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Screening volunteer workers necessary to prevent abuse at church, attorney

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A Southern Baptist youth pastor in Florida is convicted of sexually molesting 12 boys. Enraged parents sue the church and receive a $4.2 million judgment, four times the church’s insurance coverage.
An insurance company in Oklahoma receives 93 church-related child abuse claims in one year.
In a nationwide survey of Southern Baptist pastors, 14.1 percent confess to “sexual behavior inappropriate to a minister.”
With stories like these making headlines in recent years, one might envision church leaders across the country scurrying to adopt policies and procedures aimed at reducing the risk of sexual abuse in their congregations. But, with a few exceptions, an expert in church litigation issues says it just isn’t happening.
“There are way too many Southern Baptist churches that aren’t doing anything to minimize the risk of a minor being sexually touched, abused or otherwise physically injured while involved in child care, day care or church-related activities. A minority of churches have studied the issues, approved policies and procedures to minimize risk and have actually implemented and are following and enforcing protective policies, but, sadly, the majority are way short of that,” stated Steven Lewis, an Oklahoma City attorney who has led seminars across the country on legal issues impacting churches.
Sunday school director and chairman-elect of deacons at Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Lewis also serves as executive director of Church Forward, Inc., a private religious service corporation established to help churches deal with such issues. He has helped numerous churches and pastors through situations where true and false allegations of sexual misconduct and child abuse have been raised against them.
“When it comes to a court case, few of our churches are prepared to defend themselves. What would your pastor say if he were asked, ‘Have you adopted and implemented policies to make sure that no one who has been accused of abuse has access to minors at church?’ or ‘Does your church interview potential workers, have them complete applications and perform adequate background checks?’ The vast majority of churches cannot answer ‘yes’ to those questions. The risks and potential damages are much larger if a plaintiff can show a jury that the church did nothing to protect its children and minors.”
Lewis said many pastors and church leaders rest on the false assumption that “’if it hasn’t happened before, it won’t happen in the future.’ I have never represented a church that ever believed such an allegation would be filed against them, but when it happens, every one of them wishes they had taken action earlier. It is much easier to avoid these risks than it is to correct and pay for a situation where a minor is injured or abused. This has to be dealt with.”
One of the “hot-button” topics related to preventing sexual abuse at church is the use of “screening forms” for volunteer and paid workers who have contact with minors (those 18 and younger). While controversial to some, Lewis said that many churches who don’t practice some form of screening have been held liable by courts for “negligently failing to take reasonable steps to protect minors entrusted to their care.”
“But this is about much more than the possibility of huge settlements,” he said. “This is about the damage sexual abuse can do to our children.”
Lewis cited three reasons, in priority, why a church should have sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures in place:
1) To protect minors from abuse.
2) To protect paid and volunteer church workers from false allegations.
3) To protect the church from lawsuits.
While estimating only a “scattering” of churches across the Southern Baptist Convention are screening workers, Cindy Lumpkin of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board’s Bible teaching-reaching division believes it will become a more common practice in the next few years.
“I think insurance companies are going to require it,” Lumpkin, a preschool consultant, said.
That opinion is supported by a publication that monitors litigation issues for churches and the insurance industry. According to Church Law and Tax Report, the largest insurance companies that specialize in church coverage are now requiring that churches do criminal background checks, screenings and sexual-abuse training for all employees and volunteers. If a church refuses, its liability coverage for sexual abuse may be dropped.
“Churches should really follow through with this because it is the right thing to do for children, workers and the church as a whole,” Lumpkin said. “In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be necessary. But we live and minister in the real world. This is in everyone’s best interest.”
In its “Toward 2000” leadership training materials, the Sunday School Board provides a sample “Volunteer Application Form” which churches can use “for any position involving the supervision or custody of minors.” In addition to requesting general information such as address, phone number and a list of church-related activities, the form also asks for a driver’s license number, several personal references and includes more probing questions, such as:
— “Have you ever been charged with, indicted for or pled guilty to an offense involving a minor?”
— “Were you a victim of abuse or molestation while a minor?”
The sample form states applicants may refuse to answer the latter question or discuss their answer in confidence with a minister instead of answering on a written form. Answering “yes” to the question, or leaving it unanswered, should not automatically disqualify someone from working as a church volunteer with minors, Lumpkin said.
“All people who have been abused do not become child abusers,” she stressed, “but almost all child abusers have been abused themselves. It is a red flag that has to be considered. You don’t need to drag people through the experience again, and it must be kept confidential. You simply need to know if they have worked through it, whether or not they’ve received the counseling and support they need.”
Screening forms should be kept in a confidential, secured location, Lumpkin stressed, adding only the children’s minister or one other staff person should have access.
To illustrate the importance of the screening process, she suggests a church’s pastor and paid staff be the first to fill out the necessary forms.
“Most every church staff member is going to have some contact with preschoolers, children and youth, so they are a logical choice to begin the process,” she said.
Some churches, such as First Baptist Church, Houston, and Highland Baptist Church, Vicksburg, Miss., conduct criminal background checks of paid and volunteer workers who have contact with minors. An Oct. 6, 1997, article in Christianity Today magazine reported Pinkerton Services Group, the nation’s largest employment verification agency, organized a department to handle background checks of church workers. While churches often contact local police before hiring employees, Pinkerton spokesman Philip Langford told the magazine officers can only provide information in their jurisdiction. Pinkerton checks the areas where a person has lived and worked for the past seven years.
Despite frequent news about lawsuits and allegations of church-related sexual abuse, James Cobble, publisher of Church Law and Tax Report, told Christianity Today only 27 percent of 1,700 churches surveyed in 1996 conducted criminal-record or employment-history background checks on prospective workers. About 36 percent of the churches surveyed reported doing some form of screening.
Cobble told the magazine that while churches won’t be able to screen out every pedophile, “a screening program in the church is like putting a spotlight on the church and saying to anybody who’s predatory, ‘You’re going to be exposed to screening, and people will find out.'”

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  • Chip Alford