Perhaps--and he may be lurking undetected. David Middlebrook, author of Ministries Today's award-winning child abuse prevention program, The Guardian System, shares 10 things you can do to make sure the children in your church are safe.
I received a call from an attorney friend who was deeply disturbed by an emergency church meeting she had just attended. The church had recently learned about a sexual molestation of a preteen boy in the church by one of the youth pastors on staff. During the church's post-report fact-finding, it was discovered this same youth pastor had molested teens in his former pastoral positions at two different churches.
They had never questioned his former employers. Of course, these discoveries raised the issue of what kinds of background checks are appropriate within the church. My friend suggested a screening program that included criminal background checks. She recommended they be done from the senior pastoral staff on down to the child-care workers, bus drivers and volunteers.
During the roundtable forum discussing the issue of child abuse in the church, one of the church's pastors stood up and announced that the cost of doing a basic background check on all of the volunteers would cost "at least $16 per person." He felt this was cost prohibitive and simply not financially feasible for the church.
My friend reminded him of the enormous potential financial and emotional cost to the church should it be faced with a civil lawsuit for its failure to exercise due diligence in protecting the children in the congregation. The attorney was voted down. Because of the cost, no screening program with criminal background checks was instituted.
What would today's churches be without their nursery, Sunday school or youth programs? As long as there are children in society, they'll need a safe place to learn and grow. We assume the church environment is that safe place, but without strategic planning on the part of the church administration, that assumption can be quite wrong.
The fact is, too many churches make the same tragic and shortsighted mistake as the congregation in the above example. And the results can be devastating, not only to children, families and churches, but also to entire communities.
In an effort to help you with the somewhat daunting task of putting plans and structures in place to safeguard the children in your congregation against the threat of sexual abuse, I have prepared the following list of the top 10 things a church can do to properly address this issue.
1. Recognize the risk. With the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church, it is inconceivable that any pastor or church administrator would ignore the risk to children that can come from sexual predators entering the church arena. Unfortunately, many pastors would rather turn away from the ugly reality of sexual abuse and convince themselves that "this can't happen here." This denial happens in churches across the country on a daily basis.
The wake-up call has sounded. There is simply no excuse to disregard the truth. Gene Abel, director of the Behavior Medicine Institute of Atlanta and one of the nation's leading experts on sex offenders, made this statement in Patrick Boyle's book Scout's Honor: Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution: "The volunteer organizations are just perfect for pedophiles, in the sense that they [volunteer organizations] are just the ideal situation if they [pedophiles] can get to a large number of kids, to kind of check out which ones might be the easiest victims."
Churches have historically been just such a place of opportunity. However, when churches become proactive, recognizing their vulnerabilities and taking steps to prevent child abuse, this critical step dramatically lowers the risk of such a horrific event.
2. Use a screening form. Another simple, yet incredibly effective step is the implementation of a screening form in the children's worker selection process. Each church must establish a workable and effective screening form to be completed by applicants for a position, whether voluntary or compensated, that involves the supervision of minors.
This is not to be confused with an employment application. The information sought by the screening form is directed to and seeks information about past church work and experience, history of abuse in the life of the applicant and information concerning prior criminal charges or convictions.
The screening form should include a release from the individual to contact references to obtain information about his or her character, fitness and ability to work with children and youth. The application should also release the church from any liability for usage of the authorization to obtain information. A screening form should also include an authorization for the church to conduct a criminal records background check and include a place to list references as well as previous establishments where the applicant has worked with children.
The church should seek competent legal counsel to assist in the preparation of the screening form to comply with the laws of the particular state and in order to address any recent changes in state laws.
If the screening form information reveals a history that has involved incidences of child abuse, even where the applicant is or was a victim, I strongly advise the applicant not be further considered for a position working with children and youth. If the applicant was a victim of child abuse, it is very important that the next several steps be given great attention if he or she is given further consideration for a position as an employee or a volunteer.
3. Contact references. Contact each reference listed on the application and make a written record of each contact. When the references have been contacted, the notes of each contact should be kept with the screening form application and maintained in a file.
Further, contact each church the applicant claims to have attended. If churches or references listed on the screening form are reluctant to give you information regarding the applicant's prior conduct, provide them with a copy of the release that is a part of the screening form, which allows the church to obtain such information from references without legal liability.
4. Conduct a personal interview. If an individual is applying for a position that would permit direct contact with minors, that individual should be interviewed by a member of the church staff who is schooled and skilled in screening child-care and youth-care workers.
5. Do a criminal records check. With an authorization set forth in the screening application form for the church to conduct a criminal records background check, such a check should be completed on all paid workers whose position necessarily involves the custody or supervision of minors. It is also advisable to do a criminal records check on all paid workers whose position necessarily involves incidental but routine contact with children.
If the criminal records check reveals a conviction of a sex-related crime, the individual should be disqualified for child care and youth work in the church. I call this the "one strike rule." There should be no second chances when children are involved. These persons may serve in other areas of the church but must be prohibited from direct contact with children. If the criminal records check reveals a conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, it is advisable to contact the church's legal counsel for an opinion as to whether the charge or conviction should disqualify the individual for child care and youth work in the church.
6. Implement consistent and effective training. Every church should implement a training program that emphasizes the following areas:
How to recognize a perpetrator of child abuse. It is important that we not paint the picture of child abuse with too broad a brush. Its causes are many, varied and complex. Stereotypes do not serve well in this arena. Child abuse can be carried out by anyone given the opportunity and who possesses the inclination.
Child abuse occurs in all types of settings by people of all races, creeds and socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Persons known to the child perpetrate four out of five assaults on children. Children of all ages can be the victims of it. Adults are not the only perpetrators; children also victimize other children.
How to identify victims of child abuse. Quite often, victims of child abuse live in a world of silence. They may not understand that what they are experiencing is wrong; they may feel a sense of loyalty to the offender (especially if the molester/abuser is a family member); they may feel guilty about getting the offender in trouble; or they may feel afraid of the repercussions if they tell anyone. However, victims cry out for help, even if their actions are unintentional. Our responsibility is to recognize the verbal or behavioral signs of abuse so that we might rescue a child from a destructive situation (see related story on page 48).
How to interact appropriately with children. Jesus clearly demonstrated that certain forms of touching are appropriate and should be encouraged. In many cases, they can enhance a child's feeling of safety and self-worth. Mark 10:16 tells us that Jesus took little children and babies in His arms, put His hands on them and blessed them.
However, forms of inappropriate touching can cause confusion, shame and hurt to the child subjected to them. Therefore, it is crucial that all those who work with children receive training in proper interaction.
Adequately training and equipping your child-care workers is important business. Every church must take the time to develop an ongoing training program that covers these areas. Make certain to research your options and choose a program that is easy to use and effective.
7. Delegate duties properly. To maintain order and promote security, it is best to have one primary director responsible for maintaining the oversight of the operational portion of the child-care protection program. If too many individuals are involved in supervising the program, things can slip through the cracks.
Important considerations and obligations of the director of a child-care facility include making certain he or she conducts a regular meeting with the pastor and elders of the church. Such meetings should contain a reminder of the safeguards implemented within the church to guard against abuse, what actions have been taken against any potential molesters and any other information deemed necessary.
If possible, the director should be a paid staff member because this creates an extra incentive for the person to be alert and organized. Be sure to include this and other duties in the job description and have the person sign an agreement stating he or she understands the position's nature and responsibility.
8. Maintain consistent supervision. One of the most effective ways for the director to maintain clear oversight of activities is for him or her to create a policy of "strategic supervision." In order for the director to know what is occurring, he or she must tour the facility during hours of operation. These tours should be random, without warning and never limited to any one part of the facilities. They should encompass all areas where children are present, including closets, basements, bathrooms and so on.
9. Follow the 'two-deep' rule (two adults with two children). This might be one of the most effective tools a church can use to prevent abuse. The adults should be unrelated--meaning they will not be found to have any kind of an intimate or confidential relationship.
By ensuring that two adults are always with the children, you will deter any potential misconduct. Additionally, if any molestation is alleged, the accused will have a witness who can verify nothing improper happened. For this reason, the adults should be unrelated because a court will not be able to find that one party may be covering for the other due to their relationship.
10. Plan for the worst. By implementing a plan to respond to allegations of abuse, you can cover all of the appropriate steps. If you don't prepare in advance, however, it is probable you will act on emotion and make unwise choices rather than following the most advantageous path to protect the victim, the rights of the accused and the church.
The first step in the plan is to coordinate a response team made up of a group of persons within your church and outside professionals who are schooled, skilled and ready to respond to the report of child abuse.
It is critical never to ignore an allegation of child abuse, no matter how unlikely it may seem. The first and possibly most important thing your church leaders can do is to remember to take each and every reported allegation seriously. Many of the problems churches faced in the past, such as continued abuse of children and large monetary awards levied against the institutions, could have been easily avoided had the church leaders faced the problem when first reported. Had they instigated a thorough investigation and dealt with the issues instead of shuffling the offender to another position and refusing to confront the issue, countless children might have been saved the terrible pain of abuse.
Understandably, it may be difficult to believe someone you admire and trust could ever hurt a child, especially if this person is in a position of leadership within your congregation. And while an allegation may in fact turn out to be false, it is incumbent upon you to thoroughly investigate and report any accusations levied against any church worker, volunteer or official. Having an attitude that refuses to properly investigate the accusations because "everyone knows he would never do something like that" will endanger future children and expose your church to financial liability.
Following is a basic outline of necessary notification procedures when an allegation is made:
Notify the parents. If the report received is about a worker of the church and not about the parent or guardian of the child-victim, the leader of the church-response team should immediately place a telephone call to the parents or guardian of the child-victim. At that time, a meeting between the leader of the response team, the director of children's ministries and the parents of the child-victim should be scheduled (consider whether other members of the response team, including the church's attorney, should be present).
Notify the accused. It will be necessary to notify the alleged wrongdoer of the receipt of the report of child abuse.
Inform the alleged wrongdoer that the church is not on a witch-hunt; rather, the church is acting responsibly to a serious allegation and is on a quest to find the truth. The church should seek to gain basic "who, what, when, where and how" information from the alleged wrongdoer.
Notify the insurance carrier. It may seem odd to notify your insurance carrier of an allegation of abuse upon the initial receipt of a report of child abuse and before there has been a final determination. However, this may be necessary because your insurance may require immediate notification for coverage.
Also, you'll need to determine whether or not the church's insurance covers sexual impropriety. Many insurance policies do not cover sexual issues because of the high risk of liability.
Notify the authorities. Each state has its own mandatory reporting requirements. It is important to become familiar with the laws of your state and to be willing to make such reports. Failure to do so can result in criminal and civil liability.
Not only can the church be damaged by such failure, but a lawsuit may also be filed against an individual who fails to follow the standards set forth by the state legislature. Very few states protect clergy from reporting suspected child abuse, so the "clergy-penitent" privilege will rarely apply. If in doubt, contact your attorney.
Most child molesters are not the stereotypical 'dirty old man' waiting in the bushes to kidnap a lone child--they are usually people the victim would trust. But abusers do share some common character traits.
The following behaviors may be signs that an individual has the potential to abuse:
yells and screams at children
grabs and jerks children
controls activities, not letting children make choices
requires children to be obedient and respectful at all times
doesn't let children speak
disciplines every child in the same way
has to win every power struggle with a child
takes inappropriate interest in one child
shows no respect for children's right to privacy.
There are basically two types of child molesters: the situational child molester and the preferential child molester. The attributes of the situational child molester are:
may prefer adult sex to sex with a child
does not necessarily plan to molest
acts on impulse
may be heavily involved in pornography
reacts to a vulnerable situation
may be undergoing an unusually stressful period
may be difficult to screen because he or she doesn't necessarily have a prior criminal history.
Strong safeguards and strict supervision of interaction with children will usually deter the situational molester.
On the other hand, the attributes of the preferential child molester include:
more attraction to children than adults
spends much time fantasizing and plotting how to gain access to children
may have hundreds of victims in his or her lifetime and usually molests the same child several times
most likely heavily involved in pornography--usually child pornography or erotica has very specific age and gender preferences
requires frequent access to children.
If a preferential molester can detect a setting where precautions are in place and where unsupervised access to children is minimized, he or she will most likely be diverted from that environment.How to Spot a Child Who Is Being Sexually Abused
Recognizing the signs that someone is taking advantage of a child in your church
Children will usually offer two kinds of indications that they are being abused: verbal and behavioral. The following is a list of ways to recognize some of these indicators.
stating they don't want to be with a certain person
stating they don't like a certain person
stating they don't want to go to a certain place anymore.
regression to infantile behavior and clinging
detailed and age-inappropriate understanding of sexual behavior (especially younger children)
unusually seductive behavior
school problems and/or behavior problems
excessive fear of certain people or places
unwillingness or reluctance to change clothes (where changing clothes is otherwise appropriate, as in changing for sports or physical education class)
appearing to be threatened by physical contact
acting apathetic or depressed
frequent anger and aggressiveness
extreme loss of appetite.