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The unthinkable: Responding to sexual abuse allegations

David Middlebrook and Wendi L. Hodges

Churches spend considerable amounts of time and effort to put in place policies and procedures designed to prevent occurrences of child abuse within their ministries. Employees and volunteers get diligently screened and effectively trained; unfortunately, the unthinkable still happens. Even with the best-laid plans, child predators occasionally find their way into churches.

In addition to building and enforcing the defensive mechanisms of the church, it is imperative that leaders also plan for the worst. The good news is that it is possible to be prepared to face such a reported incidence of child abuse proactively and positively.

The first step in the plan is to coordinate a response team made up of a group of persons within the church, as well as outside professionals who are schooled, skilled and ready to respond to a report of child abuse.

Never ignore allegation
It is critical to never ignore an allegation of child abuse, no matter how unlikely it may seem. Many of the problems faced by churches 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.

A case in point would be a recent scenario in Arizona where church leaders were made aware that a father was sexually abusing his eldest daughter. A later summary from the police states that at the time the pastors told the victim that because her father was repentant, she should forgive him and restore the relationship. The pastors did not report the allegations to authorities, and while the father did stop his alleged abuse of the older girl, he continued to abuse his younger daughter for an additional year or more.

Consequently, the pastors were later arrested on suspicion of failing to report alleged sex crimes. This case demonstrates that it is crucially important that the church’s leadership understand that there may be legal obligations required of them in addition to the spiritual concerns of repentance and healing. While the pastors in this case presumably did not act with ill intent nor mean to cause harm to any of the individuals involved, their failure to report the father’s actions with the elder daughter went against the State of Arizona’s reporting requirements, therefore causing the pastors to be criminally and/or civilly liable.

While an allegation may in fact turn out to be false, it is incumbent upon church leaders to thoroughly investigate and report any accusations levied against any church worker, volunteer, or congregant. 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.

In the event that your church ever receives an allegation of child abuse, whether on the church’s premises or not; whether with an employee or congregant, the church should focus on both the giving and receiving of information. Interviews with child victims must be handled with extreme caution and should not take place without the advice and consent of the church’s attorney. Encourage open dialogue and an understanding and supporting attitude during any conversations. Also, the following general procedures should be followed:

Notify the parents. If the report received was about a worker of the church and not about the parent or guardian of the child victim, the Response Team Leader should immediately place a telephone call to the parents or guardian of the child victim. At that time, an in-person meeting between the Response Team Leader and Director of Children’s Ministries and the parents of the child victim should be scheduled.

Notify the accused. Again, if the report received was about a worker of the church and not about the parent or guardian of the child victim, 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.

If the alleged wrongdoer is an employee, an involuntary leave of absence pending the outcome of the investigation should be implemented immediately upon receipt of the report. The church, in consultation with the church’s attorney, must carefully consider the issue of whether such involuntary leave of absence should be with or without pay.

If the alleged wrongdoer is a volunteer, immediate and indefinite suspension of volunteer privileges should occur pending the outcome of the formal investigation.

Notify your 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. 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/or civil liability, such as in the Arizona case mentioned above. Not only can the church be damaged by such failure to report, 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.

Strategy in place
The church should also have in place a strategy for answering any questions asked by members of the congregation, as well as a strategy for dealing with the media. By being straightforward and honest (while being careful to maintain issues of confidentiality), the public and your congregation will have less reason to speculate, thereby limiting hurt and distrust.

Children are counting on the church to put a plan in place that safeguards and secures them against sexual predators. Aside from a moral duty, most every jurisdiction now has a legal requirement that the church prevents and reports abuse and neglect. We can no longer afford the casualties.

David Middlebrook is a partner and Wendi L. Hodges is an attorney of Anthony and Middlebrook, The Church Law Group, Grapevine, TX. www.churchlawgroup.com

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