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Wolves Among Sheep

Christine Yount Jones

What are you doing to keep sex offenders out of your ministry? If you're not taking reasonable precautions, you're putting every child at risk.

Like any new father who's full of apprehension about the birth of a child in today's world, comedian Christopher Titus poignantly illustrated his concerns about the birth of his second child in his televised stand-up comedy routine. As he closed his act, he explained how he'd found hope in the courage of a soldier in Iraq and decided that perhaps his child could find meaning in life. Maybe I'll take my child to church, he mused but then stopped. Wait, he thought, he could get abused there.

It's a sad commentary on how people outside the church perceive how safe their children will be at our churches. Is it any wonder? The child-sex-abuse scandal has rocked the church in recent years. Titus is correct that his child could get abused at church -- but at every church?

From 1950 to 2002, about 4 percent of U.S. priests were accused of sex abuse with a minor, according to a Catholic-church-commissioned study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. That seems like a smaller percentage than one might expect with all the coverage in the press, but take a closer look.

The abuse during this time affected more than 95 percent of the Catholic dioceses and 60 percent of religious communities. And the number of victims? The study reported that 4,392 clergymen -- the majority of these were priests -- allegedly abused 10,667 people. Sex-abuse related costs totaled $573 million, while $219 million of that was covered by insurance companies.

And the Catholic Church isn't the only one with those alarming statistics. Check out these recent headlines emanating from the Protestant church: "Deacon on Trial for Sexually Assaulting Teen," "Church Pastor Indicted on Eight Child-Sexual-Abuse Charges," "Mom of Abused Boy Sues Ex-Pastor." The number of child-sex-abuse cases in the Protestant church rivals the Catholic Church with around 260 cases each year, according to an Associated Press report cited in the Insurance Journal. That's abuse by clergy, church staff, volunteers, or church members. In fact, one in 100 churches will face a sexual abuse incident each year, according to GuideOne Insurance, which is one of the leading church insurers for liability against child sex abuse and other sexual misconduct.

Open Prey

Churches are prime targets of sexual predators. "Pedophiles look specifically for opportunities to interact closely with children. Obviously, a church provides just that, especially when it comes to children's ministry," says Jon Holsten, author of The Swimsuit Lesson, a book that helps parents keep their children safe from predators. Take a look at common traits of sex offenders as listed on oprah.com:

• Adults who seem preoccupied with children

• Single adults who work or volunteer with children's clubs/activities and frequently spend their free time doing "special" things with kids

• Adults who spend time volunteering with youth groups who do not have children in those groups

• Adults who engage in frequent contact with children, i.e., casual touching, caressing, wrestling, tickling, combing hair, or having children sit on their lap

• Adults who act like children when with kids or allow kids to do questionable or inappropriate things

• Adults who want to take your children on special outings too frequently or plan activities that would include being alone with your child

• Adults who don't have children and know "too much" about current fads or music popular with kids

• Adults that your children seem to like for reasons you don't understand

• Adults who infiltrate family and social functions or are "always available" to watch your kids

"Sexual predators work diligently to build relationships with kids, and then take advantage of the trust they build," continues Holsten. "Churches -- not unlike schools and various youth support groups -- provide the chance to work with kids in a setting where sinister rapport-building for the ultimate purpose of sexual abuse may go undetected."

Call to Action

When a child is sexually abused by someone in the church, the child's faith is severely impacted. Thaeda Franz of Liberty University writes, "The entire world on which they based their lives gets turned on its head. If they can no longer believe in the church -- in God and his goodness -- then what is left to believe in?...This spiritual devastation is a second, compounded violation of the victim. Not only has his body been violated, but his sense of spiritual order, and his sense of his place in that order has been destroyed."

Children's ministries must apply ample diligence to protect the children in our churches -- physically and spiritually. And background and reference checks conducted for all staff -- whether paid or volunteer -- are our first line of defense to protect children.

"We're in the business of protecting children; we're not in the business of protecting people's egos," says Mark Myles, director of children's ministries at Campbell River Baptist Church in Campbell River, British Columbia. "While being sensitive to the people we work with as pastors and directors of ministries, we still need to heed the calling from God that is on our lives to protect the innocent, and sometimes that means pushing hard on something until it gives. In this case, it's requiring people to have a current and clean criminal records check on file before they can serve in our children's ministry."

Myles conducts criminal record checks on every volunteer (conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada as a free service to volunteers of nonprofits). This check includes previous charges with convictions or without convictions, and even if their name is on file with the local police department.

Such vigilance is admirable, but Myles represents less than two-thirds of children's ministers who feel strongly that they need to conduct background checks. Of the almost 1,400 children's ministers surveyed at childrensministry.com, 57 percent said their churches conduct background checks on children's ministry volunteers. A whopping 43 percent admit their church does not.

Another study reveals the same startling discovery. Eric Spacek, Senior Church Risk Manager at GuideOne Insurance, cites a Barna study that GuideOne sponsored showing that "about 57 percent of the pastors who were polled said their church conducts background and reference checks on all those who work with children and youth." Why not 100 percent?

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