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Volunteers for Pope Francis Philadelphia visit put through rigorous background checks

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Date: August 11, 2015

When Pope Francis makes his stop in Philadelphia this September, a contingency of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel will ensure the safety of the pontiff and that of the estimated 2 million people expected to be in the city for his visit.

The more mundane task of ushering such a massive gathering and helping visitors with questions, language interpretation, directions and schedules will fall on the volunteers who have been selected by the World Meeting of Families to facilitate the historic event.

The task has been no small undertaking. Since putting a call out for volunteers, World Meeting of Families, the Catholic organization that is sponsoring the pope’s visit, has added to its roster of volunteers 9,000 people.

Volunteers will not only be on hand during the pope’s two-day visit, but will play an integral part in the annual gathering of the World Meeting of Families. The triennial event, sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family, was conceived by the late Pope John Paul II in 1992. It was designed to strengthening Catholic family life across the world.

Not everyone has made the cut. The requirements have been rigorous and have entailed security protocol fit for a high-clearance federal background check. Each and every single one of the 9,000 volunteers has had to submit to a comprehensive, 20-point background check that includes checks for criminal and sexual offender records.

Tom Klein, executive director of Sterling Volunteers, the firm hired to conduct the background checks, tailors the screening platform to the volunteer sector and in accordance with the guidelines set by the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The process entails a thorough screening that leaves no stone unturned.

“It is our most comprehensive volunteer screening in terms of its breadth and depth,” Klein said. “We live in a country where criminal court records are stored at thousands of different repositories, in county courts, state departments of corrections, data bases and county and municipal repositories. To find criminal records comprehensively it takes a very wide net to be cast.”

Francis, who makes his first trip to the U.S. in September, is scheduled to visit Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27. He will celebrate Mass to an expected 1.5 million faithful that Sunday on the Ben Franklin Parkway. The security detail for the pope, which spearheaded by the U.S. Secret Service under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security, is poised to be unprecedented.

The standards on the ground with the army of volunteers is no less rigid. Background checks investigators have scoured county and state records – where a volunteer has “lived, worked or played” – to get a complete picture of the applicant.

Klein’s firm has also scrutinized primary names, given names, any aliases, maiden names or any name that a person has used in the past.

“It’s about a robust a background check as you can get,” Klein said. “It’s on par with what a defense contractor would run on employees.”

Sterling Volunteers screens millions of volunteers a year. Still, Klein said, things can fall through the cracks.

“We are in the risk mitigation business to keep everyone safe but no system is 100 percent proof,” he said. The screening protocol and policy, however, is “going to create a very safe event.”

Sterling Volunteers delivers the background reports, but it’s not their call if someone with a misdemeanor or some criminal blemish can volunteer.

“It’s solely up to World Meeting of Families to determine eligibility,” Klein said.

Interested in becoming a volunteer? World Meeting of Families is still taking applications, so it’s not too late.

What will volunteers be doing? Here’s a rundown of some of the job descriptions:

  • Volunteer Captain- manages volunteers.
  • Guest Services Associate- Greets, welcomes, and directs all visitors.
  • Special Services Coordinator- Helps guests and visitors with special needs and medical issues.
  • Language Services Associate- Interprets or translates foreign languages. Provides event-wide translation and interpretation.
  • Operational and Logistics Assistant- Assists with transportation logistics and media and technology support.
  • Digital Diplomat- Three words: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
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