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Most California churches likely not complying with new abuse law, could be ‘a sitting duck’

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FRESNO, Calif. (BP) — Huge lawsuits and the inability to renew insurance policies are among the potential dangers for hundreds of California Southern Baptist churches that apparently have yet to comply with a state law aimed at preventing child sexual abuse.

“Your nightmare scenario is [that] you fail to comply,” said Kimberlee Norris, an attorney and co-founder of MinistrySafe, an organization that helps churches prevent sexual abuse. “This law has created a standard of care for child protection in your state. If a child is sexually abused in your program” and sues, “you’re kind of a sitting duck. These [types of cases] are the largest settlements and judgments that exist in the United States today.”

The result can be “mission-killing” for a church, she said.

The law at issue, California Assembly Bill 506, is set to take full effect Jan. 1. That deadline was pushed back by a companion bill, AB 2669, adopted last September amid concerns of child-serving organizations. The law includes at least three key requirements that apply to churches:

— They must fingerprint all employees, trustees and child-serving volunteers for a background check program administered by the California Department of Justice.

— They must train all employees and child-serving volunteers in abuse prevention. MinistrySafe and the Church HR Network both offer church-friendly options that will fulfill the requirement.

— They must develop policies and procedures requiring, among other provisions, that at least two adults are present during activities with children.

A California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC) consultant fears hundreds of churches may not be following the new law.

“Over 80 percent of the 2,300 churches [that cooperate with the CSBC] have not subscribed to the free Church HR Network compliance protection” offered by the state convention. “I am concerned with their compliance,” said Ralph Neighbour, a CSBC consultant for HR, government and insurance issues. Some churches don’t know about the new law, others are resistant to the changes it mandates and still others don’t have enough administrative help to implement the new requirements.

Not only could failure to comply leave congregations liable to lawsuits, Neighbour said, but it also could affect their insurance coverage.

“The first impact that it’s going to have is a rude awakening when they try to renew their insurance and the insurance company says, ‘Please provide proof of AB 506 compliance,’” Neighbour said.

Some observers wonder if full compliance is possible among California Southern Baptists, with so many churches still needing to take action.

Yes, says Neighbour, but only if churches act now. The CSBC is assisting churches through online resources on AB 506 and free consultations with Neighbour. Those consultations are available by calling Neighbour at (909) 519-4308.

“If you don’t do this now, you’re not going to have time to get it done by Jan. 1,” he said. Fulfilling the various requirements “is about a three- to four-month process—at least. So if you don’t start now, you’re going to be in trouble down the road.”

Neighbour is passionate about helping churches protect children from abuse because of his own experience as a pastor. More than a decade ago, the Southern California church he pastored, Inland Community Church in Chino, closed its doors after being decimated by a sexual abuse lawsuit. Now he wants to help other churches avoid that fate.

“I have heard of one church that is having to sell a building in order to mount a defense” in a sexual abuse lawsuit, Neighbour said. Another church “doesn’t have any insurance, can’t find any” and seems poised to “give the plaintiff the keys to the church.”

Such scenarios are both tragic and needless.

“I understand the angst,” Norris said. “But it is possible to comply. The two-adult rule is the best practice. Anything that moves the church closer to achieving and exceeding current standards of care” is a positive step.

Nonetheless, portions of the new law are “inartful,” Norris said. Among them is the background check requirement, which only mandates a California background check for employees and child-serving volunteers. Churches should go beyond that to ensure workers have not abused children in any jurisdiction.

“As high as 85 percent of the current population in California came in the last 15 years,” Norris said.

Another problem with AB 506 is that it requires “at least two mandated reporters” of sexual abuse be present at children’s activities, but volunteers are not mandatory reporters in California. That could leave churches non-compliant even if they obeyed the two-adult rule.

MinistrySafe thinks it has found a solution though. It urges churches to “train your volunteers as if they were mandatory reporters,” Norris said, and “then treat them as if they are mandatory reporters in terms of compliance with the state reporting requirements.”

Despite foibles in the law and its implementation, Norris and Neighbour agree that it can help churches raise their standards of abuse prevention.

AB 506 “is important,” Neighbour said. “It’s to protect our children.” Rather than complaining, pastors should “approach it from the standpoint of: this is important discipleship.”