It's every parent's worst nightmare. On Sunday, July 27, hundreds of miles from home, three Alaskan teens were reportedly raped while attending an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) youth conference in Issaquah, Washington.

The girls, two 14-year-old cousins and a 15-year-old, say that three boys attending the "Rainbow of Gifts" conference invited them late one night to their dorm room to talk. The next day, the girls reported to the police that the boys, all from the Issaquah area, raped them. The boys have pleaded not guilty and will be tried as juveniles.

The ELCA expressed shock and distress at the incident, but the news no doubt left many parents and church leaders wondering. How common are such incidents? Church law experts have both good news and bad news. While they say that violent sex crimes like this are extremely rare in youth ministry, sexual misconduct by minors is a serious danger.

"We have done hundreds of church misconduct investigations, and I have not heard of [a youth-on-youth rape] reported in any church we serve across the religious spectrum," says Martin Nussbaum, cochairman of the Religious Institutions Group of Colorado Springs law firm Rothberger, Johnson & Lyons. "However, kids misbehaving and acting out sexually is not uncommon. It is not more frequent in church activities than [at other youth events], but it does happen. Churches need to be prepared for that."

James Cobble, executive director of Christian Ministry Resources, said studies conducted by his group's Church Law & Tax Report show that about one of every four sexual misconduct cases reported in churches were committed by minors.

Earlier this year, 1 percent of 891 churches polled said their church received allegations of child molestation in a 2002 program or activity. Of those, youth were the alleged perpetrators as well as the victims in 29 percent of the cases. This number has fluctuated in the past decade—but not by much: 25 percent in 1995, 21 percent in 1996, and 22 percent in 1999. Extrapolated to America's 400,000 churches, that would mean that last year alone, between 800 and 1,200 congregations faced a case of youth sexual misconduct.

Nussbaum says typical cases in church activities include fondling, indecent exposure, and verbal harassment. Incidents between similarly aged youth are far less common than cases involving older perpetrators and much younger victims, he said.

Protecting youth and the church
Youth-peer sexual harassment also presents a serious liability risk for churches. Institutions can be found guilty of negligence in such cases for not providing security against such abuse. Nussbaum told CT that sexual misconduct by youth accounts for as much as 20 percent of church liability claims.

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"Churches are aware of the dangers of sexual abuse by volunteers and church staff, but we are not looking at adolescents as a source for this sort of behavior," says Richard Hammar, attorney and editor of Church Law & Tax Report. "It is a significant risk people are aware of. Churches don't know what to do."

Because churches cannot screen all the kids active in youth ministry and because potential 16-year-old offenders have no criminal record, normal sexual misconduct preventions do not apply. They are not being hired or selected. Nussbaum says he knows of no church that screens minors to be in youth ministry.

Nussbaum says the best risk management protocol is to have a risk management protocol. "In the sexual misconduct policy, the church must name it, describe it, and forbid it," he says. "The policy should have a clear but flexible disciplinary provision."

For child perpetrators, the consequences should always include notifying the parents. Nussbaum said other provisions may include expulsion from an event, restriction of youth ministry activity, completion of some sort of chore, or constant parental supervision in order to be active in the program. If rape were involved, Nussbaum says, the reaction would have to be expulsion and reporting to law enforcement.

Hammar said the most dangerous areas for sexual misconduct are where older youth are given full supervision of younger children, such as in vacation Bible school or nurseries. Hammar says this practice is very common in churches, but he estimates that only one in 500 churches require any kind of reference or screening.

"The churches' liability will be based on negligence or carelessness in selection of that worker," Hammar says. "My response is to require references from youth pastors, public school teachers, scout leaders, or coaches. You need to get approval from adults with firsthand experience of this kid to say he or she is suitable to work in a supervisory capacity with minors."

For prevention of sexual misconduct in youth ministry events like overnight trips, Hammar suggests contacting other youth-oriented organizations, like schools and scouting groups, to see how they manage such risks. "In a case of negligence, one thing a court will look at is the community standard of care," Hammar says. "How that is established is by looking at other local organizations. To contact them to see what their guidelines are goes far in proving the church exhibited reasonable care."

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Hammar says he is currently writing an article arguing for churches to rethink the concept of lock-ins. He says that it is nearly impossible to exercise sufficient supervision in that environment.

Adequate supervision is also important when kids could be roaming church premises when they shouldn't be—like during worship services. Cobble suggests having someone function as a grounds monitor to walk the building during events and services to make sure that doors are locked and no one is off alone.

But even with these preventions, Hammar warns, the risk of youth-peer misconduct cannot be eliminated. "It can still happen no matter what we do," he says.

While churches have to show that they were vigilant in prevention, liability falls mostly on how churches react after allegations have been made. This is why, as Nussbaum says, clear disciplinary plans are so important.

"If Johnny gropes Susie, that ought not give rise to a liability suit," he says, "But if it happens twice, or the church knew of a previous incident, there would be real concerns there. Where a church has theoretical exposure is if they knew that a child was a problem and failed in supervision."

Todd Hertz is online associate editor for Christianity Today.