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Home > Church Leaders > Administration

Leadership Journal, Summer 1997

Safe at Church

Practical strategies for protecting children from sexual abuse.

by Beth J. Lueders


Jeffrey Black, former rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri, knows the pain that child sexual abuse can cause a church. In May 1993 a 15-year-old parishioner came forward and indicted the church's music minister for molestation. The minister confessed, and the church terminated him after seventeen years of service.

Although the boy chose not to file legal charges, the incident tore deeply into the congregation's spirit. Nearly fifteen families left the church, and those who remained felt anger, confusion, and mistrust.

"It was damaging to everyone and extraordinarily sad," Black says. "It took a lot of ministry to deal with this. We developed a clear policy about sexual misconduct and put our staff through extensive training on these issues."

No one likes to think about sexual abuse of children. But the potential damage to the child and to the church—not to mention the possibility of wrenching lawsuits—has caused many churches to take steps to protect its children.

Based on interviews with pastors, abuse-prevention experts, attorneys, denominational officials, and insurance companies, here are important practical steps to minimize the risk of sexual misconduct and to keep your church's children safe. The good news, writes attorney Richard Hammar, is that "church leaders can take relatively simple yet effective steps to significantly reduce the likelihood of such an incident occurring."

1. Develop clear policies
A vital first step is to develop clear, specific policies. "Churches need a clear policy that says you can't work here if you are going to act this way," says Elizabeth Stellas-Tippins, program specialist for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. "This itself is a strong prevention mechanism."

A church policy manual should include definitions of sexual abuse, standards of conduct, guidelines for screening and training workers, and procedures to follow if an incident is reported. (For information on how to write policies, see "Where to Learn More" on page 103.) Be sure a lawyer reviews policies before you implement them, since state laws vary on employment and reporting obligations.

2. Screen workers carefully
As youth organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters have toughened their screening of volunteers in recent years, pedophiles have scurried to other agencies, including churches, to find children.

For a church, it's painful to think about screening potential Sunday school teachers and youth leaders. It takes time; it takes money; it can cause hard feelings; and it can reduce the number of willing volunteers when most churches need every one. But the fact is, churches are legally responsible for volunteer workers. Careful selection and supervision guidelines must apply, especially with positions that regularly work with children. "Negligent hiring" and "negligent supervising" are the two main issues battled in church sexual misconduct cases.

Have applicants for a paid or volunteer position complete an application. (Screening procedures should also be completed retroactively for current staff.) For most paid positions, churches already ask for employment history, description of prior church service, and professional and personal references. But it's important to add specific questions about criminal record, particularly convictions for sexual abuse or molestation. Finish with a statement for the applicant to sign, certifying that information in the application is true and complete and any falsified information may lead to rejection from employment. It is also important to verify the applicant's identity with a driver's license, since offenders often use pseudonyms. (For details, see "What to Ask Before You Hire" on page 102.)

Contact all references, preferably in writing. Note information you tried to secure but could not verify or obtain. Be sure to maintain confidentiality of all applications and records. Restrict access to these files to only a few individuals who legitimately need the information.

When you interview the applicant, ask an associate to participate, to give you additional opinions on the candidate.

Many states now require a criminal records check on all child care workers. Most local police departments and state bureaus of investigation will run a criminal records check for about $10. Often these checks cover records only within a particular state, however. Private nationwide screening companies will run interstate checks for approximately $50. Or contact a local day-care center to find out who handles its background checks. In most cases you need a person's consent before you can conduct a criminal records search, so include an authorization form in the application process.

If an applicant has a criminal record for sexual or physical abuse, you might still allow him or her to work in some church ministry, but don't permit work with youth or children. A person's conversion is not a defensible position in the courts.

One of the easiest screening methods—and one that doesn't cost money—is to require volunteers to be associated with the church at least six months before they can work with youth or children. This policy gives the church additional time to evaluate workers and can ward off persons who desire immediate access to children.

But does such screening unnecessarily offend potential staff members and volunteers? "Some people get offended," admits Dee Engel, director of children's ministries at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, California, "because I press a little harder than they think I should in the screening process. But I don't think you can be too careful. You have to protect your kids as well as your teachers."

Engel participates in a network of children's pastors from nearly a dozen area churches who warn each other of potentially troublesome volunteers and workers.

"One man became irate when we wanted to screen him," says Joan Whitlock, director of children's ministries at Wheaton (Illinois) Bible Church. "The next week I discovered his name on a list of convicted pedophiles I received from the police department. If [our church] didn't have its screening process in place, we might have let him work with children."

3. Set supervision guidelines
You can minimize the risk to your church's children, and the risk to your church of being sued for "negligent supervision," by implementing approaches like the following:

—Arrange for at least two adult supervisors with minors during church-sponsored activities. The two-adult rule applies in changing areas and restrooms and even if only one or two children are present in the nursery.

—Have adults present with teenage volunteers, since the law doesn't allow screening on anyone under age 18.

—Develop a "claim check" system in large nurseries so children are released only to a parent or guardian with the appropriate claim check.

—Install windows on the doors of classrooms and other rooms occupied by young people.

—Have church leaders randomly visit classrooms and areas of church buildings that are isolated from view.

—Provide an adequate number of adults to supervise youth events, especially overnight activities. "The highest risks," writes attorney Richard Hammar, "involve male workers in programs that involve overnight activities."

—Educate workers about appropriate behaviors between adults and children and encourage them to report potentially harmful situations. "Sometimes in church we assume another person would not dare cross a sexual boundary," says Stephanie Anna Hixon, executive director of the United Methodist Church's General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. "We don't need to create paranoia or unhealthy suspicions, but we need to be aware and show a high standard of care."

—Train all staff and volunteers at least once a year in recognizing signs of abuse; also review your policies and procedures.

—Post a copy of your state's Child Abuse Reporting Law in a conspicuous place in your child care and youth areas. To obtain a copy, call your state's Child Protective Services Agency.

4. Check your insurance
"We are experiencing an alarming frequency of claim reports," says Hugh White, Brotherhood Mutual Insurance's vice president for marketing. "People are not reluctant anymore to sue churches, and the courts are taking the issue very seriously."

Companies like Brotherhood Mutual and Church Mutual offer separate sexual-misconduct liability coverage, with annual premiums ranging from $100 to $500, depending on the size of the church and programs offered (nursery, Christian school, etc). Or you can add the coverage to your policy. Brotherhood Mutual offers a discount for churches who screen their workers.

Some companies—like the Church Insurance Company, which exclusively insures the Episcopal Church—lay out strict conditions of insurability for parishes. These guidelines include possessing a manual outlining behavior standards, thorough personnel background checks, and awareness and prevention training within six months of employment.

Still other insurance companies are reducing their coverage for child abuse and molestation or even excluding such coverage. It's important to review your church's liability insurance policy to determine whether you have coverage for molestation, and whether that coverage is limited in some way. If possible, add specific children's activities as a rider to your church liability policy.

5. Talk about it
"The most important thing the religious community can do to prevent sexual misconduct is acknowledge and learn about the reality of abuse in the church," explains Stellas-Tippans, from the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Conversations are beginning in more and more churches. "Most clergy and church leaders I know really care about and are in tune with this issue," affirms Chilton Knudsen, who heads the required sexual abuse training for the 150 Episcopal churches and 450 Episcopal clergy in northern Illinois. "Some may feel overwhelmed or may not have much of a budget, but I say to them, 'It's a whole lot easier to prevent than to live through a painful experience.'"

Beth J. Lueders is director of MacBeth Communications in Colorado Springs, Colorado.


Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail ljeditor@leadershipjournal.net.
Summer, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Page 98




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