Keeping the People’s Pope Safe: Pope Francis, Volunteers, and Background Checks

Angela Preston

Pope Francis

In case you haven’t been tuned in, the country has Pope Francis fever. When Pope Francis arrived in the U.S. this week for a six day visit, he was greeted by a blur of media coverage and was surrounded by an unprecedented army of law enforcement, secret service, and security professionals brought in to manage the crowds and deal with the millions of people who are expected to turn out to see the Pontiff in his Popemobile.

You might be wondering what the Pope’s visit has to do with background checks. Consider this: when the Pope appears at the World Meeting of Families event being held September 26 and 27th in Philadelphia, crowds are expected to close to 2 million people.  And apparently the Papal Father does not like to be confined—he’s known for his propensity to wander with the people. He’s a touchy-feely, hands-on kind of guy. Fun fact: no selfie sticks are allowed near the Pope.

So, in preparing for an event of that size and scope, the organizers have recruited an impressive 9,000 additional volunteers to help manage the situation. But instead of taking all comers, the organization decided not to take any chances. They ran all volunteers through a rigorous “20-point background check” that was described as a “security protocol fit for a high-clearance federal background check” that includes checks for criminal and sexual offender records.

The Papal Volunteer Background Checks

World Meeting of Families hired a private screening firm that specializes in volunteer screening to conduct the background checks according to guidelines set by the Philadelphia Archdiocese.  Based on the information found on the organization’s website, the volunteer screening program was very similar to the background screening done by private employers on regular job applicants and employees. Volunteers were directed to a portal where they could choose their desired “job,” enter their name, address, date of birth and other required information, and the background check was processed over a 2-3 day period. The check reportedly included a social security number trace, county level searches in counties where prospective volunteers had lived or worked, as well as sex offender registries. The archdiocese then determined whether the applicant was a suitable volunteer based on its policies and the volunteer role sought. That sounds like a pretty good program.

The concept of screening volunteers is not new. Many non-profit organizations use volunteers as an alternative to paid employees, and other institutions like schools and hospitals rely heavily upon a mix of paid employees and volunteers.  Think about it–many environments that lean heavily on a volunteer workforce have a high risk of exposure to young people, the elderly, or ill or disabled populations. Organizations like these need a really good screening program! So while the need is great, and the process is catching on in the volunteer community, many volunteer organizations lack the in-house knowledge or budgets to devote to a screening program. To further complicate matters, the legal requirements surrounding volunteer background checks are not always clear or well understood.

FCRA: Yes or no?

One of the threshold issues for volunteer background checks is whether they are subject to the same consumer protection laws as private, for profit employment checks. For those well-schooled in employment screening compliance, you know that the Fair Credit Reporting Act is the bible for employment screening. But volunteers are not technically employees. Some organizations, including churches, children’s charities and even schools, take the position that when it comes to volunteers, they are not employers. They claim that since the purpose of the check is not technically for employment, none of the consumer protections built into pre-employment background checks are required. Following this logic, the organization would not technically need to obtain written authorization and make the required disclosures under the FCRA, nor would it need to follow the adverse action process or dispute process under the federal law.

This approach does little to serve the organization, its constituents, or the prospective volunteers. The FTC has spoken on this issue in a 2011 staff report, and has said that the Congressional intent of the Act was, in fact, to extend protections to a broader group that would potentially include independent contractors and volunteers. The courts have done little to clear up the issue. Court opinions have occasionally held the opposite, ruling that employers dealing with independent contractors had no duty to comply with the FCRA.

The Bottom Line for Volunteer Background Checks

I would argue that the spirit of the law is to provide transparency in the screening process, and when it is practiced it helps to ensure accurate results. Obtaining prior consent and following the FCRA and state disclosure and written authorization requirements is a good practice regardless—it puts the volunteer on notice and requires explicit written permission to use personally identifying information to conduct a search. It’s the right thing to do, and I tend to think that the FTC and many judges and juries would agree.

Take the adverse action process, for example. If an organization takes a position that it does not have to send pre-adverse notices that include a copy of the report, there’s a risk that qualified volunteers will be turned away based on inaccurate information.  No one wants to make decisions on bad information.  Volunteers should have the opportunity to see the report, find out why they might be disqualified, and then have a channel through which to dispute potentially inaccurate information and clear their record.

Following FCRA requirements for volunteers creates a better experience for the applicants, a more transparent process, and more accurate results. And while there are no guarantees that any program is one hundred percent effective, it sounds like the Pope’s sponsors and the Philadelphia Archdiocese got it right.

Angela Preston
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Angela Preston

Vice President of Compliance & General Counsel at EmployeeScreenIQ
Angela Preston has more than 20 years as a licensed attorney and over 10 years in the background screening area. She serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), is a member of the NAPBS Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC), and is actively involved in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and ASIS International. Angela is also a member of the Ohio State and Columbus Bar Associations. Angela has direct oversight and management of compliance programs, and will provide guidance in complex legal matters including state and federal legislation, EEO law, client education, adjudication, pre/adverse action process, NAPBS Accreditation and client and vendor contract management.
Angela Preston
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