Some churches and volunteer groups have stopped screening for potential pardoned sex offenders such as Graham James due to newly tightened rules on police database searches.
As the government mulls changes to protect public safety, The Canadian Press has learned that stricter enforcement of privacy around criminal records has made it far more cumbersome for society to weed out volunteers and employees who should not be working with the vulnerable.
The RCMP, which administers the national criminal records database, reined in access to the computer system in a little-noticed move last December.
The criminal screening issue is getting widespread attention due to revelations that Mr. James - a former junior hockey coach who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two players and now faces allegations from others - was pardoned in 2007.
Contrary to widespread media reports, the sealed criminal records of Mr. James and other pardoned sex offenders are not flagged in a manner that's evident to routine criminal background checks.
"The system is actually broken at this point in time, there's no other way to basically describe it," Dannie Wilson, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Background Screeners, told The Canadian Press.
"The system was working exceptionally well. ... The RCMP, in their wisdom, I guess decided that somebody was doing something wrong out there."
The Mounties clamped down on access to the Canadian Police Information Centre database, or CPIC, last Dec. 8, sharply restricting the amount of information that had been readily and routinely - if technically illegally - released to organizations and employers doing criminal checks with their employees' consent.
"We didn't make any changes to the system, per se," Superintendent Chuck Walker, director of field services for CPIC, said in an interview.
"What we did was we insisted that the policies be observed."
Roger Wingfield, vice-president and general manager of Toronto-based Brokerforce Insurance Inc., says 1,000 churches his company insures are currently in limbo.
"We've got people who are going to shut down their ministries and doing the [volunteer]work because they can't get proper screening," Mr. Wingfield said in an interview. "Or they're going to use people who may have some problems."
The problem doesn't just affect churches, he said.
"It applies to baseball leagues, hockey leagues, any type of kids' program that anybody happens to be running."
There were 887 pardons granted to sex offenders in 2009-10 and 667 the year before, according to figures released Thursday by the National Parole Board.
The Criminal Records Act and a ministerial directive dating from 1987 set out very clear rules for the release of pardoned records:
Only the individual, not his or her potential employer (even with a signed consent), can ask whether a flagged file even exists;
If a flagged file is found, only the individual can ask to see it by providing fingerprints, a process that can take 120 days or more;
Police may release the contents of the file initially only to the individual.
For routine background checks, police can only respond that no record exists or that there may possibly be a record. At that point, the individual would have to submit fingerprints and wait 120 days or more to see if there is in fact a record and what is in it.
"We definitely recognize the problems that this has created," the RCMP's Supt. Walker said.
"We also see it as an opportunity to hopefully introduce some solutions that will address a lot of the concerns raised."
Organizations liable for ensuring that employees and volunteers who work with children and other designated vulnerable groups are anxious to learn more about the RCMP changes.
"One of our directors has been tasked to look into that and find out exactly what's going to happen and what it's going to mean in relation to us and our screening procedures," said Susie Mackie, spokeswoman for Scouts Canada.
Don Lapierre of Volunteer Canada said the national umbrella group also plans to meet with the RCMP, partly to get a better sense of how the changes are affecting organizations who must screen recruits.
"I'd like to find out from them what kind of feedback they're getting."
Supt. Walker says the screening system is working as legislators designed it. "A criminal records check won't reveal the existence of a conviction for which a pardon's been granted. That's the whole idea."
He acknowledges the existing privacy provisions had been routinely flouted by police agencies across the country before last November's crackdown. "There are a number of arrangements that pre-existed the re-affirmation of existing policy that were not consistent with the ministerial directive or the Criminal Records Act."
Supt. Walker also acknowledges it is "true enough" that some organizations may stop demanding vulnerable sector searches of prospective employees or volunteers as a result of the more cumbersome process.
The Mounties are currently working on a Real Time Identification Program of automated finger-printing that would dramatically speed up the current 120-day waiting period.
"But the reality is that today it's a definite challenge for the timely release of that type of information," Supt. Walker said.
The Canadian Association of Professional Background Screeners sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper a letter this week protesting the tightened procedures.
"Either your office is not as committed to your tough stance on crime, criminals and a safer Canada as you would have us believe, or you are unaware of the restricted access the RCMP has imposed . . . ," Mr. Wilson wrote.
The rule enforcement is also having a perverse impact on those who have criminal records, screeners say.
With an individual's signed consent, police used to routinely release the record of criminal details directly and quickly to prospective employers or volunteer groups, said Trish Dehmel, a former military cop who runs CSI Screening in Halifax.
Now, that individual must submit finger prints and wait several months for record details - a time lag that means employers are rejecting such applicants out of hand.
"They won't allow you to give consent to have your own criminal record released to your employer with the details," Ms. Dehmel said.
"Can you wait 180 days for that job? Is your son's hockey team going to be able to wait 180 days?"
Mr. Wingfield said he gave a seminar Thursday morning to church leaders, where he reminded them that, since they've been informed of the rules demanding background checks, they are now liable if those checks are not properly done.
The insurance broker said the RCMP, the Minister of Public Safety and now the Prime Minister are all aware there's a major issue with the system of background checks of potential sex abusers.
"Now, if it works in the real world and somebody is molested because this checking wasn't done, this actually sits on the prime minister's desk," Mr. Wingfield said.
"Can he be sued for that? Can he be brought into a class-action suit? It's just a big question mark.
"It certainly can happen in a business. It certainly can happen in a church."
Those who work in the volunteer sector stress that effective screening should include more than just police record checks.
"If that's all an organization is doing in terms of screening, then their systems and processes in place are sorely lacking," Mr. Lapierre said.
Interviews with both the prospective volunteer and their references, as well as probationary periods for new recruits, are recommended by Volunteer Canada.