News reports have spotlighted the problem of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, but Protestant churches also have reason to be concerned. Our research indicates that on average, over the past ten years, approximately 3,500 churches per year have responded to allegations of sexual misconduct in church programs involving children or youth.
Thousands of churches have taken steps to reduce this problem. Yet much more still needs to be done.
Screening workers is essential to protecting children from sexual predators. Churches are making progress in screening paid employees, but screening volunteer workers remains problematic.
Nearly 3 out of 4 churches use a written application for paid workers, up from 47% in 1993. Yet, the vast majority of churches-almost 70 percent-do little to screen volunteers.
A bill pending in Congress would create a central agency to process criminal background checks and coordinate information from all 50 states.
Until that happens, however, the system is still entrusted to local agencies, and it can be slow and even costly. But screening workers is vital, for two reasons.
First, churches can be found liable for the negligent selection of a volunteer, just as they can for a paid employee. Second, our research indicates that volunteer workers are just as likely to be the perpetrators of abuse as are paid staff members.
The main goal of a church-screening program is to ward off individuals who have an intent or history of abusing children. A church that establishes a screening program sends a message. Predators do not want to be in such a church.
Now is the time to review your church's the screening process and childcare supervision policies.
Two kinds of molesters
Time magazine estimates the prevalence of adults who are sexually interested in children (pedophilia) at 4 percent of the population. That does not include the percentage interested in teenagers (ephebophilia), which psychiatrists don't classify as an illness. The point is that the number of adults interested in sexual activity with minors is higher than one would imagine.
The two general profiles of child molesters are important for church leaders to understand: preferential molesters and situational molesters. (These are identified by Kenneth V. Lanning in Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation, Elsevier, 1987.)
Preferential molesters. These molesters have a preference for children, often of a particular age and gender. While these individuals are few in number, a single perpetrator can molest hundreds of children. Preferential molesters pose a unique and serious danger to churches. Such an individual may appear as the ideal worker for children. They enjoy being with children and will spend lots of time socializing with them. Since most churches find it hard to recruit adults to work with children, finding someone who enjoys being with children and who is willing to invest significant time in church programs may be viewed as a blessing. Thus, the church's guard may be down.
The best way to ward off preferential molesters is to develop an environment that puts the molester at risk rather than the children. That process begins with a thorough screening program for both paid and volunteer workers, and some healthy skepticism among the leaders responsible for recruiting and training workers.
Situational molesters. Far more situational molesters exist in our society than preferential molesters, but they have fewer victims. This person engages in misconduct when a situation develops or exists that makes the abuse possible. Screening may ward off some situational molesters. More important are policies that provide supervision of workers and ensure multiple workers in classrooms.
From a legal perspective, a church must engage in the same duty of care in the selection of volunteers who work with children and youth as it does in the selection of paid staff members. In both cases, the selection process should reflect the standard of reasonable care. Here are some suggestions:
Raise the threshold
Start by establishing requirements that must be met before an individual can serve in a position working with children or youth. For volunteers, attention should be given to two factors: (1) how long the person has been part of the congregation, and (2) the level of involvement the person has in the church.
1. The six-month rule. Start by establishing a length of time the person must first attend the church, such as six months, before he or she can volunteer to work with children or youth. The purpose of this rule is to prevent molestor from gaining quick access to potential victims. A predator will not want to stick around a church for an extended period of time waiting to get access to children, especially when he can go elsewhere and have almost immediate access.
2. Membership or equivalent. This requirement focuses on the individual's commitment to and involvement in the congregation.
Volunteers who work with children should be involved in the church, and able to list two other church members who can serve as informed references concerning that involvement. This is especially important in large congregations where staff members may not know every member well, and yet depend on large numbers of recruited volunteers to assist with church programs.
It is not enough for a person to have attended the congregation for six months. He or she should also be active enough in the life of the church that other members can provide a reference.
Implement formal screening
The screening process for volunteers is similar to that of paid employees. It should include the use of a written application, reference checks, a personal interview, and in some cases, criminal records checks. Make sure that all information is maintained as confidential. Forms for these applications and interviews should be developed and approved by the congregation and reviewed by the church's attorney.
1. Use a written application form. While using a written application form may sound obvious, our data indicates many churches still do not use one. Sample applications may be available from other organizations such as the local school district or the YMCA. Christian Ministry Resources has developed separate application booklets for clergy, paid church employees, and volunteer workers (which are available for $3 each at 800-222-1840). Make sure the application you use contains a release form. In many states, a signed release form authorizes you to collect information from references, and enables the references to share legitimate concerns about a former worker without fear of legal liability.
2. Conduct reference checks. Once the written application is complete, the church should conduct reference checks. Normally, for prospective job applicants, the references should include former employers as well as personal and professional references. As noted above, volunteers should list at least two church members. These people should be contacted for input concerning the volunteer's qualifications for working with children or youth. Often this is done either in person or over the phone.
Document in writing all efforts in collecting the reference, and the information you receive. Once you are finished, keep all forms and notes with the application.
3. Conduct a personal interview. Once reference checks are complete, conduct a personal interview. Use the interview as a time to explore more fully why the volunteer wants to work with children or youth.
You can also use this time to provide training to the volunteer as well. It's a good time to cover church policies and procedures regarding the supervision of children.
4. Conduct a criminal records check. Once a provisional offer of employment for a paid position is made, many churches then conduct additional background checks, including a criminal records check.
Some churches conduct criminal records checks on all volunteers, as well. Minimally, the church should request a criminal records check for volunteers who have frequent and unsupervised access to children or youth. The phrase "unsupervised access to children" appears in both state and federal legislation to identify individuals requiring a higher level of screening and accountability. Unfortunately, the phrase is vague and its exact application to specific situations within a church is not always clear. The committee report that accompanied the federal National Child Protection Act contains the following comment that provides some clarification:
"[Not] all occupations and volunteer positions … merit the time and expense of criminal history records checks. There are other means available to protect children from abuse, including the checking of prior employment history and character references and proper training and supervision of employees and volunteers."
Currently, only about 3 congregations in 10 do anything to screen volunteer workers. Of those that do, 6 in 10 also conduct criminal background checks. Such checks are becoming more common and less expensive. Churches interested in criminal records checks or other background checks can obtain more information at our Web site: www.screenchurchstaff.com.
Ask the tough questions
What kinds of criminal convictions disqualify an individual from working with youth or children in the church? A criminal conviction for a sexual offense involving a minor would certainly disqualify an applicant. In the case of pedophilic behavior, such a conviction should disqualify an individual no matter how long ago it occurred (because of the virtual impossibility that such a condition can be "cured").
Other automatic disqualifiers would include incest, rape, assaults involving minors, murder, kidnapping, child pornography, sodomy, and the physical abuse of a minor. Other crimes strongly indicate that a person should not be considered for work with minors in a church.
Some crimes would not be automatic disqualifiers, because they would not necessarily suggest a risk of child abuse or molestation. Some property offenses would be included in this list, particularly if the offense occurred a long time ago and the individual has a long history of impeccable behavior.
Churches should interview all applicants for children's or youth work prior to using them in any such program or activity. When conducting an interview, use a standardized and written list of questions.The interview also provides opportunity to offer review with applicants church policies and procedures.
It is also important for the church to identify a person who will conduct these interviews and for this person to be trained in interviewing.
Following the interview, there should be written notations on the interview form identifying the person who conducted the interview, the applicant who was interviewed, the date of the interview, and a summary of the applicant's responses to the questions.
All information, whether collected on a form or during an interview, should be kept strictly confidential.
Legal and moral obligations
At a minimum, when screening either paid employees or volunteer workers, a church should: (1) use a written application, (2) do reference checks, (3) interview the volunteer, and (4) provide training. To our knowledge, no church that has done these four things has been found liable of negligent selection.
The recent attention given to the problem of child sexual abuse in the church establishes an important point. American society and church members themselves will not excuse churches that do not protect their children. The safety of children outweighs any other consideration, and no jury will tolerate any excuse, especially one that merely protests that screening is inconvenient.
For more information about screening, supervision, responding to allegations of misconduct, and training church members, visit www.ChurchSafety.com.
James F. Cobble, Jr. is co-author of Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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