Not wanting to lose illegal immigrant volunteers, the Los Angeles and Orange Roman Catholic dioceses have quietly backed away from a pledge to root out pedophiles by running fingerprint background checks on anyone who works with children.
The revamped policy in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles allows church volunteer candidates without government-issue identification to give instead a sworn affidavit stating that they have not been convicted of any crime. In Orange, potential volunteers without photo IDs can submit a sworn affidavit and two letters of reference attesting to their character.
Church leaders said background checks of illegal immigrants are virtually impossible without government photo identification, and the church stood to lose a small army of volunteers in heavily Latino parishes unless the photo ID requirement was dropped.
Those who don't have background checks are allowed to work with children, but only under supervision, church officials said.
The policies, revamped last year and recently uncovered by The Times, outraged victim advocates who said the dioceses are putting concern for illegal immigrants before the protection of children.
"It's scary. I didn't know they were doing this," said Rita Milla, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-area Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "They are just trying to be too politically correct, even though it means putting the kids at risk. If someone can't prove who they are, they shouldn't be volunteering."
In response to the church's molestation scandal, which erupted across the nation in 2002, U.S. bishops mandated background checks that same year for priests and deacons. In the following years, the mandate expanded to include diocesan employees and volunteers.
The L.A. Archdiocese, on its website, recommends that "adult parish volunteers who have regular supervisory contact with minors be fingerprinted."
The Diocese of Orange policy states that it "conducts fingerprint background checks on all adults who have regular and consistent contact with minors."
Between the two dioceses, more than 70,000 priests, employees and volunteers have been fingerprinted, church officials said.
In Orange, the background checks resulted in the removal of 11 employees or volunteers, said chancellor Shirl Giacomi. Nine had been convicted of violent crimes and two had records of sexual abuse, she said.
Figures for Los Angeles were not available late Wednesday.
Fingerprint background checks, which are processed by the federal Department of Justice, cannot be done without government-issue photo identification. "Individuals who are fingerprinted must show a valid form of photo identification to ensure the person being fingerprinted is the person they say they are," said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
In Orange County, Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto wrote to priests and Catholic educators in the Orange Diocese in August to say that the Department of Justice would not conduct criminal background checks with a Mexican-issued identification card known as matricula consular.
"I propose that we continue with the provisional policy requiring an affidavit in lieu of the fingerprints because the [Justice Department] has made it impractical, if not impossible, for all our volunteers to comply," Soto wrote.
Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the office of child and youth protection of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church's national policy stipulates only that a diocese "figure out a methodology to check those who have contact with children. It doesn't specify they must be fingerprinted."
Church officials said volunteers who are immigrants are essential to many parish programs, especially the religious education of children.
Soto said if the Department of Justice would do fingerprint background checks without government photo IDs, the diocese would do them. But until then, the auxiliary bishop said the Orange Diocese must find ways to allow illegal immigrants to be involved in parish life.
The immigrant community is a "significant segment of our church and we want them to participate," Soto said. "We are doing this because these people want to participate, they want to serve their church and we want to welcome them."