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Investigator: Background checks ‘crucial’

RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)–A church is “foolish” not to conduct background checks on employees and children’s workers, an investigator and former police officer says.

Roger Self, 53, who has been in church for 30 years and in law enforcement for longer, said there is “more criminal activity in the church” than ever before.

With sex crimes surfacing almost weekly in schools and churches not immune, Self, a member of Hardin Baptist Church in Dallas, N.C., said churches and schools must do everything they can to protect themselves.

“The days when nobody would sue a church are over,” Self said.

Self started Southeastern Loss Management in 1989 and became involved with churches when a Baptist church member told him he suspected someone in the church office was taking money. The list of gifts did not match the envelopes, and they suspected the person counting the money was posting gifts but keeping the cash. Self interviewed the longtime secretary, who confessed.

“The sad thing is that a lot of people I was catching in restaurants and other businesses were active church people,” said Self, a trustee at Hardin Baptist Church. “It’s been troubling for me personally. I can’t tell you how many I’ve caught.”

If an incident occurs at church, if a child is abused or a teen is accosted, a concerned parent can report that incident to the pastor, deacons, police or an attorney, Self said. An attorney will do an immediate background check on the adult being accused and if that check reveals a negative behavior history or, worse, that the person is a registered sex offender in another state, “that church has opened itself to huge liability.”

Because of what he’s seen, Self knows churches need to conduct simple background checks that are easy and inexpensive. Even national checks that cover both criminal and credit histories can start as low as $10. A church needs the subject’s permission to check credit.

Self emphasized that a credit check is essential when considering a pastoral candidate. He said he would not even consider a candidate who declined to grant permission for a credit check.

“I recommend that any church conduct checks on everyone, paid staff and volunteers, who works with children, infant through high school,” Self said. “Run background on everyone, new people or old people. Include Granny and her children.”

Offenders move easily and often in a mobile, transient society, Self noted. In a fast-growing church, members who once could give the first and last name of everyone in attendance often cannot come up with that information for the people on any given row.

Self said 46 states now cooperate in a common database to research criminal charges and convictions. Some states even show dismissed charges.

“If you’re getting ready to hire a youth pastor and he has two breaking and entering charges and drug charges that were dismissed, do you want to know that?” Self asked. “Dismissed doesn’t mean not guilty. Maybe witnesses didn’t show or the parents in a small town know the district attorney, etc.”

All states but Nevada report sexual offenders, he said. Information is often free if you have the time to go to each state’s website. Paying a small fee to a company that specializes in the work is much quicker and probably more cost effective.

Churches should exercise caution in handling their funds as well, Self said. Many churches have weekly receipts equal to a significant business. Churches also should be incorporated.

Money received at Hardin Baptist Church is escorted by two or more ushers and dropped into a secure container, Self said. A minimum two people are involved in every step of the process and no staff member handles money. Offerings are secured in a locked deposit bag and taken to the bank that day.

All checks require two signatures, neither of which is a staff member, he noted. The church has an annual, independent audit. A department head must approve requests for reimbursement before the church financial secretary can write a check.

Self has discovered that about 25 percent of the people about to be hired for a job by one of his clients — people who have passed the interview muster and are just waiting for the background check — will have had “serious criminal histories.”
Norman Jameson is editor of the Biblical Recorder, newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, online at biblicalrecorder.org. Adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Biblical Recorder.

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  • Norman Jameson