As a church leader, you would, of course, be horrified to learn that someone in your congregation is suspected of abusing or mistreating a child.
But are you required by law to report this abuse to the authorities?
At what point does clergy confidentiality prevent you or the pastors at your church from reporting suspected maltreatment?
It is important to be prepared before you ever find yourself in such a situation, but it can be complicated because definitions and requirements vary by state. A useful resource is the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Here, you can find a plethora of information about the requirements you need to follow in child welfare situations — including which professionals are considered mandatory reporters.
A mandatory reporter is an adult who is legally required to report suspected child maltreatment and abuse if they have a reasonable suspicion that it has taken place. Some of the most common professions designated as mandatory reporters include:
• Social workers
• Teachers, principals and other school personnel
• Doctors, nurses and other health care workers
• Counselors, therapists and other mental health professionals
• Childcare providers
• Medical examiners or coroners
• Law enforcement officers
Many states list members of the clergy as mandatory reporters, and some states provide that every person is a mandatory reporter. In some situations, though, the duty to report might conflict with a duty to keep communication confidential between a religious leader and a communicant. For example, if a member of a Catholic congregation acknowledges they abused a child during confession, the priest might be precluded from reporting that privileged information in some states. However, a childcare worker in that same situation might be required to report the abuse. In those situations, it is important for the church leader to consult with a competent legal advisor to guide them through the situation.
Informing your insurance company
Whenever an abuse or mistreatment situation comes to light in your congregation, it is important to notify your insurance company right away. Early reporting of allegations is important for your insurance company to investigate and provide a defense to your organization.
One question that comes up is whether you have the appropriate coverage. As you consider this, it is useful to conduct a mock exercise during which you and others in your congregation walk and talk through what would happen if someone brought forward allegations of child abuse.
The following are benefits of such an exercise:
#1: You will better understand your insurance carrier’s requirements before such a crisis occurs. Some insurance carriers require that organizations have a child protection plan in place to prevent child abuse. A mock exercise gives you an opportunity to identify any shortcomings in your plan.
#2: You will be able to determine whether your current insurance coverage would be sufficient. Within your insurance program, you might have various policies that do or do not provide coverage, including Commercial General Liability, Directors & Officers, Umbrella, and/or specific sexual misconduct-related coverage provisions. While you might think you have appropriate coverage and limits, it is important to take a deep dive into your policy to examine what would happen in this hypothetical situation.
#3: Leaders in your organization will get to know and build relationships with your agent. A house of worship needs an insurance agent or broker who is knowledgeable about all the risks facing a ministry, including child abuse. Talking through the various scenarios and insurance coverage options is important for your organization to be prepared for allegations of abuse.
Preparing your church
Regardless of how many mandatory reporters you have in your congregation, it is important to have a written policy in place that details what people should do about reporting abuse. Include this information in any staff and volunteer training you conduct, so there is a clear plan for how to handle such a situation.
Any child abuse is unthinkable for a church. Do everything you can to prevent it from happening.
Eric Spacek has 17 years of experience in risk control in the property and casualty insurance industry and, before that, practiced law for 11 years defending organizations against liability and injury lawsuits. Eric is also a former church business administrator.