Group sees need to screen chaplains

The Journal News/July 20, 2003
By Gary Stern

So many clergy who descended on Ground Zero in late 2001 were either unprepared or unwilling to offer appropriate spiritual counseling that a new clergy group plans to screen and credential chaplains for future emergencies in the tri-state area.

The group aims to weed out clergy prone to proselytize at disaster sites, those not trained to refer survivors and rescue workers for counseling or other services, and those who are simply not up to the taxing work of disaster relief.

It is an unprecedented and potentially controversial effort that organizers hope will become a national model for providing spiritual care in the face of tragedy.

"A lot of people managed to get to Ground Zero who did not go through any channels," said Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz, a veteran New York chaplain who is leading Disaster Spiritual Care Services. "Anyone who goes through us will have to demonstrate that they can do nonsectarian, nonproselytizing work. And they will be bound by an agreement that says so."

The Red Cross convened the clergy group early this year to consider a new system for deploying chaplains. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Red Cross found itself in charge of processing hundreds of would-be chaplains who showed up at Ground Zero.

The clergy group is spinning off from the Red Cross and seeking nonprofit corporate status from the state. Its leaders hope that their roster of credentialed chaplains will be formally recognized by New York City, state and federal agencies that deal with disasters.

Whether government officials in charge of disaster sites will allow access to chaplains not recognized by the group may not be determined until a hurricane, plane crash or terrorist attack hits the region.

The Rev. John Hiemstra of West Nyack, head of the Council of Churches of the City of New York and a leader of several regional interfaith groups, said Sept. 11 showed that chaplaincy work must be formalized.

"We were not prepared," he said. "Ground Zero was catch as catch can. Some of the counseling work was very good and some was very bad. Not all who came forward were equipped to do so. You have to avoid proselytizing and you must be ready to give good information about medical and psychological services."

Disaster Spiritual Care Services intends to screen would-be chaplains, including those recommended by religious denominations, to make sure they are willing to offer spiritual care to people of all faiths — or those who have none. Chaplains who pass will be trained in disaster relief, entered into a database and given ID cards.

It remains to be seen who will be rejected and whether religious freedom issues will be raised.

At Ground Zero, experienced chaplains in hardhats mixed with ministers who warned of the need for salvation and spontaneously prayed for people without regard to their religious beliefs.

The Church of Scientology had dozens of "volunteer ministers" on hand to offer counseling, and their involvement was criticized by the mental health establishment. It is unclear whether Scientologists can meet Disaster Spiritual Care Services' standards, which will likely ask that chaplains be prepared to refer people for psychological services. Scientology rejects traditional mental health treatment.

The Rev. John Carmichael, Scientology's president for the state, was skeptical when told of Disaster Spiritual Care Services' goals.

"I don't think they'll be able to define who can help at a disaster site," he said. "If they have a way to smooth things out and ensure that proper care is given, that's tremendous. But as far as involving mental health people, my observation at Ground Zero is that they were not in great evidence, and when they were, they did not help."

Organizers of the chaplaincy program promise to recognize only chaplains who adhere to recognized standards.

The Rev. John Hall, an Orthodox Christian priest from Manhattan who is associate director of Disaster Spiritual Care Services, said that chaplains at disaster sites have to be prepared to counsel people of all backgrounds, including nonbelievers facing profound spiritual crises.

"When we screen people, we ask questions — theological, some sociological, some posed by victims to chaplains," Hall said. "There are wrong answers. Why did God allow the planes to hit the World Trade Center? Saying we don't know is one good answer. But saying that the people in there were sinners is not what we want. That will get you shown the door."

More than 100 chaplains are already seeking certification, Hall said.

Patrick Korten, a spokesman for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, an agency that defends religious expression, said that government already screens chaplains for prisons and the military. Doing the same for disaster sites should work, he said, if the accrediting agency is fair.

"If this agency gets an exclusive on choosing people, someone could try to challenge it," Korten said. "It's still the government that has responsibility for managing emergency response."

It will ultimately be up to government agencies to determine the role of Disaster Spiritual Care Services and its roster of trained chaplains. Frank McCarton, spokesman for the New York City Office of Emergency Management, said it was too early to comment on the chaplaincy program.

Ken Curtain, who is the Federal Emergency Management Agency's liaison to voluntary agencies in New York, said the effort to credential chaplains would bring order and produce chaplains who understand the dimensions of disaster work.

"Everyone involved realizes there has to be an orderly, evenhanded process," Curtain said. "It is better that this is done by self-regulating clergy than government agencies with no expertise. Emergency management will still control the disaster scene and make the final decisions about who gets in."

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