Sex abuse in churches addressed
SPRINGFIELD – About 200 people from dozens of churches gathered at Southaven Baptist for an unfortunate yet vitally important purpose: to learn how to safeguard children from sexual misconduct.
“It is such a shame that we have to be concerned with security liability in the church,” said Greene County Sheriff Jack Merritt. “But it is the reality of the age we live in.”
Sponsored by GuideOne Insurance, a popular church insurance provider, and in cooperation with the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) and the Southern Missouri District Council of the Assemblies of God, the “Safeguarding the Faithful” conference was led by Merritt and Springfield Attorney Richard Hammar.
Both men have practical as well as professional knowledge of the issue. Prior to being elected sheriff, Merritt served 27 years with the Missouri Highway Patrol as a captain. He is also a member of Southaven where he frequently works in the nursery. Hammar has cataloged every legal dispute in the United States having to do with religion and teaches fourth grade Sunday School at his local Assembly of God church. He also serves as the legal editor for www.churchlawtoday.com.
“You cannot be careful enough as you select your personnel, paid or volunteer,” Merritt said. “It can seem very tasteless to ask someone who has supposedly dedicated their life to serving God to submit a criminal background check but, folks. that’s where we are. There are examples over and over again of churches that hire someone and take them at face value. Some of the most charming and personable people in the world are child molesters.”
The way around the awkwardness of the background check, according to Merritt, is to make it a universal policy.
“If you have a policy in place, it really takes away the delicate aspect out of the process,” he said. “Do it for everybody.”
Some might argue it’s hard enough to get volunteers.
“That mentality is exactly what triggers personal liability for those making the decisions,” he said. “If you decide ‘we’re not going to screen workers,’ do you think a jury is going to find that as reckless behavior? Absolutely.”
According to Hammar’s research, only 33 percent of churches do any kind of screening for volunteer youth workers. The smaller the church, the less likely they are to screen. Only 21 percent of those with weekly worship attendance do any screening. For churches running more than 1,000, the rate jumps to 78 percent.
“Schools are doing it, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are doing it,” he said. “Churches that do not do background checks are marginalizing themselves into a shrinking corner. We know something about these kids those organizations don’t: that they are precious and created in the image of God. If those people are taking steps to protect children, we should, too.”
Although seeking a criminal background check can go a long way toward protecting children and the church, it only shows convictions. Merritt suggested other precautions congregations should take. All dealings with the court system are listed with the county.
“You can find out a lot that way,” he said. “Sometimes a whole lot more than with a criminal background check.”
Churches can search for a sex offender by name, state, county, city or ZIP code for free using the National Sex Offender Public Registry at www.nsopr.gov. The registry also includes photos to ensure you checking out the correct John Smith.
Merritt also suggested common sense precautions that are much cheaper than a state-of-the-art video surveillance system, such as keeping secluded areas of a church locked off when not in use and always making sure children are never left alone with just one adult. Another tip: develop an identification system to insure a child is picked up by a legal parent or trusted person.
Hammar said that while public schools are statistically much more likely to be havens for child abuse or pedophilia, churches who often lack volunteer workers are a more vulnerable target for a multitude of reasons. Screening is often considered inappropriate; there are large numbers of children and many off-campus activities; and people tend to err on the side of trust.
For 2006, the highest legal risk category for all churches nationwide was sexual acts, at 17 percent of all complaints. In 2000, it was barely in the top five categories. What can a church do to protect its children and itself?
Hammar suggests this six-step “basic” plan for reducing the risk:
1. All volunteers must fill out an application.
3. Check institutional references (other places the person might have worked with children).
4. Place them on a six-month “probation”/trial period.
5. Always follow the two-adult rule and never leave one adult alone with children.
5. Stay informed of current legal developments.
In conclusion, no church or institution can totally safeguard children or themselves from sexual abuse, but in general, Hammar said, the more steps taken to prevent it, the more the risks will go down.