyst for a whole series of stories. Although it's really too bad that he relies on a press release rather than quotes from experts in law enforcement, pastors and volunteers, Allen also provides numerous links, some more helpful than others.

Given the spotlight on clergy sexual misconduct, the fact that many potential volunteers in Southern Baptist congregations have felonious pasts is big news. Because Baptist congregations govern themselves, they aren't required to do background checks -- so, conceivably, the problem is even larger. If routine background checks are turning up legal problems for Southern Baptists, what are the statistics for other denominations that require criminal checks?

The eye-popping number of possible perps themselves give Allen's lede some punch:

One in eight background checks conducted on volunteers or prospective employees through LifeWay Christian Resources found a criminal history that might have kept an individual from working or volunteering at a church...

Last year LifeWay negotiated an affinity-group discount for screening services for churches with, a 10-year-old company with 4,500 clients. Since then, according to a news release, about 450 churches requested more than 5,000 background checks on volunteers and prospective employees.

While most screenings returned clean records or only minor traffic offenses, LifeWay said, 80 found serious felony offenses and more than 600 people had some type of criminal history that may have disqualified them from volunteering or working at a church.

While not a statistically representative sample, 450 churches is 1 percent of the 44,848 Southern Baptist congregations claimed in LifeWay's most recent Annual Church Profile. Projected onto the other 99 percent of Southern Baptist churches, that would add up to 8,000 serious felony offenses and more than 60,000 people with some sort of checkered past in churches across the convention.

Perhaps it's not surprising that churches are enticing to those who have had (not counting traffic tickets) brushes with the law. But it would be interesting to know more about those potential volunteers. Are they members of local congregations? What happens when such volunteers are turned away? Do they leave the congregation?

Spotting and weeding out sexual predators aspiring to volunteer is a big concern among congregations. The writer raises a unnerving possiblity -- that insuring this is very challenging. "Because victims typically are reluctant to come forward and with statutes of limitations on molestation laws in many states, only an estimated 10 percent of sexual predators are brought to justice." Given that it's possible that many sexual predators stay underneath the radar of the police or other law enforcement, what can a congregation do to keep potential predators away from children? Allen has some helpful suggestions from the Center for Disease Control. But it's evident that the Southern Baptists, with what he terms a "free-wheeling" style of governance, have to leave most such safeguards to individual congregations.

So the number that he's got are obviously self-selecting congregations who felt the need to do some kind of criminal background check.

While there are many links here (a really good one for the Centers for Disease Control), I wish that more of them had actually linked to studies or neutral sources, rather than church websites or advocacy groups. This paragraph cries out for a link:

"In 2007 the Associated Press polled three major insurers for Protestant churches and totaled claims of minors being sexually abused by clergy, staff or other church-related relations at about 260 reports a year. That's a higher number than the average of the 228 credible accusations against Catholic priests per year reported in the John Jay study."

Which Protestant groups? Are we comparing oranges to oranges? Is there another story here?

These caveats aside, Allen has highlighted an issue of ongoing concern to many, if not all congregations. This isn't a new issue at all. Many groups, like Roman Catholics dioceses, already mandate criminal background checks for volunteers. But how successful are congregations at policing themselves? A secular journalist has a lot of potentials angles to follow up on this story. Allen provides some fuel to get the fire going.

Picture of police cars is from Wikimedia Commons

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