Preventing Child Abuse in Church Ministry

PREVENTING CHILD ABUSE IN CHURCH MINISTRY
BY DAVID MIDDLEBROOK

I am the father of three children, all under the age of 10. My oldest and I recently attended a large rock concert performed by the contemporary Christian group do Talk. It was a great time for both of us. During the concert, do Talk performed their song, “Red Letters.” The song made a strong impact on me. Not only was it splendidly performed, but the group had a gigantic TV screen behind them as they sang that displayed–in red–selected words spoken by Jesus. It was a very moving experience.

Of course, the song “Red Letters” refers to the red-letter editions of the Bible. It reminds us that when Jesus speaks, we are well-served to pay particularly close attention to His words. As so eloquently written by do Talk, we should “heed the words divinely spoken.”

The following “red-letter” passages from the Bible contain clear and strong language from Jesus about the attitudes we all should possess regarding children.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14, NIV).

“Stay alert. This is hazardous work that I am assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation just because you believe in me” (Matt. 10:16,TheMessage).

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6, NIV).

In reading these it’s clear that Jesus wants us to serve children; to make a place where they can come to Him. Fortunately, I am not often approached by a church considering doing away with its programs for children because of fear of liability claims. It is universally accepted that one sign of a healthy church is the strength of its children’s programs.

But, believe it or not, it has happened. Why would a church ever consider such a drastic and unusual move, particularly in light of what Jesus says in Mark? I think the short answer to that question is fear.

By virtue of my legal practice, I am privileged to deal with clients who serve in the highest level of church leadership. When the topic of child abuse in the church comes up, I often sense some church leaders feeling very vulnerable and insecure about this issue. They recognize that even an untrue allegation leveled against them, their staff or a church volunteer could be catastrophic to the ministry and their church. In the current environment, if they or someone on their staff is accused, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

CHILD ABUSE IN OUR CULTURE

In the last three decades, our society has fixed much attention on the issue of child abuse and children’s welfare. From the viewpoint of the general public, there may not be a greater area of concern than the safety and well-being of its children. The public is quick to judge and is unforgiving of those that intentionally or even accidentally injure the lives of children. The church is not immune to such judgment. The church world has been slow to respond to its new operational environment.

Child abuse in the United States is devastating to children and families. Child abuse is serious and life-threatening, affecting not only children throughout their lifetime, but families and society as well. Each year, parents, guardians or others seriously abuse approximately 2 million children throughout the U.S. Every year, at least 1,000 children will die as a result of abuse and neglect. Some 90 percent of deaths resulting from abuse or neglect involve children under the age of 5: 44 percent of deaths involve children under the age of 1. These statistics do not take into account thousands of unreported acts of child abuse.

If a minister of the gospel is accused of abusing a child, oftentimes their career is finished. If a church volunteer is accused, the consequences will devastate the volunteer worker and his or her family. Regardless of whether the accused is on the church’s staff or a volunteer, the church’s reputation in the community, and by extension, its effectiveness at its mission, will be damaged. Sometimes, the damage is irreparable.

Did you notice that I have not indicated whether the allegation of child abuse was true or false? I merely said “accused.” That is because the mere allegation of child abuse, even if it is eventually proved untrue, can be devastating to everyone involved. That is what I think accounts for the fear and anxiety.

Paul says: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7, NKJV). So why would church leaders across the country be full of anxiety and fearful about this topic? One reason might be that the church has been subjected to significant media reporting regarding the issue of child abuse because of some high-profile cases involving guilty ministers and church workers.

The secular media, from my perspective, draws the unfair and incorrect inference that ministers and church workers, merely by virtue of their service to the church, are somehow more likely to commit
immoral acts with children than the general public. I recognize this may be a harsh assessment of the secular media on my part. If so, my experience with them makes me feel very confident that they can
withstand the criticism.

The case Rudy Kos, a former Catholic priest in Dallas, provides an excellent illustration of how the bad acts of one clergyman can taint the world’s view of the Catholic Church in particular, professional ministers as a class and the church as a whole. Please read my story on page 30. It was widely covered in the pages of the
Dallas Morning News and by all the Dallas media outlets.

SO, WHAT DID JESUS TELL US TO DO?

“Stay alert,” Jesus said. “This is hazardous work I am assigning you.”

The hazard is real. According to insurance company statistics, the number of lawsuits against churches and church leaders has exploded in the last 20 years. Damage paid by churches resulting from those lawsuits also has substantially increased. A significant number of the lawsuits were claims made against the church for child abuse.

“You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack.”

National youth and children’s organizations have gotten the message. Major public and private institutions have begun screening people working with children. So should churches. Cases like the one with Rudy Kos is a wake-up call to children’s ministries.

As a church leader, never forget that the wolf (the child molester) looks at the sheep (the church) as an easy or weak target. The literature we have reviewed and the perpetrator of child abuse that we have come in contact with in our law practice leads us to believe that child abusers view the church as an easy place to infiltrate.

Also, we can never forget that child abusers, in addition to being criminals who are often suffering from a deprived mental state, are devious. They will attempt to thwart any effort to screen them from service in your church. That is why an effective screening program should be made open and obvious to people seeking employment or volunteer service at your church.

“Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive.”

There was a time when the church was generally viewed as off-limits by attorneys and claimants. In fact, the laws of many states provided for immunity to churches and other nonprofit organizations. But experts now agree that churches are no longer viewed as “immune” from being sued. The vast majority of states provide no special legal protection for churches. In fact, it is safe for church leaders to assume that a church member could very well sue their own church.

I attended a legal seminar where the lecturer described churches as i\ pockets” for damage-suit lawyers and relatively easy source of money for potential claimants. That simply means \ that damage-suit
lawyers recognize that most responsible churches carry a substantial insurance policy from which they can recover large dollars for their clients.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST SCREENING PROGRAMS

In the past, churches have been reluctant to implement background screening programs for their workers. If they did, it often consisted of a criminal background check for positions involving finances and not for regular employees and volunteers. Why? Historically, the local church was a small, low- profile organization that used a word-of-mouth process to secure its employees, or it recruited from within its
congregation.

It was perceived as unnecessary and even distasteful to insist on screening ministers because of the pastoral call on their lives. There also has been concern that the church would appear to be too commercial
if pastor, employee and volunteer screening tools were utilized in the hiring and volunteer process. The question has been raised: Won’t a screening program interfere with the already difficult effort of the
church to recruit good people to serve?

It is common for our law firm to be onsite with a church conducting a “legal compliance review.” A legal compliance review is a technique we have developed to “audit” the legal health of the church. In so doing, we sometimes discover reluctance on the part of a church leader to implement a simple, yet effective screening program for his or her church.

Fortunately, most progressive church leaders recognize the dangers of child abuse and desire to make their churches a safe place for children. Today, the common argument against implementing a screening program revolves around limited church resources.

The limited resources argument goes something like this: “We can’t afford to dedicate an employee for the purpose of creating and managing a screening program. We wouldn’t know where to begin. Who could we find qualified enough to create all the forms? ~

“Second, even if we did it for our church staff, we could never do it for all of our nursery workers and volunteers. It would cost a fortune because of the numbers of workers and the turnover rate.”

Too often we simply “trust and believe” that nothing bad will happen to our children. This is a choice that requires church leaders to ignore the red letters and, in turn, the safety of the church’s children.

THE PENNY-WISE, POUND-FOOLISH CHURCH LEADER

I recently received a call from an attorney friend of mind who was deeply disturbed after having attended an emergency church meeting. Her church had recently learned about a sexual molestation of a preteen
boy in the church by one of the youth pastors on staff. During the church’s post-report fact-finding, it was discovered that this same youth pastor had perpetrated molestation in his former pastoral position at two different churches.

They had never asked the question of his former employers. Of course, these discoveries raised the issue of what kinds of background cheeks are appropriate within the church. My friend suggested a screening program that included criminal background cheeks. She recommended that they be done from the senior pastoral staff on down to the childcare workers, bus drivers and volunteers.

During this round-table discussion, one of the church’s pastors stood up and announced that the cost of doing a basic background check on all volunteers would cost at least $16 per person. He felt this was
simply not financially feasible for the church.

My friend reminded him of the enormous potential financial and emotional cost to the church should it face a civil lawsuit for its failure to exercise due diligence in protecting the children in their congregation. But she was voted down. Because of the cost, no screening program with criminal background cheeks was instituted! They chose to ignore the red letters.

CONSIDER IMPLEMENTING A PR0GRAM TO STOP CHILD ABUSE

What does an effective background screening program look like and what can it accomplish?

A screening program is simply a filter through which all employee and volunteer candidates must pass before they are given the opportunity to serve. Screening is the first step in a STOP program for a local church (see related article on this page).

A screening program is designed to answer three basic, vitally important questions:

1. Is all the information true provided by the applicant to the church?

2. Did the applicant fail to provide any key information?

3. Is there any information that was provided or not provided that disqualifies the applicant prom service at the church?

When preparing to implement a screening program, it has been my observation that without the genuine, vocal support of the senior pastor and church board (elders or vestry), a screening program will sometimes be viewed as one more “legal obstacle” to ministry and will not gain lasting momentum

Moreover, if a screening program is to be successful, church leadership must establish an effective implementation plan. An effective implementation plan should contain the following elements:

The appropriation of staff time for creation and implementation of the screening program.

Annual budget item: forecast and allocate screening fees associated with the operation of the program.

Dedication of a physical and technological area within the church that is secured for storing the results of the screening program.

Designation of a director: It is critical that the church designate one person on the church’s full-time staff that “owns” the job of implementing and managing the screening program. In so doing, this permits continuity of implementation and assures accountability in the maintenance of the program.

ù Scheduled, ongoing training for existing employees, volunteers and new staff.

The selection of the right person to be the director of the screening program is critical. The size of the church will often dictate the range of options available to it. Sometimes, in smaller churches, it is the pastor’s secretary. In larger churches, it is the nursery director or youth pastor. In one megachurch we represent, they have designated one full-time employee in their human resource department to be in charge of implementing and managing their child safety program.

The following characteristics are worth considering when selecting a director for implementation and management of your screening program:

A large measure of common sense and discernment is a prerequisite.

The ability to be present during interviews of candidates is advisable.

The ability to handle difficult or awkward situations that arise when the screening process reveals problematic information.

An understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of any screening program.

As with any tool, no program designed to prevent child abuse is 100percent effective at preventing child abuse. For any screening program to be effective at reducing the opportunity for child abuse, it needs to be carefully tailored to each individual church organization. Because every screening program involves legal issues such as church law, insurance, employment law, child-abuse reporting and church management, the advice of competent legal counsel is required.

The bottom line: the director needs to develop the skill of looking beyond what is written in the application, criminal background report or the words said during the interview and permit the
discernment of the Holy Spirit to reveal the discernment of the true intentions of candidates.

REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD SCREEN

1. To prevent child abuse. Why should you have a screening program? The more pertinent question is “Why not?” In our society today, there is no excuse for any church to neglect this important duty. Gene Abel, director of the Behavioral Medicine Institute of Atlanta, states it this way: “Volunteer organizations are perfect for pedophiles, in the sense that they are just the ideal situation if they can get to a large number of kids, to kind of check out which ones might be the easiest victims.”

2. To prevent injury to your congregation. Every pastor wants parents to feel confident that their children are being loved and protected in the custody of their nursery or childcare facilities. In fact, some church-growth experts say that when selecting a new church, baby boomer parents consider the issue of the care and safety of their children before they do the quality of the other ministries in the church, including the preaching!

The last thing any church wants is for its congregation to feel like it does not carefully select its childcare providers and employees. This is one reason why it is crucial to attempt to avoid an incident of abuse. Once trust is lost, it may take years to regain.

3. To avoid legal liability. If a court finds that a church or employer did not use reasonable care in selecting its paid and volunteer workers, then there will most likely be legal repercussions for the church. Under the theories of negligent hiring, selection, retention or supervision, a church may be held liable for an assault on a child if it can be proved that it created a “foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm to others.”

In other words, if a church neglected to screen a worker and that worker had a criminal history of sexual abuse, then the church may be held legally responsible for the worker’s actions because they would not have hired that worker had they been aware of his or her past. Something as simple as a completed form, an interview, checking references and a background check could have prevented the tragedy of abuse.

As displayed by the Rudy Kos case, the monetary costs to the church can be astronomical.

Beyond regular damage amounts, victims may also be awarded punitive damages if the court is attempting to send a message to the public or “punish” the church for not adequately screening and removing
potential offenders. Punitive damages are not covered by insurance. That means that any damages assessed by a court to punish must be paid out of the church’s own coffers. Obviously, this can have a devastating and, potentially, fatal impact on the church.

It is important, however, to keep one thing in mind–the word “reasonable.” The law does not require the church to guarantee the safety of anyone. It requires only that the church be reasonable under the circumstances.

Suffice it to say that the church is not required to be “perfect,” only “reasonable.” I make this point because, for some, this is the juncture where church leaders begin to throw up their hands and surrender to the idea that bad things can and do happen to good churches and it is impossible, in this area, to take effective
countermeasures. That is simply not true. Be comforted by the fact that the law does not require you to be perfect, just reasonable in your efforts.

As church leaders, now is the time to follow the red letters and do all that is necessary and reasonable to prevent child abuse in our churches and ministries.

DAVID MIDDLEBROOK is a partner of the law firm, Brewer, Brewer, Anthony and Middlebrook, in Dallas.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY MINISTRIES TODAY, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2000, PAGES 28-34. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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