“And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

In the late 1980s, I worked with a personal injury law firm in Memphis, Tennessee, and briefly observed the defense of a large church in Memphis whose childcare workers were accused of sexual abuse. The extent of the accusations and the depravity of the acts described were almost beyond belief. Some of the worst things I ever heard as a lawyer originated in that case. There was considerable confusion as to whether the accusations were true despite the fact that multiple children had made accusations against the adult workers.

Later evidence suggested that perhaps at least some of the evidence in that case was tainted or false, but no one who dealt with it could ever be sure. Massive damage was done to the church and everyone accused nonetheless. Some basic precautions could have prevented this catastrophe in that church.

Why Is Child Abuse a Threat to Churches?

More and more churches are being sued for child abuse allegedly committed by church members, volunteers, paid employees, or even clergy. Do not assume this cannot happen in your church. It is not only prudent but the compassionate and moral thing for churches to strive to protect children and prevent abuse. Sometimes lawsuits are filed years after the alleged abuse, especially sexual abuse, took place. Statutes of limitations do not begin to run on claims or legal actions for children until the child reaches the age of eighteen.

Churches are excellent grounds for the predations of pedophiles. Organizations that work extensively with children such as the Boy Scouts have longstanding programs to detect and eliminate potential child molesters. Churches should have similar objectives and procedures.

Probably the most common basis for a lawsuit against a church for abuse is an allegation that the church was negligent in either the hiring or the supervision of volunteers or employees. It is critically important that a church be able to show to the satisfaction of everyone concerned, including a judge and jury, that every reasonable effort was made to protect children in the church. But before we examine what those efforts should be, it would be best to clarify what we mean by abuse.

Forms of Abuse

Child abuse is usually categorized one of three ways: physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse. The term physical abuse implies an injury, usually that requires medical attention, though not necessarily so. Spanking or corporal punishment as such is not deemed physical abuse unless it is extreme or causes injury. However, physical abuse may be of a type that produces no apparent injury, such as holding a child’s head under water.

Sexual abuse encompasses a wide range of behaviors from compelling a child to watch sexual acts to actual intercourse. Simple nonsexual affection such as hugging and kissing is not, in and of itself, sexual abuse. Taking photographs of an undressed child may be sexual abuse if intended to be provocative.

Emotional abuse includes an even wider range of behaviors. Common emotional abuse usually involves berating and humiliating a child verbally. Many parents are guilty of this, though for most it does not become a pattern and they later regret their behavior.

Criticisms of a child’s appearance, behavior, or abilities, etc., can so damage his sense of well-being and self-esteem as to be abusive. This is a particularly insidious form of abuse since it may be
difficult to identify. A child himself may not recognize the wrong. Children who are abused, especially the very young, oftenassume they are responsible for what is done to them. This compounds
their injury.

How Do We Avoid the Problem?

Two of the most important steps a church can take to prevent child abuse are (1) to carefully screen employees and volunteers and then (2) to diligently supervise them. Anyone having a role in caring for or supervising children should be required to complete a written application before they are permitted to work in that role. The application should contain the names and addresses of several references and a statement that the applicant has never been involved in abuse of or sexual misconduct with a child. All references on the application should be checked carefully and a criminal record check should be undertaken with the applicant’s consent. I am a fervent believer in investigations.

This policy of carefully investigating before hiring resulted in an extraordinary revelation when I was chairman of the board of the Jackson Mental Health Center and Psychiatric Hospital in the early 1980s. We had screened over seventy applications for the job of executive director of the center and hospital and had narrowed the field to seven applicants whom we interviewed. The board then selected two of those seven as their primary candidates. I urged the board to approve a plan that would permit me to have both applicants investigated thoroughly by retired FBI agents. The board agreed. Much to our astonishment, the investigation revealed that the leading candidate, who had most impressed the board, did not have a doctor’s degree, a master’s degree, or even a bachelor’s degree in psychology, though his resume indicated all three. Even more astonishing, he had held the position of assistant commissioner of mental health in New York State for many years and had actually testified in criminal trials as an expert! Yet no one in New York had discovered that he was a fraud.

This was a classic illustration of how shallow we as human beings often are in our assessment of others. Time and again as a lawyer I have seen the inside story of people’s lives who were regarded as “nice” by others. Often, people who are “nice” are just skilled manipulators, dept at ingratiating themselves with others. This is especially true of sexual predators! Noted criminologist Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear makes this point about the shallow tendency in our society to confuse charming personalities with real character. They are not the same at all-often they are antithesesand the church leader who does not have the discernment to apply this understanding is setting up himself and his church for trouble.

Churches should not only thoroughly investigate those who work with children but also apply what is referred to as the “six months” rule. This means that no one is permitted to work with children in the church either as an employee or a volunteer unless they have been residents of the community and active members of the church for at least six months. Under no circumstances should a church hire or permit anyone to work with children who has a criminal record, particularly if it relates to any form of violent behavior or sexual misconduct. This should be a hard and fast policy no matter how much they may protest that they have repented of their prior conduct or that the allegations were false.

Furthermore, churches should make certain that no child is left alone with only one adult at any time. This is referred to as the “two adults” rule and, simply stated, means that two adults must always be present with a child or children. This protects the child from the possibility of molestation, but of equal importance, it is insurance for adult workers from false accusations of abuse or sexual misconduct.Other protective measures can also be beneficial, such as having windows on doors to classrooms. There should always be plenty of supervision for children and youth programs, particularly if overnight activities are involved.

Confront a Problem Forthrightly and Courageously

Never turn your back on, ignore, or otherwise minimize evidence of abuse. Immediately investigate any suspicious behavior.

All church employees and volunteers should know about the reporting laws concerning child abuse and child neglect. For example, in Tennessee, my home state, evidence of abuse or neglect of a child must be reported to the Department of Human Services or a law enforcement organization immediately. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor offense carrying a fine and imprisonment. Similar laws are on the books in all fifty states.

In one case I was consulted on, a minister himself was actually arrested for failing to report evidence of sexual molestation that did not take place on church premises and was not associated with the church. Though he was not guilty of any wrongdoing in terms of abuse, and no such accusations had been made against him, he had become aware of the abuse but did not report it.

When allegations of abuse are brought to your attention, contact your church lawyer promptly. Make certain he knows and understands the law in this area. Notify authorities and the parents of the child if they are not the alleged perpetrators. If the abuse is alleged to have occurred on church property or by church personnel or volunteers or during church activities, you should notify your church’s insurance carrier as well. Keep records of every step you take in dealing with the allegations.

Your church should also prepare to deal with the media should the allegations become public. This may be the most critical aspect of everything you do. Even if the charges turn out to be unfounded, careless handling of the media can devastate your church’s image and witness. Seek out competent advice on how to deal with the media. Ideally, your lawyer should be the source of this advice because the legal factors need to be taken into account in planning one’s contacts with the media. But be aware that most lawyers do not understand the media and will know no more than you do about how to deal with them.

Again, the church should under no circumstances minimize, deny, or try to avoid the fact that the allegation was made. Most of all, the victim and his or her family should not be blamed or treated hostilely. To the contrary, they should be treated with concern and support. Indeed, this alone may prevent the situation worsening or a lawsuit being filed. Many times in my legal career I have been approached by prospective clients about filing some lawsuit, whether a personal injury claim, defamation action, medical malpractice case, or legal malpractice case, and I was told that it was because of the hostile or indifferent response they had received from an alleged offender that they had decided to sue. A soft (and sensitive and considerate) answer does often turn away wrath.

An accused worker should be suspended temporarily, with care taken to not treat the person as guilty unless and until guilt is clearly established. Respect should be maintained for the confidentiality and privacy of everyone involved.

Another resource for further insight into prudent handling of this problem is “Child Sexual Abuse and the Church” by Julie L. Bloss as published in the Clergy Journal, which served as a resource in preparing this article.

A Checklist for Child Protection

The following checklist can be useful in dealing with evidence of child abuse. It is primarily oriented to abuse allegations not aimed at the church itself or its volunteers or employees, but is a useful guide even in those dire situations:

1. If you suspect child abuse, put the protection of the child above all other considerations.

2. Report the abuse promptly. Do not delay.

3. Do not necessarily rely upon one report to one agency. If you have any concern that the alleged abuse will not or is not being promptly investigated, report to two agencies, perhaps a law enforcement agency and the local child protection bureau of your state or municipal human services or welfare department.

4. Having reported, follow through with a request for information on what was done concerning your report.

5. Do not accept excuses or be put off. Never assume that because you have reported to a professional, either in the private sector or government, that your report is being properly handled and the child protected. Make certain for yourself.

6. Always be prepared to go over someone’s head and complain to their superiors or bring attention to the case from those at a higher level in a governmental agency or organization.

A Biblical Perspective

Children are given special attention throughout the Bible. It is clear that in God’s eyes our conduct toward children is of the most important in human experience.

The Bible tells us the sins of parents affect their children and their grandchildren: “Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). This does not imply an unjust retribution against innocent children. Rather, it is a prediction of the consequences of a parent’s sins on a child and succeeding generations. This is true of all evil adult behavior toward children.

The powerful truth of this is borne out by psychological and sociological studies. We know now that child abusers are usually individuals who were themselves abused as children. The majority of
inmates of prisons were abused as children. Serial killers are invariably the victims of abuse as children. Those who are sexually molested or raped in their youth or childhood frequently perpetrate the same acts on their own or other children. The pattern of evil replicates itself in the thinking and behavior of the next generation.

We as Christians, above all things, must make certain that children in our care and in our churches’ care are never the victims of any form of abuse. Jesus warned, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:7).