Monday, October 1, 2012

TSA hired defrocked Camden priest without background check

Barbara Boyer
Philadelphia Inquirer
October 1, 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.

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