The Church, Sexual Abuse, and How to Be Better

Little Girl Daydreaming Out Classroom Window

“Hello. This is John,” I said as I answered a call from an unknown number.

“Mr. Litzler this is _____ and I’m on the personnel committee with __________ church,” the voice on the other end of the call replied.

Personnel matters are a common legal issue for churches and it’s typical for a personnel committee member to call me for a legal consultation. As it turned out, this call was for an entirely different reason.

“I’m calling because we are hiring _____ to be our new youth pastor. Well, we actually voted to hire him last night and I’m wondering what you thought about him.”

This church had just made a great hire. I knew this man personally and professionally and was sure he’d make an excellent youth pastor. I thought a great many things about him and there are tons of things a church should know about him. It’s information any church should know about a candidate for a ministerial staff position.

I asked, “You already hired him?”

“Well… yeah,” the committeeman said. “I’m just doing my due diligence.”

But the committee wasn’t doing its due diligence. Not by a long shot. Not only was the call too late in the process (after the decision to hire had already been made), but the committee didn’t have any questions for me. They just wanted to know what I thought about him. That’s it. No questions and I was just expected to talk. The conversation lasted approximately sixty seconds.

This week, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News released a three-part joint investigative report titled “Abuse of Faith”. The series brought to light the cases of over 700 victims of sexual misconduct and abuse in Southern Baptist churches over the last 20 years. The series was reminiscent of an investigative report by the Boston Globe in 2002, covering instances of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

Every denomination (and non-denomination) has its own unique institutional hurdles to overcome when preventing sexual abuse. While it would take too long to identify those obstacles for each denomination, there are two basic truths that can guide churches moving forward.

(1) Preventing and reporting sexual abuse is not an exclusively Baptist issue. Nor is it a uniquely Roman Catholic issue. As movements like #MeToo have shown us, this is a cultural issue that affects Christians of every denomination, sect, and creed.

(2) The church should be at the forefront of preventing and responding to sexual abuse. There is a biblical imperative for Christians to care for the vulnerable among us and to protect victims of sexual misconduct.

It would be unrealistic to expect policies and training to eliminate every instance of sexual abuse, but they are of vital importance to preventing sexual abuse in churches and Christian nonprofit organizations. Some churches may already have policies in place, but they need to be revised and updated. Other churches may be overwhelmed at the very thought of creating such policies. Regardless of the church’s stage of sexual abuse prevention preparedness, here are some important steps to consider:

Getting started

  • Create a team for the express purpose of developing and/or reviewing and maintaining sexual abuse prevention policies. The team should be diverse, representing the entire spectrum of church membership and the surrounding community.
  • Adopt a policy that is the standard practice for every allegation of sexual misconduct. Emotions are high following an allegation of sexual misconduct and it is not the right time to be deciding what to do next. Have a plan in place before the allegation occurs and stick to it.
  • Utilize the resources available to your church. The church’s insurance company, the State of Texas, organizations like https://ministrysafe.com, and other like-minded organizations (i.e. Court Appointed Special Advocates “CASA”)
  • Educate church members and staff on the policies you adopt and re-educate each time the policies are amended.

Hiring Staff and Enlisting Volunteers

  • Have a job application and a volunteer application. The application should include, among other things, work history, residence history, references, criminal history and consent to a criminal history background check. Keep this in an employee/volunteer file.
  • Check the references, thoroughly. Speak with each reference prior to making a decision to hire an employee or enlist a volunteer. Spend time crafting a good set of standard questions designed to uncover potential sexual abuse threats. Specifically inquire about whether there have been past allegations of misconduct. Do the same for employment supervisors and former supervisors. Write down the responses to the questions and keep them in an employee/volunteer file.
  • Often former employers will not divulge allegations because of a confidentiality agreement or fear of a defamation lawsuit. If a previous employer cannot/will not provide specifics about the candidate’s employment, this is a warning sign and should not be ignored.
  • Conduct a thorough criminal background check that searches sex offender registries nationwide and investigate when necessary. A criminal background check is not a “silver bullet” to preventing sexual abuse, but it is a basic first step. Be aware that some misdemeanor convictions may be the result of plea bargains from felony offenses. Do not take the potential employee/volunteer’s word about the incident as truth without verifying the story first. Renew background checks on all employees at least every two (2) years and keep them in an employee/volunteer file.
  • Conduct interviews for every potential employee and for volunteers working with minors. Spend time crafting good set of standard interview questions designed to uncover potential sexual abuse threats. Write down the interviewee’s responses and keep them in the interviewee’s employee/volunteer file.
  • Require staff and volunteers to read and sign the church policies regarding sexual abuse prevention and keep the signed copy in the employee/volunteer file.
  • No staff member or volunteer with prior incidents of sexual misconduct should be allowed to work in a position with minor children. Hopefully, this seems obvious. It is recommended that no person should be allowed to serve on ministerial staff with a prior incident of sexual misconduct or abuse regardless of whether that minister would work with children in his/her position. While churches can and should extend grace to those with a history of prior sexual misconduct, those individuals should be directed to serve areas that do not involve children and that do not pose a danger to church members and visitors.

Sample Policy Provisions

  • Only persons affiliated with the church for at least six (6) months may be allowed to serve as a volunteer with minor children. Sexual predators seek access to children where the bar to that access is lowest. While ministries are often in need of volunteer help, delaying volunteers for six months will dissuade sexual abusers and give the ministry staff more time to get to know the character of the volunteer.
  • A minimum of two adults should be present when supervising children.
  • Establish an identification system for child pick up and drop off and strictly enforce it. Be prepared for push back on this policy even from well meaning parents and church members.
  • Requirements that staff and volunteers receive training in reporting child sexual abuse. Keep documentation of attendance/completion of these trainings in the employee/volunteer file.

Building Considerations

  • Create a line item in the church budget for security measures. If preventing sexual abuse is important then it is worth of funding.
  • Limit access points to the children’s area of the building so each entrance can be monitored.
  • Security cameras
  • Windows (ability to see in) for children’s rooms

General Guidance

  • Take every allegation of sexual misconduct or abuse very seriously.
  • Notify authorities of any alleged crime. Notify the church attorney and insurance company as well. For a detailed explanation about legal requirements for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect, see our post here.
  • Place employees accused of sexual misconduct on paid administrative leave pending investigation of the allegations. To some, paid administrative leave seems like a reward for the accused resulting in a “paid vacation”. To others, paid administrative leave seems like a punishment and an implication that the accusations are true. In actuality, paid leave is the fairest and most responsible way to move forward while both (1) protecting the accused person’s presumption of innocence and (2) protecting the alleged victim and others from the possibility of future harm or misconduct.
  • Create an environment where victims can feel safe and heard. This includes maintaining confidentiality whenever possible and emphasizing those protections.
  • Offer counseling and other resources to victims and their families.
  • Create a culture of transparency at every level.
  • Always treat the accused and the victim with respect and in a Christ-like manner.

These suggestions are not comprehensive. Instead, they serve as examples of the policies and practices that need to be considered in churches and Christian non-profit groups. The manner in which churches prevent sexual abuse, respond to allegations of sexual abuse, and walk beside victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse can be an effective testimony of the love of Christ. The culture of Christianity should be one that leads our nation in demonstrating how to prevent and respond to the crisis of sexual abuse.

© John Litzler The Testament is made available by Christian Unity Ministries for educational purposes only. Blogs posted here provide general information and a general understanding of the law, and do not provide specific legal advice. By using The Testament you understand that there is no attorney/client relationship between you or your church and Christian Unity Ministries. The Testament should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state. Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by John Litzler. Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © John Litzler. Website: johnlitzler.wordpress.com Twitter: @TestamentBlog
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s