Churches & Clergy At Risk: Child Abuse Reporting-Sexual Abuse Cases

Churches & Clergy At Risk: Child Abuse Reporting-Sexual Abuse Cases
By Owen Taylor

Child Abuse Reporting Cases Continue To Plague Churches And Pastors

Of all the calls for information and advice at the Christian Freedom Foundation the most recurring is about child physical and sexual abuses. This issue is extremely important and this entire issue of the Sentinel is dedicated to refreshing our readers concerning some of the dangers and problems. It would be of help to your ministerial friends to share this Sentinel with another. In many cases we have included an extra copy for you to char” with someone else snare with someone else.

This month we received a call from a United Pentecostal pastor from a Southern state. His problem has some different twists but, essentially, it involved the same concerns and problems that all such calls contain. We will share the basics of the problem and expound on the issues.

The pastor had been contacted about a year ago about a man in the church who works with youth. The complaint was that he acts “weird” around some of the boys and the parents were concerned about it. The pastor asked some questions and determined that there was not enough substance to the claim to warrant extreme action. The pastor determined that the complaints were activities that were allegedly done at the church. He told the parents that he would take care of it and, if they wanted, they could call the police. The parents left it to the pastor. He told the man to be careful around the youth. Now, after a year has passed, the pastor has learned that the police have arrested the man and charged him with molestation of boys in two different church families. Officially the pastor has been told nothing. The pastor read of the arrests in a newspaper which article seems to indicate that the activities were not on church property and the pastor feels that the man was not doing any official functions for the church when the alleged actions took place. The local television station has called and the pastor would like some advice. A quick review of the circumstances with the pastor revealed several problem areas.

The church has never at tempted to do any type of screening concerning who will be used in their youth pro gram. Further, there are no policies or requirements for supervision, 2 adult rule or anything that requires supervision to be adequately provided. These issues and other like them are discussed in an other article in this Sentinel Additionally, it was apparent that the pastor had no prior knowledge concerning his or the church’s responsibilities concerning the reporting of actual or suspected child abuse This absence of knowledge of the church’s and the pastor’ rights, responsibilities and liabilities concerning child abuse is alarming and, after discussion with the pastor, was concerning to him as we filled him in on some of the details.

All fifty states have enacted child abuse reporting statutes To a remarkable degree the statutes of each state are the same. Child abuse is defined to include physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and sexual molestation. A child is defined as an individual under 1, years of age. Child abuse is defined as any physical act, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse inflicted upon a child other than by accidental means by those responsible for his care custody, and control except that discipline, including spanking, administered in a reasonable manner shall not be considered abuse. Notice the definition concerns person. who are the parents or other custodian of the child thus – very narrow interpretation could mean that clergy and – church related ministry workers are excluded. Many courts, 1 however, have already ruled that churches, church schools, o Sunday school day cares and a related youth ministries do fall r under the general category of child custodians- even though it may be minimal supervision.

Additionally, all fifty states – require a broad spectrum of individuals to report reasonably m suspected or actual child abuse.

The list is very broad and in eludes physicians, nurses, health care providers, school e workers, law enforcement and, e sometimes, ministers are specifically mentioned. However, because of the various “hats” a minister wears he may well fall under several different categories of required reporters, such as school staff, childcare workers and administrators. Clergy are urged to never assume that they have no duty to report. Several ministers have been prosecuted for failure to  report child abuse.

What about clergy-penitent privilege? Clergy in many states cannot be compelled to reveal what has been told to them in s such a relationship. However, we have found that the far majority of the time, for many reasons, communications to clergy do not qualify for this privilege. Additionally, a privilege such as this ordinarily applies only to courtroom testimony and not to statutory requirements to report to a state agency.

Every state grants legal immunity to reporters who make an unintentional erroneous report. Therefore, there is no excuse for not reporting because a fear of a lawsuit for making a report.

Failure to report has resulted in fines and jail terms for clergy. However, of even greater significance than the criminal liability is the potential for civil liability for failing to report. To illustrate, assume a minister is apprised during counseling that a young girl is being molested by her stepfather. The minister decides to not report the abuse. If the abuse continues, and the girl later discovers that the minister knew of it but failed to act, it is possible that the girl could sue the minister for negligent infliction of emotional distress and perhaps other theories of recovery. One minister has been charged with the injuries to a girl that resulted after he allegedly failed to report child with severe head injuries because of blows to her head that had damaged her brain and the brain stem. The suit sought millions of dollars of potential damages. Such prospects are particularly distressing since 1) the minister potentially would be liable whether or not he had a mandatory duty to report under state law, and 2) the statute of limitations ordinarily does not run until a minor reaches the age of majority, and in some cases not until the victim is aware of the psychological or emotional damages, which may be many years later. Some states have adopted statutes that specifically provide for civil liability against persons who knew of child abuse but who failed to report it. Even without such a statute clergy face potential civil liability.

The decisions of reporting or handling such situations on your own involve a great potential risk of liability to the minister and risk of future harm to the child. Prayer, legal counsel and a good working knowledge of the legal ramifications arising from each situation is required before any decision should be made. In summary, a minister who receives information that leads him to believe that a child may be the victim of abuse should 1) review the local statutes dealing with child abuse reporting obligations; 2) determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that abuse has in fact occurred; 3) determine whether the definition of child abuse under state is limited to abuse inflicted by parents or legal guardians; 4) assess the availability of the clergy-penitent privilege; 5) evaluate the severity of the alleged abuse and the possible existence of other victims of the same perpetrator; and 6) evaluate the risk of civil liability under state law.

It became very apparent to the pastor that called that the issues are far more complicated than he first thought. Hopefully, this experience and advice will be enough to help the pastor past this critical point. However, much of his concern and learning curve could have been avoided through workshops or seminars on the subject. Every church leader is encouraged to search and attend training sessions that will inform and prepare the ministry for these perilous legal times.

The church defended the case, in part, by claiming 1) intentional misconduct by a pastor cannot be ratified, 2) it could not ratify actions of the pastor that were outside of the scope of his employment, and 3) there was insufficient evidence that it ratified the pastor’s actions. The court disagreed and pointed out that the church did not respond adequately to the parent’s complaints of misconduct.

What To Do.

Churches are not guarantors of the safety of children in their control. However, the law imposes the reasonability upon the church to act in a reasonable fashion to provide a safe environment for children in its care. Several steps are recommended to reduce the risk of incidents of sexual molestation and to place the church in a legal position to effectively defend claims.

Every person who is to have contact or supervision over youths should complete a screening application. The application should contain the name, address, explanation of any prior criminal convictions or accusations, background information, including child abuse experiences of the applicant, area of youth work the applicant is interested in, training for youth work, past church membership, past volunteer work and the names of two references. The applicant should supply a criminal background check. The references must be interviewed and cleared. All workers should have an application on file with the church.

The church should adopt a policy of dispute resolution which would cover, if possible, any future claims within the church membership.

All cases of child abuses claims need to be reviewed and screened immediately. Insurance companies also need to be kept informed, even if the claim doesn’t yet seem substantial.

If possible, use only married couples as volunteer youth workers and always use 2 adults for all supervision. No workers should be used until they have been around the church for a reasonable period of time- usually at least 6 months.

Classes covering supervision techniques, skills, child abuse reporting laws and a plan for reaction and action if trouble occurs should be implemented.

These issues are critical to the health and future of every church. Just the claim of child abuse can critically injure a church. A successful prosecution of a claim can bankrupt a church. Seminars and workshops are available to churches through the Christian Freedom Foundation and other legal defense oriented church organizations. A church or group of churches ought to plan on a periodic up dating and instruction on these matters of their schools, Sunday schools, day cares and youth workers.