Churches want to do all they can to keep the children in their care far from harm. Yet, these spaces are often considered “soft targets” among offenders.
That’s because — despite the best intentions — gaps and missteps are prevalent in churches’ efforts to create a safe space for all.
Here, two expert panelists discuss how to do better.
Tell us about the sexual abuse incident landscape in churches right now, from an insurer’s perspective. What are you seeing?
Brian Gleason: Expanded statutes of limitations in many states have allowed lawsuits to be brought from activity that occurred decades ago. While we still have a long way to go, we are seeing organizations take action by developing prevention plans and reporting abuse allegations to law enforcement. These are positive steps away from the long-held pattern among religious organizations of dealing with allegations internally.
Becky Moyer: We are seeing more churches updating their child protection policies and responding well to training opportunities.
Sadly, we continue to see claims and some from many years ago. There is a heightened awareness, as there should be, so churches must be above reproach in protecting not only children, but teens and adults as well.
How do you combat the notion that “it can’t happen here” on church campuses?
Moyer: When a church says or implies that ‘it can’t happen here,’ we quickly respond with examples of churches that felt the same way until it did happen in their church. Of course, we never reveal enough details to identify the church or others involved;
however, with the hundreds of churches we insure, we have many real-life situations that we can share to help them understand the reality that their denial might actually make them more vulnerable. I often share that I have the great privilege of having a front row seat in seeing God at work in His church as I see ministries flourish in reaching the lost, growing disciples, and serving their communities. However, I also have a front line position to walk alongside churches when faced with tragedy.
Gleason: Experience has shown that abuse allegations occur in thousands of churches each year —regardless of size, geographical location or denominational affiliation. While not all of these give rise to a lawsuit, any allegation has a lasting impact on the spiritual, reputational and financial health of the congregation.
We hear a lot about the importance of having a written child protection policy in place at a church. But in your experience, how many do?
Gleason: In our work with thousands of churches across the U.S., we find that most churches have practices to limit opportunities for abuse. Many need to merge their practices into clear, comprehensive polices providing guidance as to how the church will reduce the prevalence of sexual abuse.
Moyer: If we insure a church and they don’t have a child protection policy in place, we work with them to put one in place within the first few months.
Even among those that do have a written child protection policy in place, are there gaps or oversights you observe in these policies?
Moyer: A policy should be more about what you actually do, not what you want to do. We have basic components that we recommend for every church, as well as some additional desirable steps to minimize risk.
The most important factor is that they have a policy that the church is committed to following consistently. We also encourage churches to have their child protection policy reviewed by their legal counsel, as some jurisdictions are different. It is important that the policy is consistent with the mandatory reporting guidelines for their state.
Gleason: Churches often provide good direction for routine activities at the church property, but policies and procedures tend to get murky when activities move off the campus. This is especially true related to transportation of minors.
Let’s talk about the screening and background check process for staff and volunteers who work with children. What role does this play — and how can it fall short of adequately protecting children if not done properly?
Gleason: The best way to avoid abuse claims is to screen out potential offenders. Organizations can do this by having a process that significantly vets applicants. Every applicant should complete a written application that includes: questions about experience in working with children; a criminal background check that identifies any previous history; reference checks with those who have seen the applicant interact with children; and a personal interview in which the applicant is specifically asked about his or her interactions with children.
Moyer: A national background check is a crucial part of the selection and retention of staff and volunteers but only a part. There should also be an application, a personal interview, and references verified.
If a registered sex offender begins attending a church, how can leaders mitigate the potential risks posed to children?
Moyer: A church should have a conditional attendance agreement that leaders review with a registered sex offender. This outlines the expectations and guidelines to attend including restrictions to be in areas that have children and youth. Our experiences with churches who have done this is that the registered offender who is truly repentant is understanding and appreciative of the guidelines.
Gleason: Working with convicted sex offenders requires a careful balance between meeting the spiritual needs of a congregant and the needs of the members of the church. This should be a deliberate process that includes input from the church leadership, the individual who has offended and any appropriate court or rehabilitation official. Then, the church should institutionalize operational measures to reduce risk of the registered sex offender from coming in contact with vulnerable members of the congregation including children. As a condition of membership, the registered sex offender must realize that there must be transparency with all members of the church concerning the individual’s conviction and rehabilitation. We talk about this in further detail in our online resource, Dealing with Sex Offenders, at guideone.com/safety-resources/dealing-sex-offenders.
If a child in the church’s care reports abuse in the home, what are a church’s obligations?
Gleason: The church’s legal responsibility is defined in state law regarding mandatory reporting. In most states, any individual who interacts with children as part of an organized program is a mandatory reporter and must immediately file a report with local authorities. Failure to do so can result in criminal and civil penalties.
We recommend that churches consult with local counsel and build a relationship with social services authorities in advance of any allegation to assure a clear reporting process. Moreover, most states provide safe harbor to those who report and make a mistake.
Moyer: From a legal perspective, they should follow the state’s mandatory reporting laws. From a moral perspective, most church leaders that I speak with feel they should report any report of abuse and let the proper authorities investigate it.
What if children’s ministry programs happen off-site? (summer camps, for example) What types of risk are associated with this, and how can church leaders best protect against them?
Moyer: Most experts agree that as isolation increases, the risk increases. You will want to increase the amount of supervision for most offsite events. The other risk with camps is that there is more opportunity for grooming when someone spends extended time with a child in a one-on-one setting with the potential for isolation.
Gleason: Off-site activities increase risk in that the church no longer has control over the physical characteristics of the facility. This is especially true if the activities occur overnight or include swimming.
We recommend that organizations develop an abuse prevention plan for each activity outside of their regular operations. These plans should include input from any vendors, including camps and other recreation providers.
How can church leaders best mitigate risks associated with internet use on their campuses?
Gleason: Internet access comes with both benefits and risks. While it has expanded the reach of churches, it also gives access to a host of nefarious activities including viruses, cyberstalking and online harassment.
We encourage using filters and putting limitations on online access to ensure that only recognized individuals have access to the internet through the church. We provide further guidance on this topic in our resource, Should You Offer Free Wi-Fi at Church, available at guideone.com/safety-resources/should-you-offer-free-wi-fi-church.
Moyer: Every church should have a social media policy that addresses proper guidelines and use. The policy should outline what is acceptable, such as:
• Notify church of personal blogs and other social media so they can assign someone to monitor.
• Prohibit disclosure of any private information learned as part of duties as employee.
• Prohibit use of names and addresses, even as prayer requests, without written permission.
• Prohibit use of any inappropriate material.
• Include disclaimer that opinions are your personal opinion and not that of the church.
• Send group texts, rather than individual texts.
• Be aware of cyberbullying and the church’s responsibility to youth under your care.
• Monitor what is being posted and shared. The church might need to restrict access by having private groups where the leader controls who is allowed to view and post information.
— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh