- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Catholic dioceses across the nation that have installed strict policies on who is allowed access to their children are wrestling with a new headache: how to deal with Hispanic church members who refuse to submit to background checks.

At issue locally is the Diocese of Arlington’s new policy mandating the fingerprinting of priests, seminarians, nuns, church employees and lay volunteers who work with children. Half of the 394,000-member diocese may be Hispanic, including thousands of undocumented immigrants.

“We could lose many volunteers,” said the Rev. Ovidio Pecharroman, director of the diocesan Office of Spanish Ministry. “Most of the people working in the Catholic Church are volunteers; whether legal or illegal, I don’t know.”

Many immigrant volunteers affected by the new policy work in a range of church duties, such as nursery care and chaperoning high school youths, at the 29 churches in the diocese that offer Spanish-language Masses.

On Aug. 12, Bishop Paul Loverde published a directive mandating up to 15,000 people in 72 parishes and mission churches be fingerprinted and submit to police background checks.

Because the directive has been published in English only, Father Pecharroman said, reactions are just filtering in to the church.

“I will just have to appeal to people,” he said.

Several priests in the diocese are refusing to be fingerprinted for privacy reasons and have asked the Vatican for clarification on why they must do so under canon law.

“This will dry up the work among Hispanics,” one priest said on the condition of anonymity. “Even the legal workers won’t understand the system.”

The diocese acknowledges that some clergy are unhappy about the process.

“One priest even described it as ‘a violation of one’s civil rights,’” wrote the Rev. Terry W. Specht, child protection officer for the diocese. “While giving these concerns the seriousness they deserve, the [Catholic] Church can and should still do nothing less.”

Background checks became mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 in a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People drawn up after revelations of mass child sexual abuse in dioceses nationwide.

The fingerprinting doesn’t trouble Leah Tenorio, director of Hispanic ministry at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Alexandria, as much as the requirement for Social Security numbers. She estimated that 40 percent of the Hispanics whom she ministers lack Social Security cards.

“If you can’t complete a background check, what do you do? Does it mean they can’t minister?” she said.

Holy Family Catholic Church in Dale City hired a police officer from Prince William County to fingerprint about 200 volunteers who work with children. So far, only one family — undocumented immigrants from Bolivia — stopped volunteering.

“The majority of people had no problem with this because we told them it’d be confidential,” said the Rev. Jose E. Hoyos, the pastor. “We told them it was for the sake of the kids.”

Although the Arlington diocese says it does not share the information with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), fingerprints collected by a diocese are checked by a police agency.

Ronaldo Cruz, executive director for the USCCB Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, said the ICE factor “is an issue and a concern” nationwide. The Diocese of Orange in Southern California requests references from volunteers and a personal interview, but they do not require fingerprints or Social Security numbers.

“Forty percent of [America’s] Catholic population is Latino,” Mr. Cruz said. “Dioceses across the country would like to have some guidance from the bishops on this.”

Not everyone favors different treatment for undocumented immigrants, which is why the USCCB has hired a consultant to deal with the issue.

“The thing is,” said Kathleen McChesney, director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection for the USCCB, “you can’t have multiple standards” for legal and illegal workers.

Her deputy, Sheila Horan, calls Hispanic Catholics’ fears of deportation “a real problem across the country,” especially in border states.

“There is a fear folks will just walk and won’t volunteer to do the things that need being done,” she said.

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