“Ask a Priest: Can an Ex-Felon Be Barred From Helping at a Parish?”

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Q: I recently finished the RCIA process and received the sacraments. I am also a white-collar felon (no violence, no sex, no drugs, and no alcohol issues). I joined my local parish just after being released. I confessed to my priest and received my penance. I have spent most of my life as a very productive, successful and law-abiding person, husband and father. I have always enjoyed giving service to others. I was volunteering at our parish and helping with kitchen work for several months when I was asked to submit to a background check and fingerprints. I went to my RCIA and volunteer coordinator (same person), who also knows my history, and asked him if I would be affected. He said the diocese is concerned with felons having a history of crimes that were sexual or violent in nature. He was wrong. The parish received a call from the chancellor’s office and was told that no felons were welcome in any of the church ministries, regardless of the nature of the crime. I was stunned and I cannot believe that the original church of Jesus Christ would treat people this way. Good works are part of Christian life and very important to felons trying to rebuild their lives. I was told that I could finish the RCIA process and attend Mass, but nothing else. I guess my question is, does this sound right to you? Is this truly the position of the Catholic Church as it relates to felons, or are these staffers in the chancellor’s office making up their own overarching interpretation of rules placed to protect parishioners from predators? Father, what should I do? I have appealed, as did my priest and other lay Church personnel, to the chancellor’s office. But to no avail. Thank you for your thoughts on this. – T.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to hear that you are in the RCIA, though I’m sorry to hear about the rest of the situation.

Ultimately it’s up to the bishop to decide about criteria for people who are involved in Church work in his diocese.

I won’t try to speak for the bishop. But my guess is that in this era of scandals, the diocese might have adopted strict standards to protect itself from liability as well as to send a signal that it is absolutely committed to safe environments.

This doesn’t mean to imply that you pose a danger to anyone. It’s just that legal issues tend to overlap, and this might have pushed the diocese to embrace the widest possible safeguards.

In today’s environment, the diocese might have decided that anything less than a total ban on all ex-felons might be perceived as lax and even morally reckless. The widespread perception that the Church was irresponsible in the past with problematic personnel now gives bishops less leeway in their decision-making.

Maybe a few other observations would help put things in perspective.

First, we are here in the Church because we believe it to be the Church founded by Jesus. Here we can find the Eucharist and all the sacraments. Here we can find solid teaching in matters of faith and morals. (This is a separate issue from the disciplinary rules that a particular diocese might have.)

Second, you might still be able to get involved in volunteer work in your area. There might be homeless shelters that could use help, for instance. Your desire to do works of charity need not be thwarted.

Third, you might see this situation as a cross that you can offer back to God. God has a way of allowing unexpected crosses in our lives, not to annoy us but to help us grow in virtue. Embraced patiently, crosses can be great instruments in advancement in holiness.

For you and your family, it would be good not to let the present limitations keep you from being an apostle of charity.

Christ calls you to be a saint, and you can become one with his grace.

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  1. Thank you Father. This was actually my letter. I finished RCIA and am still practicing my faith, although Covid has made that a bit challenging. I have found other volunteer opportunities outside the church, and have actually been asked to join the Knights of Columbus. They know me and my history and are allowing me to join. Again, thank you for your kind direction and support.

  2. Although my heart breaks for T., I thoroughly agree with Fr. Edward’s response. It is a VERY emotionally-charged climate in the Catholic Church right now and although on a personal level, I would not mind being in a ministry with T., I can readily understand why the Diocese/Bishop would be exercise extreme caution. Because many ministries involve children, there must be multiple layers of protection, especially with the Church’s mishandling of cases in the past.

    I further agree that there are many ways to be involved in ministry/apostolate in the community. Soup kitchens, prison ministry and praying at Abortion clinics are just a few of the many ways to serve Christ in the world. Offering up the pain you feel from being excluded from Church ministry is another beautiful way to make reparation and unite your sufferings to Christ’s passion and death. No suffering in this life need be wasted! God bless and I will pray for you, T.! Peace, Cathy

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