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
1. Develop clear policies
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
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
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
—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
—Train all staff and volunteers at least once a year in
recognizing signs of abuse; also review your policies and
—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
4. Check your insurance
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
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
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
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today
International/Leadership Journal. For reprint
information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Page 98
Try LEADERSHIP Today -
Leadership is the practical journal
designed for today's Christian leaders. Its biblical insight
and counsel will encourage your ministry. Sign-up today for a
Give Leadership as a
1 gift subscription, get 1 FREE!