May 15, 2014

Employee fingerprinting to be implemented in Catholic schools



(CNS file photo)

By Father Bill Pomerleau

SPRINGFIELD – Nearly all employees with regular access to children in the Catholic schools of the Springfield Diocese will be fingerprinted and run through the National Criminal History Check (NCRC) system within the next two years to comply with a new state law.

The law, passed by the state legislature in 2012, is designed to address the limitations of the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) checks which have been required for public and private school employees for several years.

CORI checks, which only reveal convictions for certain crimes within Massachusetts, have been routinely administered for all church-related employees and volunteers since 2004, when concern about the sexual abuse of children by priests and other church agents became widespread.

NCRC checks, which are accomplished by running fingerprints through the FBI’s national database of criminal offenses and a database of the state police, “will be good for our students, and for our employees themselves,” said Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph M. Andrea Ciszewski, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Springfield.

“This will help us to better check the background of an employee who may have lived or currently lives in a neighboring state while working here in Massachusetts. And it will also protect our employees from those trying to look them up on the Internet,” Sister Ciszewski told iobserve.

A search of the term “national criminal background check” on the Internet brings up links to several official-sounding commercial websites that purport to give purchasers complete information on the criminal histories of the person being researched. The accuracy of the information provided by these sites varies widely, particularly if the user types in a common name for an individual.

The new state law says that all school employees and volunteers “who have direct and unmonitored contact with children” must be fingerprinted every three years. But implementing regulations issued by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education exempt volunteers, at least for now, from the new security requirements.

Just how efficiently the new system will work is still a bit unclear, Sister Ciszewski said. The new state regulations say that all employees hired since Sept. 1, 2013, including those about to be hired for the upcoming school year, must be fingerprinted by Aug. 31. All employees hired prior to 2013 must be fingerprinted by June 2016.

The diocese estimates that it will have hired approximately 200 school employees for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic years by the end of the summer. At any point in time, local Catholic schools employ approximately 700 people.

Including the staffs of other private and public schools, there will likely be thousands of fingerprintings administered in western Massachusetts in the next three months. But to date, only three processing sites – in Springfield, Greenfield and Pittsfield – have been opened in the region by Morpho Trust, USA, a contractor hired by the state to run the background checks.

The state will charge each licensed educator employee $55 for the fingerprinting. Unlicensed employees, such as clerical staff and coaches, must pay $35.

Since the new regulations were put in place after most schools had finalized their budgets for the upcoming school year, the diocese has decided to cover the estimated $10,000 to fingerprint the first group of mandated employees. The fingerprinting of later employees will be factored into individual school budgets, Sister Ciszewski said.

Most organizations that use the CORI process to run in-state background checks on their employees and volunteers pay a $10 fee per background check.

However, when public concern mounted a decade ago about the Catholic Church’s commitment to child safety, the dioceses in Massachusetts told state officials that they would regularly run CORI checks on a wide range of individuals with access to children, including clergy, religious men and women, lay employees, volunteers and parent chaperones on field trips. In return, the state exempted CORIs requested by the church from the fee.

Since a similar exemption has not yet been offered for the NCRC checks, and the logistics of fingerprinting thousands of school employees is still being worked out, there are no current plans to extend the fingerprinting requirement to other church employees, said Patricia McManamy, director of prevention and victims services for the Diocese of Springfield.