Be aware & proactive

Two esteemed attorneys and industry experts discuss the preeminent problem of child sexual abuse — and what every church leader can do to protect the children in their care

Kimberlee D. Norris & Gregory S. Love
Child sexual abuse trial attorneys at
Love + Norris in Fort Worth, Texas, and co-founders of MinistrySafe

Q: Just how big is the issue of sexual abuse in churches?

Norris: Every study in the past decade indicates the same reality: the largest settlements being paid by insurers in church or ministry contexts are related to child sexual abuse. It’s the only realm in which statutes of limitation are getting longer, not shorter. In California, for instance, a 76-year-old man sued his church related to events occurring when he was between 8 and 11 years of age. Some states have abolished statute of limitation altogether.

Moreover, very few states have any sort of tort reform or limitation on damages or monetary awards that stem from a child sexual abuse case. So, for churches, sexual abuse is a significant, long-term risk.

Q: But why churches? They don’t seem like obvious targets …

Norris: Offenders go where the barriers are lowest, and churches often embrace two misconceptions: stranger danger (the idea that this risk manifests from the outside in) and a big, pervasive cloud of “That type of thing doesn’t happen here.”

Also, churches don’t have licensure requirements, which means protective elements related to child sexual abuse aren’t required by governmental authorities as a condition of licensure.

Q: OK, so it’s a big problem. What can a church do to protect its kids — and itself — when screening?

Norris: Churches should require an application, interview and references for employees and volunteers, all of which must include questions meant to elicit a high-risk response from the applicant.

Years of offenders studies targeting male and female offender characteristics should frame the questions asked in an effective screening process. Screening personnel should be training to recognize RISK INDICATORS when they encounter them.

Opt-out opportunities should be given throughout the screening process, allowing an applicant with the wrong motives the opportunity to ‘self-select out.’

Screeners should look for a pattern of interacting with the same age range and gender of child, kid-magnet activities or hobbies, vague reasons for leaving the last place of service, and failure to provide names and contact information of past supervisors, for example.

References should be asked: “How long have you known the applicant?” Preferential offenders have a difficult time giving you references who’ve known them for a long time, especially in child-serving contexts. As well, “Would you feel comfortable leaving your own children in the applicant’s care?” It is our recommendation that references be checked by telephone, rather than in writing, because references will SAY things they would never write down.

Q: What about criminal background checks?

Norris: While it’s true that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, churches should understand what a criminal background check does — and doesn’t — do for you.

Child check-in systems: not a ‘silver bullet’

By Gregory S. Love

A child check-in system at your church is valuable — but not for protecting children from child sexual abuse.

To understand what I mean, it’s important to understand the difference between two types of sex offenders: the abduction offender and the preferential offender.

To the extent a child check-in system has value, it’s in the protection of children from an abduction offender. In reality, the abduction offender represents a mere 4% of the sexual abuse problem.

Rather, the risk posed by the preferential offender is the problem. In fact, the preferential offender represents 90%-94% of the problem of child sexual abuse. The preferential offender is the risk that’s rocking ministries, and it’s not addressed by a check-in system. 

This is consistent with the statistic that 90% of children are victimized by someone they know and trust — not a stranger. In all fairness to the check-in system, it was simply not designed to address the risk of child sexual abuse.

Additionally, the child check-in system provides no protection for peer-to-peer sexual abuse, one of the fastest-growing areas of sexual abuse risk.

Gregory S. Love is a recognized expert in legal standards of care related to child sexual abuse, providing crisis response to ministries and churches nationwide as a partner of the law firm Love & Norris and co-founder of MinistrySafe . Love also serves as visiting faculty to Dallas Theological Seminary, and as  a core instructor for MinistrySafe Institute, providing seminary-level instruction to ministry professionals.

Less than 10 percent of sexual predators will encounter the criminal justice system; in a study published last year by the Department of Justice, it was less than 3%.  Two out of three kids don’t disclose abuse until they’re adults, if ever. As a result, criminal background checks are not a silver bullet, or a stand-alone screening process.

Because there’s no one-size-fits-all criminal background check, be prepared to spend more money, premised upon the level of interaction a candidate has with kids, and the degree to which that interaction is less structured. And, at a minimum, refresh criminal background checks every five years.

Q: What are “grooming behaviors,” and why should church leaders and volunteers know them?

Norris: The grooming process of an offender is known, validated and understandable. Offenders ‘groom’ a child for abuse: gaining access to children who are the offender’s age and gender of preference, selecting a specific child, introducing nudity and sexual touch, then keeping the child silent. This process is recognizable, and church staff members and volunteers should be familiar with the process and how it might play out in ministry contexts. As well, staff members should be trained to recognize common grooming behaviors, and these behaviors should be addressed in policies and procedures.

Common grooming behaviors include, for example, giving children gifts, privileges, access to activities — this is one behavior which must be addressed in your policy. For kids who have actual needs (school supplies, a warm coat, new shoes), these should be a gift from the ministry, not from an individual. Even if one person is the primary financial source for that provision, the child should never know who.

Another common grooming behavior is barrier testing and erosion — touchy behavior, pushing physical boundaries. Churches must communicate what is and isn’t appropriate physical affection in the context of their program. For example, in 23 years, every case I’ve ever encountered of male-to-male predatory behavior has involved wrestling, in some form or another. With younger kids, it’s tickling, or lap-sitting with a child who’s too old to be sitting on an adult’s lap.

What preferential offenders are looking for is trusted time alone. That means churches should have a two-adult rule in place and, at minimum, a mandate that prohibits one-to-one, unsupervised, unstructured interaction between an adult and a child in your program.

Kimberlee D. Norris provides legal counsel through the law firm of Love & Norris, where she serves as shareholder and partner. Through MinistrySafe and Abuse Prevention Systems, she has trained more than 450,000 ministry staff members and volunteers since 2005.


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