The following expands on my notes on Business Law for Church Leaders.
Increasingly, insurance companies are requiring churches to adopt child abuse prevention policies. These are very difficult to put together for several reasons. Some church members may see them as unnecessary. Why not just trust each other? Background check are expensive. Why are our parents so demanding? We’ve never had a problem before: why fix what’s not broken?
Many of us grew up in churches where we not knew everyone, we’d known them since they were born! But we live in a much more mobile society today. Ten to 15% of your members may turnover every year just because of job transfers, going of to college, and such. And churches are growing larger. You can know 100 people very well. You can’t know 300 people well. It’s just not possible.
Moreover, pedophiles are becoming more sophisticated and clever in their efforts to reach small children. And the culture is much more sexualized. Children are exposed to sexual matters earlier and earlier.
And, frankly, we were once just plain naive. We thought our members never abused their daughters–but some did. Their daughters just never told anyone. We thought our preachers never committed adultery–but some did. Their lovers just never confessed.
Now we know that an astonishingly large percentage of our preachers get caught in the trap of adultery. And we know that child abuse happens among church members. We can’t ignore the problem and just wish it way.
And the insurance companies have figured this out. If Catholic Churches can be forced to pay hundreds of millions in damages for child abuse, don’t think your members will hesitate to sue your church if its leaders act irresponsibly.
My own church has developed a child abuse prevention policy with great effort. You may link to it here. Also, we’ve added a sexual accountability policy to our employee handbook, establishing rules to protect our ministers. You need both a child abuse prevention policy and an employee handbook with these sorts of standards!
My law firm helped with this, and we were blessed by the fact that one of my partners is a deacon in a much larger Baptist Church that had just gone through this process. Here are a few thoughts to share:
* Out of love for your members and their children, this is not a burden but an opportunity to put love into action. Just imagine what it would be like if a child were raped or kidnapped on a church activity and you later learn you could have prevented it!
* Even if you think adopting a policy is unnecessary, your insurer is going to require it- it likely already does. Someone on your staff may have just checked the “yes” box without bothering to actually create one. This is not only bearing false witness, it’ll void your coverage should the unthinkable happen. I think every church insurer is now requiring a written policy.
* But written policies have to be followed. If you fail to follow your own policy, you will have given the injured person a theory on which to sue! These policies are promises made before God and your members and must be strictly followed, regardless of the legal consequences. Don’t create policies you can’t live with!
* Nowadays, many people will not hesitate to sue a church. This hasn’t always been true, but don’t count on your church-status to protect you. And don’t count on your insurance. Count on prevention and avoidance-Christian love and stewardship demand it.
* Policies have to be carefully customized to the congregation. Smaller churches may not have the staff to administer the more complex policies established by some larger churches. The sample policy your insurer provides is only a sample. It may not work well for you at all. Don’t blindly copy someone else’s policy manual.
* Get yourself a good lawyer, as opposed to a cheap lawyer. Churches tend to use whomever will volunteer or work at a discount for matters that often require some real expertise. If your lawyer member doubts the need for this policy, hire someone whose heart is in it.
* Even more importantly, involve the women in the process, especially women with training in early childhood development or social work. Most churches have women who are quite knowledgeable in child abuse issues. Let them use their talents!
* Expect skepticism from some of the ministers or elders. But don’t let them stand in the way. I made the presentation of our policy to our congregation. We canceled adult classes and spoke to the entire congregation in the auditorium. I was scared to death, thinking people would react negatively to all the rules. Boy, was I wrong! The church was thrilled-THRILLED!-to learn that their elders cared enough about their children to protect them as best we could.
* Your policy should address at least these issues:
o Who may volunteer to work with children, teens, and college students? (Imagine that a pedophile unknown to the church comes forward one Sunday, requests baptism, and then volunteers to work in the nursery. Does he get to volunteer? Do you check his background? Or just assume that a baptized stranger may be safely entrusted with your children?)
o Who may pick up a child from your preschool or children’s department? (Imagine a father divorced from his wife over his brutal child abuse. Although he’s not longer a member of your church, at the end of services, he slips in the backdoor and asks for his daughter. The childcare worker hands her over and he flees the state.)
o How can we protect our ministers and volunteers from false accusations of child abuse or sexual misconduct? (Imagine an emotionally unstable teenage girl has a crush on the youth minister. He rejects her advances. She retaliates by spreading a rumor that they had sex in his office. How does he keep his reputation and job?)
* If your church runs a daycare or preschool or kindergarten, the problems are greatly multiplied, as the opportunities to kidnap a child are greatly increased. Moreover, preschools often deal much more with non-members and even-non-Christians who have no reason to give you the benefit of the doubt.
* Check with the larger churches and preschools in your town and ask for their policies. There’s no need to invent one from scratch. Learn from others.
* Here are some particulars the policy should address:
o By what process do new members become eligible to work in the children’s, teen, and campus ministries? Most experts recommend that you at least (a) do a criminal background check and (b) make them wait 6 months. The idea is that a pedophile will move from church to church looking for victims and not be willing to wait 6 months when so many churches will grant instant access.
o The background check may be limited to crimes relevant to childcare and church work (no need to check old speeding tickets unless they’re going to drive children!). The companies that provide this service can help you design an appropriate check. Consider whether to do a statewide or nationwide check.
o We made an exception from the 6-month wait if the new member is transferring from another church and that church is willing to endorse them.
o Background checks cost money. But there are services that do this for a modest fee. Shop around. Check the Internet and Yellow Pages. This has become a large and very competitive industry. Call the preschools and larger churches in town and see whom they use.
o Insist that no one work with youth (campus to nursery) without a criminal background check. However, you likely can’t keep parents from being with their children. Rather, the policy may need to be limited to custodial volunteers: teachers, those going on overnight trips, and such.
o If a new member transfers from another church, the old church should be called for a reference before that person can work with kids.
o Background check results should be held by just one person and not even shown to the elders as a whole. People may well not want their college marijuana or disorderly conduct charges public! STRICTLY enforce confidentiality. Not even the secretary should see the results. Just the one person who makes the call on whether this person may volunteer. Keep results in a locked file cabinet. In reality, people with problems in their background will either not volunteer or else will disclose the activity in advance of the check to see whether it’ll hurt their chances. Very few background checks will provide surprises. I’m an elder and have never seen the results of any our checks. Rather, we have one elder who views them all. When a possible problem arises, he consults with the age-group minister and legal counsel, and they make the call.
o Adults should never be alone with children, especially on overnight trips. The policy should bar a youth minister, for example, from traveling with his kids and having no roommate. If an emotionally unstable girl claims to have slept with him, he needs to have a witness (or witnesses) who can vouch for his behavior.
o All children’s classrooms should have windows in the doors or else the door needs to always be open.
o Ministers and elders should not counsel members of the opposite sex except in a room with a window and with other people present. If a woman wants counseling from a minister after work hours, either a secretary (or his wife) should be in the office and able to look in the window or else they need to meet in a public place – a coffee house, for example.
o Ministers should not ride alone with a member of the opposite sex. If a girl wants a ride from the youth minister, he should have a guy ride with them or call his wife to drive her or come along.
o Training on your state’s child abuse laws should be mandatory for youth workers. In some states, reporting suspecting abuse of a child is mandatory and failure to do so is a crime. Rom. 13 requires us to obey the law. However, we don’t want some unstable person constantly making reports. There may need to be a process that pre-clears reports-such as approval by the age-group minister or even church legal counsel – just to make sure that frivolous reports aren’t made in the name of the church and – more importantly – to make sure the church does a proper investigation. After all, if a member is abusing his or her child, the church needs to be involved. (This is much more common than most imagine.)
o Once a church is large enough that the childcare workers don’t know all the parents, a formal system for who may take a child out of the nursery may be necessary. We give members a buzzer (like you get at a restaurant) when they leave a small child. They trade the buzzer back for the child! We NEVER lose a buzzer :wink:, and we know the person picking up the child has been authorized to do so. If the workers need the mother to come by the nursery for some reason, they signal the buzzer! Smaller churches (our attendance is 700+) don’t need such an expensive system, but some process is needed to prevent a child from being snatched by a noncustodial parent or even a stranger.
o In our Mon-Fri preschool, they keep a record of who is authorized to pick up a child. If their name is not on the list, they can’t have the child.
Now, I realize that much of this sounds like overkill. Why can’t we just trust our members? Well, because preachers commit adultery at an astonishingly high rate! And because even preachers and “good” members are sometimes child abusers. And because pedophiles know that churches are often naïve and lazy and therefore great places to snatch a child.
Finally, review your policies every year. Ask: are we actually obeying this rule? If not, is it because it’s a bad rule or because we’re just lazy? Change the rules as need be. Re-train your volunteers if they aren’t following the policies. DO NOT have written guidelines that you don’t actually follow. That’s worse than no guidelines at all–and dishonest. Don’t make promises to your members you won’t keep.
PS — Al Maxey (link to your right) has promised to publish a piece on this subject in late September. Be looking for additional guidance from Al.