Keeping the kids safe: Two proven methods to guard against sex abuse in the church

Church Central/July 20, 2005
By Rebecca Barnes

In an average year approximately 3,500 churches respond to allegations of sexual misconduct in church programs involving children or youth, according to James Cobble Jr., executive director of Christian Ministry Resources and publisher of the Church Law & Tax Report.

And in a year when sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in the United States topped $1 billion in settlement costs, it was anything but average. With all the media attention, more churches, denominations and the Catholic Church itself are implementing changes to prevent the problem.

Prevention policies

New standards for Catholic Church workers in Cleveland, Ohio took effect July 1 to set ethical boundaries for the nearly 50,000 volunteers and church employees who serve the region’s nearly 1 million Catholics. The new standards warn counselors against hugging clients and mandate that child sponsors have more than one chaperone on any trip.

"It’s part of our commitment to integrity in ministry … and to challenge the society we live in to do the same," the Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, diocesan vicar for clergy and religious, told Religion News Service.

Other groups, such as The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which passed legislation in 1996 required each church to establish a child-protection policy, already have standards in place.

Background screening

An $8 million dollar settlement in 2004 for a clergy abuse case in Texas prompted Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to revamp its screening policy for pastors. Background checks into criminal records, motor vehicle records and credit information are new to the 2004 edition of the Candidacy Manual of the ELCA.

Overall the move toward preventing abuse and protecting children by checking workers’ backgrounds is increasing. Today three out of four churches screen paid workers, up from 47 percent in 1993, according to Cobble, but the majority of churches still do little to screen volunteers.

Many churches continue to operate under the assumption that the church should be different -- a haven from the world, a place of trust and love. Unfortunately abusers assume the same thing and view a church with no volunteer screening as an easy target.

"You do trust in God as a church," says Laura Brown, communications specialist with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, "that is why you exist. But you don’t put your congregation in a position where it is at risk from someone who wants to take advantage of people."

She said she hears from a lot of churches who think abuse couldn’t happen in their congregation. But statistically there are no denominations, sizes of congregations, racial or ethnic groups, socioeconomic factors or geographic locations that are exempt.

And for congregations simply too overwhelmed at the prospect of mounds of paperwork and bureaucratic red tape to sift through in screening everyone who works at the church, there are resources available:

Brotherhood Mutual offers background check resources, sample policy manuals and other help via their Web site: Customers qualify for special discounts that lower the cost of screenings to between $20 and $40. And Brotherhood Mutual provides free articles on preventing child sexual abuse in the church.

Church Mutual Insurance Company also offers background screening options, with discounts for clients. Their ScreenNow employee/volunteer background screening service offered by ChoicePoint breaks down recommended screens by occupation. Prices vary.

For about $50, churches can verify the identification of a potential pastor, search the national criminal database, do a county courthouse search and credit report.

Church Volunteer Central offers a yearly $100 membership to churches that not only includes $17 background checks, but customizable tools such as volunteer handbooks, ministry descriptions, applications and interview forms.

In the end, however, checking someone’s background may not be enough. Even the experts also recommend taking these types of decisions to God in prayer.

"In addition to a comprehensive screening program," says John Hein, corporate counsel with Brotherhood Mutual, "I recommend prayer for discernment in making decisions like this."

Barbara Farkas agrees. She has worked in the human resources department of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., for 13 years, interviewing, hiring and firing hundreds of staff members.

She said part of the way she does her job is through prayer. "I ask God, ‘Do not allow us to harm your church or this person. I ask God to bring up the issues if they don’t surface in my own mind. And I’m in awe of how he works."

Farkas says that in nearly every case problems surface somewhere in the application, interview or background checking process for new hires. "God uses all these different methods and I’m praying through the entire process," she says.

She says churches today cannot take integrity for granted. "It’s worth $40 to do a criminal check on a minister," she says. "I look at it as an investment in peace. I can do this homework and then I can rest."

Safety Basics

By Jeff Hanna, executive director of the GuideOne Center for Risk Management (insurance carrier for the Presbyterian Church in America)

For both paid and volunteer church workers:

  • Require references from all potential employees and volunteers, and check them thoroughly.
  • Conduct background checks using a professional screening service or state agency on employees and volunteers. Some states require this for individuals who work with children.
  • Require a six-month waiting period prior to allowing new staff members or volunteers to work with children.
  • Set counseling guidelines for ministers and staff members.
  • Develop an action plan to confront and handle any sexual misconduct complaints.
  • Take all allegations seriously and respond to them immediately and thoroughly.
  • If needed, add additional liability insurance coverage to the church’s current policy.

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