Child Molestation: What Your Organization Can Do To Reduce the Risk

Child Molestation: What Your Organization Can Do To Reduce the Risk
by Owen Taylor

Molestation of minors has become the major legal issue for churches for the 1990s. The forum previously for molestation has shifted from the Boy Scouts, Big Brothers, and other youth groups to the local church, and the results are alarming. Lawsuits against denominations, church boards, churches, pastors, and church members have dramatically increased because of a sudden awareness of victim’s rights and an increased willingness on the part of the public to no longer view the church and ministry as unsuitable defendants. To the contrary, the local church has become a prime target because of physical resources, liability insurance, and financial substance, all of which make it possible to collect substantial sums if successful. Additionally, because many churches have failed to protect themselves against molestation claims, they are, many times, easy targets

Seemingly simple factual circumstances are leading judges and juries to grant enormous church-breaking monetary awards that are not covered by insurance. For example, a new member volunteers for youth work. Anxious to share the load, the volunteer is immediately put to work. In a short time two minors report they have been sexually molested. The parents hire an attorney and a three-million-dollar lawsuit is filed. Because of the long-term psychological effects of molestation, awards of millions of dollars are no longer uncommon. Thus, even if a church has insurance (although it is common that a commercial church policy has little or no coverage for sexual misconduct), the policy limits are generally far below the judgment awarded. The result could be bankruptcy if the church is required to pay a high award. This can happen to any church of any size or age.

Any sexual activity with a child can be considered child molestation. The abuser may be a child or an adult. Fondling, touching, intercourse, rape, and the like are types of abuse most common. However, sexual abuse and molestation can be verbal, pornographic videos, obscene phone calls, or allowing a child to view sexual activity.

For the local church that is trusting in God and is relatively unsuspecting the subject can be a minefield of problems and legal liability. The main problem areas are schools, Sunday schools, day care, and youth activities.

Before remedies and protections can be effectively suggested, the legal theory of liability should be clearly understood. Most suits are charging the local church with “negligent hiring” or “negligent supervision.” To be negligent means the church fails or is careless in its conduct, creating an unreasonable risk of harm to another. It includes carelessness, heedlessness, inattention, and inadvertence. Accordingly, the primary theory in a molestation case would be complaint that the local church was careless, heedless, or inattentive in the hiring or in the supervision of persons allowed to have contact with minor children and that, because of such action, the child was abused and molested. If the judge or jury believes this theory, the only question left is the size of the verdict.

How to reduce or eliminate liability is not easy to define or implement. The law in this area is still unclear and emerging. However, several suggestions from the legal profession, insurance industry, and the courts may help and give guidance.

1. Education.

Provide a strong program of teaching of all church workers-volunteer and paid-informing them of the consequences of molestation and how to spot a problem. The church should also provide proper supervision and environment control. These steps should be continually updated.

2. Communication

The local church body should be made aware of the dangers of sexual molestation, the church’s effort to avoid it, and instruction of how they can help to avoid it.

3. Implement Guidelines.

All policies and procedures should be based upon sound principles and enforced without deviation. They should include:

a. Require all workers, volunteer or paid, to fill out an application containing background information, criminal history, references (which must be followed up), and other information that will reveal the true identity and character of the person you will be exposing your young people to. A recent court case in Alaska went so far as to state that you should ask if the applicant has ever been the victim of abuse, on the grounds that those who were abused as children are greater risks as abusers than those who have not been abused.

b. Carefully interview each applicant.

c. Make a record of the references contacted, results of the contacts, and interviewer’s remarks.

d. Do not allow anyone to have contact with young people unless they have been around at least six months. Molesters are commonly known to have a desire for quick access to children,
and if they do not, they will be discouraged and leave.

e. Adopt a child abuse/molestation policy. Have a procedure in place in the event of any hint of a problem. A loving and involved church will avoid more lawsuits than any other remedy
or plan a church could adopt. A review of the pertinent laws concerning abuse and reporting must be in place and ready for action. Quick, loving, and decisive action may mean the
difference between a multimillion dollar suit and a saved family.

f. Adopt and enforce supervision rules. Every local church should adopt a two-adult rule that requires at least two adults to supervise every youth activity. One adult is not enough, because of potential false claims. Additional supervisors may be necessary because of the relative risks of the activities. For instance, rope rappelling and rafting should have one supervisor for every youth. Other activities will not require so much supervision.

4. Consult experts.

Contact the local office of the Red Cross for supervision ratios for risky activities. Contact the local Department of Social Services for someone to address your staff on child abuse laws.

This is a brief article on a subject that should be of great concern for all churches. The cases are being filed with greater frequency and the courts are open for this type of suit. Recent cases have expanded the statute of limitations for filing an action to start when the alledged victim discovers that he was molestedeven if it is thirty years later! Therefore, it is essential that church leaders take affirmative steps to reduce risks. Forms, applications, and waivers are available for use by churches. In no event should the local pastor fail to take the minimum steps to protect his church from the effects of this type of litigation. Additionally, both short-term and long-term commitments should be made to this endeavor. As the church grows, the new people need instruction and the older workers need refreshing.

The abve material was published by FORWARD, January-March, 1993. This material may be copyrighted and should be used for study and research purposes only.