By Peter PersuittI
When the time came to interview Kimberlee Norris and Gregory Love — attorneys, sexual abuse litigators and founders of Ministrysafe.com — I’d teed up what I thought were pertinent questions: how to identify the most common sexual offender traits and how to outline a holistic approach to abuse prevention, for starters. Then, perhaps we’d talk about the importance of “drawing a line in the sand” with policy decisions.
As it turns out, these preconceived notions about abuse prevention missed the mark.
Tell us something we don’t know
Love and Norris are steeped in the issue of child sexual abuse, addressing it from many sides. As a self-proclaimed “preacher’s kid,” Norris’ unique background helped guide her as she and Love created MinistrySafe, where online tools and 24/7 access meet the needs of existing ministry clients, but are offered to the church-at-large.
“We knew we couldn’t be everywhere,” Norris recalls. “And even if we could, smaller churches — like my father’s church plants — couldn’t afford to pay for attorneys to travel and train church staff members and volunteers.”
Today, MinistrySafe trains between 8,000 and 9,000 ministry personnel per month, online.
When we spoke, Love dove right into the issue: “What didn’t we learn from 1996 to 2006, when the church was crushed by repeated allegations?” he begins. “What message is the church not getting? Why do we continue to have record numbers of sexual abuse cases in 2014? We can’t reduce a risk we don’t understand.”
Norris agreed, and adds: “Probably the real question is ‘What do churches and ministries need to know?’”
This query provided the framework for our discussion.
A false sense of security
Love and Norris believe churches’ understanding of the issue is warped by an It won’t happen here mentality — statistically insupportable, as one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by 18.
Love points out that while a great deal of information is now available to churches — statistics, studies and vendors offering services meant to reduce risk — the message is commonly miscommunicated, misunderstood or even intentionally twisted for financial gain.
For example, he says, some criminal background check vendors market their services as comprehensive risk protection. In actuality, less than 10 percent of sexual abusers will ever encounter the criminal justice system. “[O]bviously, this is no ‘silver bullet,’” Love points out. “In some circles, ministry leaders run a cursory criminal background check, then close their eyes and rest!”
What finally breaks through
In Norris’ experience, the primary call-to-action catalyst for many congregations comes in the form of an allegation involving a volunteer, staff member or long-term member. “[G]enerally, [it’s] in ‘crisis context’ — the media is calling, and the congregation is bewildered or outraged.”
Other times, a “near miss” situation triggers action — a sister organization or geographically close entity experiences an allegation, for example.
Sometimes, Love adds, church insurance brokers and providers can motivate a church to raise protective barriers, especially if a carrier moves to non-renew coverage due to lack of protective measures.
Frequently asked to speak at denominations and church conferences, Love and Norris determined early on that their presentations couldn’t force change. Instead, the two focus on identifying — and clarifying — common misconceptions.
To this end, they advocate a five-part safety system:
1) Sexual abuse awareness training for staff members and volunteers;
2) Effective screening processes, meant to elicit high-risk responses, with training for screening personnel;
3) A reasonable criminal background check, keyed to the actual position of the applicant;
4) Tailored policies and procedures that don’t read like a legal document; and
5) Systems for monitoring and oversight — because, as Love and Norris purport, “Policy is what you do, not what you say you do.”
Peter A. Persuitti is managing director, Religious Practice, at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Chicago.