In the wake of revelations that scores of Roman Catholic priests and religious workers credibly accused of child sexual abuse are living unsupervised in communities across the country, state officials are faced with a big problem: Should they screen former clergy members who seek licenses for jobs that put them in contact with children? And, if so, how?
An Associated Press investigation last fall found nearly 200 accused clergy members had been granted teaching, mental health or social work licenses, with roughly six dozen still holding valid licenses to work in those fields in 2019.
Since then, at least 20 states have started using church-released lists of priests and employees who faced credible allegations to screen applicants or check for current state teaching, foster care and therapy licenses — and, in some cases, have revoked credentials.
As part of the church’s attempt to be more transparent about its ongoing sexual abuse crisis, more than 170 dioceses and religious orders have publicly released lists of clergy members they found to be credibly accused of abuses ranging from rape to child pornography.
Over 5,300 priests, clergy members and a handful of lay employees — more than 2,000 of them still living — are on the lists. But because most were never convicted of a crime, the allegations of child abuse never appeared in licensing background checks, the AP’s investigation revealed.
Church and law enforcement officials have said there is little they can do to monitor or restrict the nearly 1,700 mostly former clergy members the AP found living without supervision because many voluntarily left the church or were laicized, which means they are permanently restricted from the priesthood and return to private citizenship.
For close to two decades, the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has been advocating for church officials to report allegations to law enforcement, child protection and other state agencies, but it says state agencies haven’t figured out their role in responding to the clergy abuse scandal.
“These agencies need to refocus their priorities,” said David Clohessy, the former executive director of SNAP, who now leads the group’s St. Louis chapter. “They’re here to protect the public from predators, not to make getting a license to be a shrink or doctor easier.”
AP reporters called agencies in all 50 states, determining that dozens have started discussions, checked their lists of licenses for named clergy or begun using the diocesan lists released in their areas to flag applications.
The license reviews and background check changes have come across all areas of state licensing — from foster care to education boards – in states ranging from New Hampshire to Oklahoma.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the state Department of Job and Family Services to review how county-level child service agencies and private placement agencies could incorporate the diocesan lists into background checks used to determine where children are placed. A spokesman for DeWine said the directive came after the AP published its investigation, calling the action “warranted to protect Ohio’s children.”
Conducting a comprehensive review is complicated because no official national master database of accused clergy exists, meaning states have to choose how many of the more than 170 lists to consult.
Pennsylvania’s education licensing department has conducted perhaps the most comprehensive search of its licensing database, checking for nearly 500 clergy members’ names that were released in three state or local grand jury reports over the last decade— including the landmark 2018 Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report that looked at how abuse allegations were handled in six dioceses.
The department revoked or accepted the surrender of three licenses from former clergy members and is investigating a dozen other licensees.. But the first effort did not encompass lay church employees named on diocesan lists and former priests who might have moved to Pennsylvania from other states and sought licenses.
Dylan Klapmeier, spokesman for the Montana Department of Public Instruction, said his agency checked its list of credentialed teachers against the names issued by two Montana dioceses and found no matches. He lamented the lack of a national list to further consult, noting that “there are lots of places to hide here.”
For many education or licensing departments, using the diocesan lists can be difficult because of state statutes governing what can be considered when deciding to issue or revoke a license. Some agencies allow only for criminal background checks, while others also permit a check of the state’s child abuse and neglect database.
Most of those databases include allegations child abuse investigators found to be most likely true, even if they were not prosecuted. It’s one of the few ways allegations against a priest could appear in background checks without criminal charges, though it was unclear from the diocesan lists if all church-related allegations were reported to state child abuse officials.
Joseph Smack, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, said his department is looking at the allegations against the priests listed by the Wilmington Diocese to determine if any of them should be placed on the Child Protection Registry. Once on that registry, a background check would indicate the accused priest was unsuitable to become a foster parent.
The AP investigation found a handful of accused priests who adopted or fostered children, even after accusations drove them from active ministry – a group that is likely larger since, to protect the privacy of children in the system, there is no searchable database for foster care licenses.
A half-dozen child and family services departments responsible for licensing and screening foster parents — including those in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and New Mexico – told the AP that they have checked the local diocesan lists to see if any former priests were approved foster care providers.
Debra Johnson, director of communications for the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Family, said her department is in the process of overhauling how it performs background checks on potential foster parents and may now include the issue of former priests in the equation.
“It’s concerning that there is no system — that these individuals do not have some level of monitoring that would protect other children from being harmed or potentially being harmed,” she said.
Among license-providers, it’s easiest for state education departments to use the lists to remove licenses or background new applicants.
At least 20 state educational licensing agencies the AP contacted had checked the credibly accused clergy lists released in their states against the rosters of licensed school workers, with at least eight finding former priests with active or expired licenses. Many of those states have acted to remove those licenses or put holds on them to prevent their renewal.
Most states declined to name the individuals they had asked to surrender licenses or to say whether any would be revoked, citing privacy statutes for disciplinary processes.
The advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation, also known as SESAME, has been advocating for stricter state laws that would require reporting of sexual abuse, grooming behaviors and other misconduct by school employees and contractors to prevent them from jumping to new positions in different districts or states without unprosecuted allegations against them being known.
SESAME President Terri Miller said she sees similarities between how abusive priests were transferred between parishes and the movements of accused educators her group is trying to prevent.
“It makes complete sense that priests who abused children would migrate to other areas where they can access youth and, unless we pass laws that mandate reporting of any sexual misconduct and stop the passing of trash to other districts, we aren’t going to be able to guarantee that children are safe,” she said.
Massachusetts is among more than 30 states that don’t require a conviction to launch disciplinary investigations into the past actions of teachers, guidance counselors or others licensed to work in public schools.
Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said people named on diocesan lists are investigated when those lists are provided to the department.
“For instance, when we learned that one of our employees was among those listed by the St. Louis Archdiocese, we checked the other names on that list, too,” Reis said.
Keith Westrich, the state’s former associate commissioner for college, career and technical education, was named by the St. Louis Archdiocese last year as having a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor made against him when he was a priest there in the early 1980s. Shortly after, Massachusetts’ education department placed Westrich on leave and launched an investigation. He has since retired, and a message left at a phone number listed for him was not returned.
It is much harder for mental health, social worker or psychology licensing boards to consider unprosecuted allegations during background checks or for removing a license. Only a handful of the boards that responded to the AP’s questions said they could consider the diocesan lists as part of a background check.
“With no conviction, I don’t believe our administrative rules would allow us,” said Tony Alden, executive for the boards of behavioral science and social work in Iowa.
But staff at several mental health professional licensing boards said they could investigate a complaint alleging previous child sexual abuse to decide whether to remove or sanction a licensed professional. Many said lying on an application that asked candidates to self-report previous allegations would be cause for removal.
While most states have not yet considered law changes, at least 20 state attorneys general are conducting investigations of how church officials handled abuse allegations, including reporting them to civil law enforcement, largely in the wake of Pennsylvania’s 2018 grand jury report.
In its 50-state review, the AP asked the attorneys general if they had considered how states could use the lists of credibly accused clergy members to better protect children.
Some said they wanted to focus on investigating any possible criminal charges, but others said they have started to consider the role they could play in eliminating the gray area for people who have been credibly accused but not prosecuted. The AP investigation published in October explored the case of former priest Roger Sinclair, who had been accused of abuse in at least two other states but who had never been criminally charged when he moved to Oregon, where he was arrested and convicted for abusing a vulnerable adult.