TSA hired defrocked Camden priest without background check

Posted: October 02, 2012

About four months after being defrocked by the Diocese of Camden in 2002, Thomas Harkins had a new job as a security officer, including patting down passengers, with the Transportation Security Administration at Philadelphia International Airport.

The TSA hired the former priest before completing a background check, the agency recently confirmed. According to a church document, the diocese revealed to the TSA in 2003 as part of the background check that Harkins had been removed from ministry because of allegations he had molested two grade-school girls. Harkins was never criminally prosecuted, but the diocese settled civil lawsuits for $195,000.

The TSA took no action as a result of the disclosure.

"An allegation alone does not warrant dismissal or automatically disqualify applicants from employment with the TSA," spokeswoman Ann Davis said.

Over the years, Harkins, 65, who lives in Collingswood, has been promoted within the TSA and now oversees screening operations for checked baggage, earning $75,600. He has not patted down passengers since 2004, the TSA said.

Although Harkins has managed to lead a seemingly quiet life for 10 years, his past has come under scrutiny since May, when a lawsuit was filed against the diocese alleging that church officials concealed allegations against Harkins and allowed him to work with children even though he had been treated for pedophilia.

Harkins was hired at the TSA as Homeland Security was initially staffing up to protect airports from terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. The newly created TSA hired about 50,000 workers, some before full background checks were completed, said a TSA official who did not want to be quoted by name.

Harkins was not excluded from the agency's applicant pool - which typically includes retired police, veterans, and those with previous security experience - because he passed the TSA's initial screening, including an interview, Davis said.

Today, the agency no longer does massive hirings. Employment is contingent on a full background check, and those without a positive evaluation from a previous employer are unlikely to pass the agency's screening, according to the TSA.

Harkins did not respond to repeated calls and messages left at his home seeking comment.

According to a letter written by a diocesan official that The Inquirer recently obtained, the church informed the TSA on Sept. 29, 2003, that Harkins had been accused of sexually abusing two girls. By then, Harkins had been working as a security officer for more than a year.

He began in the priesthood in 1978. In 2002, he was no longer permitted to present himself as a priest or attend church activities because of the alleged sexual abuse, said Peter Feuerherd, spokesman for the Camden diocese.

Harkins remains one of 133 New Jersey priests identified on a website maintained by bishop-accountability.org, a nonprofit that tracks clergy abuse. The list identifies 4,300 priests accused of molestation across the nation.

When Harkins applied for the TSA job in 2002, a widespread church scandal was unfolding. Investigations discovered that a number of abusive priests had been reassigned and never reported to law enforcement by church officials.

After some highly publicized cases, dioceses including Camden's reviewed their personnel records. According to a 2002 law enforcement record, Harkins was among a number of priests in the diocese who had been accused of abuse.

On May 17 that year, the Camden diocese notified Harkins in writing that he could no longer participate in parish activities there or elsewhere, records show.

That month, Harkins retired. By August, he was working for the TSA. Feuerherd said the diocese was contacted about Harkins for the TSA's background check.

On Sept. 29, 2003, Rod J. Herrera, then director of priest personnel, wrote a one-page letter to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which conducts the TSA's background checks.

Harkins was "precluded from presenting himself as a priest to anyone, or dressing as a priest," or participating in parish social and charitable activities, Herrera wrote.

"He was placed on restrictive ministry in 1993, when the diocese received a report of inappropriate sexual conduct on the part of Harkins toward an adolescent female," Herrera wrote.

"In the same year, the diocese learned of inappropriate sexual conduct on the part of Harkins toward another adolescent female, and he was sent for an evaluation. Upon receipt by the diocese of the report by the evaluators, Mr. Harkins was removed from his post at Camden Catholic High School."

The letter gave no information about the alleged victims. Feuerherd said they reported that Harkins had abused them in the 1980s at St. Anthony of Padua in Hammonton. Early in his career, Harkins served 18 months at St. Anthony's, teaching catechism and leading Sunday services for children.

After that, he was transferred to numerous posts before he was assigned in 1990 to Camden Catholic in Cherry Hill, where he served as a teacher, Feuerherd said. There were no allegations by students at Camden Catholic, he said.

Harkins was never prosecuted in the St. Anthony cases. The diocese did not report the allegations to law enforcement until 2002, after the statute of limitations had passed, records show. However, the diocese settled civil lawsuits for $195,000. By that time, Harkins was working for the TSA.

A third lawsuit filed against the diocese this year by a North Carolina woman seeks at least $75,000 in damages and accuses the diocese of concealing molestations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In her lawsuit, Lisa Shanahan alleges the diocese could have prevented Harkins from molesting her at St. Anthony's if he had been removed from ministry after other victims complained. She wants the diocese to make Harkins' personnel file public.

Church officials have said that the diocese should have reported the abuse to law enforcement at the time of the allegations and that Harkins should not have remained in ministry as long as he did.

Davis said she could not discuss specifics about Harkins' hiring at the TSA, whether he disclosed sexual abuse allegations, or whether the TSA ever asked about the allegations.

"The Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits TSA from disclosing information from our employees' job applications and employment records," Davis said. "However, all TSA employees undergo comprehensive background checks, which include criminal history."

Job qualifications posted on the TSA website for those seeking to become a security officer include a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential, or at least one year of full-time work experience in the security industry, aviation screening, or as an X-ray technician.

"Looking to work directly with travelers and being part of our team of Transportation Security Officers?" the website asks. Officers are responsible for screening, patting down passengers, including children.

"Find Your Dream Job," the website says. In an online video, in which the TSA employees describe their job duties, a female officer says, "Our job requires you touch people, touch their bags."

To be eligible for the "prestigious group of individuals," the TSA details that "all applicants must pass a very stringent background review."


Contact Barbara Boyer at 215-313-3004 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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