Senate OKs bill allowing churches to seek background checks for those working or volunteering with children
STATE HOUSE – The Senate today unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne to protect Rhode Island youth by requiring all adults who seek employment or volunteer opportunities with routine contact with children in churches or religious organizations to submit to a national criminal background check if asked.
The legislation (2017-S 0661A) is meant to help churches and other religious institutions protect children from people who have a history of abuse or other dangerous crimes. Senator Coyne became aware of the need for the legislation as a result of the May 2015 arrest of the director of religious education at Temple Habonim in Barrington in a statewide child pornography sweep.
“Churches and religious organizations rely heavily on volunteers, the vast majority of whom are there for selfless reasons and share the institutions’ dedication to moral behavior. Unfortunately, by virtue of welcoming volunteers, churches and religious institutions make good targets for someone who might want access to children as potential victims. They need all available tools to screen volunteers and employees to ensure that they are providing children a safe experience,” said Senator Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence).
The bill now goes to the House, where Rep. Jason Knight (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren) is sponsoring companion legislation (2017-H 6059).
Under the legislation, anyone 18 or older seeking to work or volunteer for any religious organization in a position in which they would have routine contact with children would be required, at the request of the religious organization or house of worship, to undergo a Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) national criminal background check for the purpose of determining whether he or she has been convicted of any crime. The cost of the background check would be the applicant’s responsibility.
The legislation would not force churches or religious organizations to make BCI checks a requirement. It would only legally allow them to make a BCI check a condition of employment or of accepting any volunteer who would have routine contact with children through their organization.
The legislation would not automatically disclose the nature of any crime in an applicant’s history, instead disclosing only that some disqualifying information has been found. However, the applicant would have the option of asking that the specifics be forwarded to the church or organization, which would then have the discretion to determine whether the applicant is eligible to work or volunteer there.
The legislation also protects churches and religious organizations from liability for refusing to accept an employee or volunteer based on information received as part of the criminal background checks.
Senator Coyne, who is a retired State Police lieutenant, said she understands that national background checks cannot provide a guarantee of safety from predators, since they do not protect against anyone who would be a first-time offender. Some institutions may also wish to allow people with criminal histories to work or volunteer in some capacities if they consider the nature of their particular history to be irrelevant to the position, or if they determine the person has been sufficiently rehabilitated in the time since the offense occurred. However, churches and religious organizations should at least have access to this existing resource if they want it to make informed decisions about applicants with dangerous histories, she said.
“It’s an obvious safety issue to let someone, for example, teach religious education if they have a criminal history of abusing children. Giving religious institutions the freedom to require BCI checks and protection from liability allows them to do as much as they can to protect children and prevent tragedies,” said Senator Coyne.
The bill is cosponsored by Sen. William J. Conley Jr. (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket), Sen. Adam J. Satchell (D-Dist. 9, West Warwick), Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket) and Sen. James A. Seveney (D-Dist. 11, Portsmouth, Bristol, Tiverton).