tampabay.com

Church's woes a boon for screeners

Following its sex abuse scandal, the Catholic Church has become one of the biggest clients for background checks.

By SHERRI DAY
Published January 27, 2007


ST. PETE BEACH - Ralph Yanello never imagined his client roster would include the Catholic Church.

Yanello, a lawyer, runs a Web-based company in Walnut Creek, Calif., that trains corporations on how to handle issues such as disabilities and sexual harassment. His clients include Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Lucas Film.

But Yanello has focused his company's future growth on training to prevent the kind of abuse by clergy that rocked Catholic congregations across America five years ago. His company has developed software that would help churches do background checks on employees and volunteers who work with children and allow diocesan officials to keep track of them.

He also markets Internet courses that teach adults to recognize abuse and plans to create a game that instructs children to do the same.

"If you said to me last year that something like this would happen, I would have said 'Am I on the same planet?'" said Yanello, who showed off his wares earlier this week in St. Pete Beach at a national meeting of clergy and diocesan employees charged with implementing strict training and monitoring standards in dioceses around the country. "It has opened our eyes to a much larger market."

Yanello's company is one of a growing cadre of businesses that have begun marketing to the Catholic Church as it seeks to regain credibility in the aftermath of a clergy abuse scandal that began roiling the American church in January 2002. The scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston and spread to dioceses around the country as people came forward with allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. In many cases, the victims' confessions revealed that bishops knew about the abusers but allowed them to remain priests.

It prompted widespread reforms in the American Catholic Church. Chief among them:

-Dioceses must report allegations of sexual abuse of minors to police.

-Priests or deacons found guilty of sexual abuse of a child must be permanently removed from ministry.

- A review board comprised primarily of non-clergy must exist to advise diocesan bishops on allegations of sexual abuse.

-Dioceses must offer aid to abuse victims and their families.

-All dioceses must implement "Safe Environment" programs to train and monitor staff and volunteers. Background screenings are mandatory for church and religious employees who supervise or come in frequent contact with children.

The financial fallout for dioceses around the country has been severe. Payouts to clergy abuse survivors has topped $1-billion, sending at least three dioceses into bankruptcy and forcing others to sell assets.

The nearly 400,000-member Diocese of St. Petersburg has paid about $900,000 to compensate 12 victims since 2003, diocesan lawyer Joseph DiVito said.

The diocese has three sexual abuse claims pending, DiVito said. The incidents in question date back at least 15 years.

Diocese officials, however, would much rather look forward. Within the past year, the diocese has spent $500,000 to implement safe environment procedures and programs, including FBI background screens on all employees and volunteers, DiVito said.

In his address at the National Safe Environment Leadership Conference in St. Pete Beach last week, Bishop Gregory M. Aymond, head of the Diocese of Austin, called on the workers to remain vigilant.

"What we are doing is purifying the church and making it a stronger faith community," said Aymond, who also heads the national Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. "It is much more acceptable these days to talk about sexual abuse. I'm sorry the church has to be a leader in this, but we have been."

Aymond, conference attendees and survivors' self-help groups point to the Diocese of St. Petersburg and its bishop, the Rev. Robert N. Lynch, as trailblazers in training and accountability. They cite Lynch's early embrace of the new rules, his active support of victims' healing groups and his willingness to hire qualified personnel to work with victims and staff.

The diocese hired Marti Zeitz as a full-time victim assistance coordinator in 2003. A mental health therapist, Zeitz guides victims to qualified sexual abuse therapists. The diocese picks up the tab for counseling.

Zeitz meets with all victims whether their abuse occurred within the diocese or not and has traveled to another state to meet with an alleged victim of Robert Schaeufele, a former priest who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for abusing three boys while he worked in the Tampa Bay area.

Lynch, through a spokeswoman, declined to discuss the clergy abuse issue.

"He does not wish to comment because it was such a difficult time in the church, and he continues to pray for all those who are harmed and all those who have been affected by it," DiVito said.

Religious scholars say the church has made great strides in improving training and abuse reporting guidelines.

"Frankly, the result of this is that Catholic Churches are probably the safest place for children in the country today," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "I'm not saying things are perfect, but they sure are a hell of a lot better than they were in the past."

Still, there's work to be done.

"There's always room for transparency, and there's always room for more reform," said Jo Renee Formicola, a political science professor at Seton Hall University and co-author of the forthcoming book The Political, Social and Economic Consequences of Catholic Sex Abuse.

While the church took a hit financially from the scandal, mass attendance has remained steady over the past five years with about 1/3 of all adult Catholics attending weekly, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown. But it is unclear if attendance was bolstered by new Catholics or immigrants. Fears collections would decline radically also were largely unfounded.

And after a multiyear decline, applications for seminarians are increasing. Already, the Diocese of St. Petersburg has received 14 this year, said the Rev. Len Plazewski, director of vocations.

He said he expects that number could reach as high as 20, positioning the diocese for the largest group of seminarians in its history.

"In some people's minds, the scandal is as strong today as it ever was," Plazewski said. "But they're not going to let those things dissuade them from following the Lord."

Pinellas Park lawyer Joseph Saunders, who has represented nearly 100 clergy abuse victims, cheers the improvements within the church. But he said he remains cautious.

"People need to keep their antennae up because I'm confident there are still child abusers out there in the priesthood," said Saunders, who attends a Catholic church.

"That would be the biggest mistake for people to think that it's over or that everybody has come forward. I think most survivors will never come forward."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com

Scandal's roots

The clergy sexual abuse scandal gained international attention when John Geoghan, a defrocked priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, went on trial in January 2002 for the molestation of a young boy. Geoghan was sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison. He had been accused of molesting 150 children. He died after an attack by another inmate.

National stats

Victims abused by clergy from 1950-2002: 10,667

Gender of victims: 81 percent male; 19 percent female

Age of victims: Largest group, 51 percent, was between 11 and 14

Number of accused priests: 4,392 or 4 percent of all active priests

Local screenings

Number of employees who underwent background screenings in the Diocese of St. Petersburg: 2,619

Number of volunteers screened: 1,000

Number ineligible for employment after screening: 160

Number left to screen: More than 5,000

Number of victims who have sought counseling in diocese: 42

Sources: John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Diocese of St. Petersburg