Jeffrey Black, former rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri, knows the pain that child sexual abuse can cause a church. In May 1993 a 15-year-old parishioner came forward and indicted the church's music minister for molestation. The minister confessed, and the church terminated him after seventeen years of service.
Although the boy chose not to file legal charges, the incident tore deeply into the congregation's spirit. Nearly fifteen families left the church, and those who remained felt anger, confusion, and mistrust.
"It was damaging to everyone and extraordinarily sad," Black says. "It took a lot of ministry to deal with this. We developed a clear policy about sexual misconduct and put our staff through extensive training on these issues."
No one likes to think about sexual abuse of children. But the potential damage to the child and to the church—not to mention the possibility of wrenching lawsuits—has caused many churches to take steps to protect its children.
Based on interviews with pastors, abuse-prevention experts, attorneys, denominational officials, and insurance companies, here are important practical steps to minimize the risk of sexual misconduct and to keep your church's children safe. The good news, writes attorney Richard Hammar, is that "church leaders can take relatively simple yet effective steps to significantly reduce the likelihood of such an incident occurring."
1. Develop clear policies
A vital first step is to develop clear, specific policies. "Churches need a clear policy that says you can't work here if you are going to act this way," says Elizabeth Stellas-Tippins, program specialist for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. "This itself is a strong prevention mechanism."
A church policy manual should include definitions of sexual abuse, standards of conduct, guidelines for screening and training workers, and procedures to follow if an incident is reported. (For information on how to write policies, see "Where to Learn More" on page 103.) Be sure a lawyer reviews policies before you implement them, since state laws vary on employment and reporting obligations.
2. Screen workers carefully
As youth organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters have toughened their screening of volunteers in recent years, pedophiles have scurried to other agencies, including churches, to find children.
For a church, it's painful to think about screening potential Sunday school teachers and youth leaders. It takes time; it takes money; it can cause hard feelings; and it can reduce the number of willing volunteers when most churches need every one. But the fact is, churches are legally responsible for volunteer workers. Careful selection and supervision guidelines must apply, especially with positions that regularly work with children. "Negligent hiring" and "negligent supervising" are the two main issues battled in church sexual misconduct cases.
Have applicants for a paid or volunteer position complete an application. (Screening procedures should also be completed retroactively for current staff.) For most paid positions, churches already ask for employment history, description of prior church service, and professional and personal references. But it's important to add specific questions about criminal record, particularly convictions for sexual abuse or molestation. Finish with a statement for the applicant to sign, certifying that information in the application is true and complete and any falsified information may lead to rejection from employment. It is also important to verify the applicant's identity with a driver's license, since offenders often use pseudonyms. (For details, see "What to Ask Before You Hire" on page 102.)