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?
The Real Impact of Sexual Offenders
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 for Sex Offenders
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.
- spend time volunteering with youth groups who do not have children in those groups
- engage in frequent contact with children, i.e., casual touching, caressing, wrestling, tickling, combing hair, or having children sit on their lap
- seem preoccupied with children
- act like children when with kids or allow kids to do questionable or inappropriate things
- that are single that work or volunteer with children’s clubs/activities and frequently spend their free time doing “special” things with kids
- want to take your children on special outings too frequently or plan activities that would include being alone with your child
- don’t have children and know “too much” about current fads or music popular with kids
- your children seem to like for reasons you don’t understand
- 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 Against Sex Offenders
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.”
We Must Protect Our Children
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?
Excuses vary from “It could never happen here” to “We can’t scare off the few volunteers we have with that!” Excuse-proof your ministry with these responses to protect the children in your care.
“It could never happen here.”
Oh, yes it could. One thing that makes it difficult to spot abusers without security procedures is that they look like regular people. They come in all ages, genders, socioeconomic levels, locations, spiritual maturities, and ethnicities. If you don’t believe it, visit familywatchdog.us to find registered sex offenders in your area.
“It’ll scare off potential volunteers.”
Yes, it might, and volunteers can be tough to recruit. “Most churches hurt for volunteers,” agrees Holsten, who has extensive experience as a police officer and criminal investigator; but he warns: “Sexual predators may be the first to offer help — hoping for an eventual ‘pay off’ for their efforts.”
Think about this: How many more volunteers would be scared off by an actual case of child abuse or even a hint of impropriety in your children’s ministry? Not to mention the families who would flee as well.
“It costs too much.”
Does it? You can pay now — or pay later. With Shepherd’s Watch background checks at safechurch.com, you can get a comprehensive background check for $9 per person. Even with 1,000 volunteers, that’s a cost of $9,000. Compare that with the hundreds of thousands your church will pay with one allegation and lawsuit of child abuse. If you face litigation, courts look at whether you applied “due diligence” — that you did everything reasonably required to protect kids. Background and reference checks for all volunteers and staff is the first step of what’s reasonably required.
Get your team to chip in. Dave Thornton, Director of Church Volunteer Central and safechurch.com, says, “Many churches ask their volunteers to pay for the background check so it doesn’t take such a big chunk out of the ministry budget.”
“The process is too complicated.”
Only if you try to do it all yourself. At Shepherd’s Watch, you download the “Permission to Obtain a Background Check” form and have each volunteer sign and date it. Then enter the volunteer’s data and view a completed report in less than a minute. It’s not too complicated.
“Our volunteers have been teaching forever. I can’t ask them now.”
Why not? All your volunteers need to know is your heart.
“Churches must protect our little ones — whatever the challenge,” says Anita Weldon, Discovery Island director at NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Michigan. “Satan is out there working to destroy God’s work and the lives of our kids and adults.”
Let your volunteers know first about your heart for children loving God in a safe environment, and then explain the risk (use this article). Assure everyone of complete confidentiality. Make no exceptions and conduct a background check on your entire staff.
“Everyone knows everyone here.”
Really? That may be the problem. Studies show that 85 percent of children are molested by someone they know. The sad fact is that whenever a pastor, teenager, grandmother, parent, or anyone abuses a child, people say things like, “I never dreamed she could do that.” Of course not! That’s why child molesters can get close to children — we don’t suspect them, and deception is the best weapon in their arsenal.
“My volunteers are concerned about identity theft.”
Not to worry, according to Thornton. “Securing background checks does require a church to gather personal information, including Social Security numbers,” he says. “Assure your volunteers that all forms will be stored in a secure locked file cabinet.”
So what can you do? Follow these tips from Anita Weldon, who executed this effective strategy at NorthRidge Church in Michigan more than 15 years ago. (And in those 15 years, they’ve had no situations of alleged or actual abuse, thank God.)
Strategy For Protecting Your Ministry From Sex Offenders
- Be prayerful and do your homework first.
- Contact your church insurance carrier.
- Contact other churches for volunteer application templates.
- Obtain pastor and church board buy-in for volunteer applications, references, and background checks.
- Form a Task Force of committed volunteers with administrative skills (for every 20 volunteers you currently have, recruit one task force member.)
- The task force’s purpose is to develop a New Volunteer Process to include Volunteer Application, Background Check, Personal Interview, Reference Checks, Policy and Procedure development, and training. Do this quickly; don’t drag out this process.
- Meet with your children’s ministry leadership (volunteer and staff), and have them each complete an application and follow the process. Share at the volunteer meeting that ministry leaders have already completed the process you’re asking them to do.
- Schedule a children’s ministry team meeting with the theme Providing a Safe Environment for Our Children. The end goal is to have every volunteer at the meeting complete the Volunteer Application.
- Mail volunteers who can’t attend the meeting a Volunteer Application with a cover letter describing your new procedure and the value it’ll bring to children in your ministry. Require them to submit the completed application prior to serving.
- The task force processes Volunteer Applications, Reference Checks, and Background Checks.
- File and keep all Volunteer Applications in a secure locked file cabinet.
- Stay the course. Expect some people to resist and be offended that you’re requiring them to complete an application. This is a no-exception policy.
- Develop and require a volunteer application for youth. (Criminal history records for minors aren’t public, so there’s no need for a background check. However, do request and check references.)
- Review processes and recheck backgrounds and references annually. Jack Hayford, president of the Foursquare Church, requires all his churches to recheck criminal backgrounds for all volunteers every year.
Is it worth the time and money?
Consider this: Last year, Church Volunteer Central provided background checks for more than 100,000 church volunteers and discovered that 6,000 had criminal records. Yes, it’s worth the time and money. Our prayer at Children’s Ministry Magazine is that this will be the generation where the church works together to do everything reasonably possible to protect children from sexual abuse in the name of God. Let’s aim for 100 percent of churches conducting background and reference checks.
“We must acknowledge that there is sin in the world and it does not stay outside of the doors of the church,” says Myles. “But Jesus values children more than the world does, and we know that from his life and ministry. The Church ought to be paving the way and setting the standard in the child protection field…never playing catch-up like so many of us are.”
Safety & Security Protocols
“The best advice for children’s ministry leaders in regard to background checks is: Don’t consider them totally reliable,” warns Jon Holsten. “It’s absolutely imperative that churches run checks on children’s ministry volunteers; however, it’s also important to understand that only those individuals who have been arrested (or convicted) for prior offenses will be flagged. Just because a background check comes back clear doesn’t mean the person is completely trustworthy. Children’s ministry leaders must keep that reality in mind when developing safety protocols designed to protect all children.”
So don’t stop with background and reference checks for all staff and volunteers. Implement these policies as well. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it is considered “best practices” by leading churches in the area of safety and security.
Fully train your staff in understanding abuse and your safety and security procedures. Require each person to sign a form of completion that they’ve received each training. A helpful resource about abuse is the “ACT to Keep Children Safe” video training at safechurch.com. Also, check out the Catholic-church-inspired Safe and Sacred Churches (safeandsacred.com) for online training and certification.
Create a secure children’s ministry area, whether it’s housed in a separate wing or no one is allowed in the area except parents with tags or volunteers with identification. Don’t make your children’s ministry area a thoroughfare for church members. Unsupervised exit doors should sound an alarm if opened. Close and lock all rooms when not in use.
Identify your staff with name badges, photo badges, ministry T-shirts, color-coded lanyards, or logoed uniforms. Identification isn’t optional.
Install two-way mirrors or windows in every classroom for monitoring.
Establish a safe and secure check-in/check-out procedure. You can use a simple paper or sticker receipt system. Or you can avoid the long lines and have an intricate management system by using a computerized check-in system, such as those advertised in this issue. Close your ministry area 20 minutes after check-in. Any visitors dropping off kids after that must be escorted.
Use the “two-adult rule” that requires volunteers to never be alone with kids. Married couples count as “one.”
Have child-only restrooms. And, if not, clear restrooms before children enter for use. Never allow men to have restroom duty. Each room must have a female volunteer for restroom duty and diaper-changing.
Christine Yount Jones was formerly the executive editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.
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