This headline– ‘Church Rocked by Sexual Abuse Allegations’– stunned the congregation of a large protestant church. Church leaders took hundreds of telephone calls from congregants, media representatives and advocacy groups. Social media coverage was immediate and savage, with posts assuming the worst possible motives attributable to church leaders. It was immediately clear that the church had no plan in place to address the risk of child sexual abuse, or an appropriate response to an allegation. Membership suffered. Nearly a year later, the church is contemplating selling its property and moving to a smaller location to pay ongoing legal fees and litigation costs.
1. Every Church is at risk.
The Church and its children are increasingly endangered by sexual predators whose opportunity to ensnare children elsewhere is growing smaller, while the church continues to open its doors to anyone. Abusers gravitate to places where preventative measures are lower: because the Church is grace-based, trusting and forgiving, abusers find easy access to children.
Churches too often have the misconception that ‘sexual abuse doesn’t happen here,’ which is inaccurate. Child sexual abuse skips no spiritual paradigm. In fact, one large study indicated that the prevalence of child sexual abuse is slightly higher in ‘very religious environments.’
2. The problem is growing.
Conservative studies indicate that one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused before reaching 18 years of age, regardless of spiritual or socio-economic demographic. Two out of three children won’t tell until adulthood, assuming they tell at all. The problem is growing, even in ministry environments.
3. The cost to ministries is exponential.
Every study in the past decade indicates the same reality: the largest settlements paid in church or ministry contexts are related to child sexual abuse. This is the only area of law in which statutes of limitation– the time period within which a litigant must file a lawsuit– are getting longer, not shorter. In one case, for instance, a 76-year-old man sued his church related to events occurring when he was between 8 and 11 years of age. Moreover, few statutes include limitation on monetary awards that stem from a child sexual abuse case. For churches, child sexual abuse is a significant, long-term risk.
4. You can’t address a risk that you don’t understand.
What is the single most important step a church can take? Train your people to understand the problem. You cannot address a risk that your staff members and volunteers do not understand. When staff members have an awareness of the characteristics and ‘grooming process’ of the sexual abuser, they are better equipped to recognize and prevent sexual abuse.
5. The offender’s ‘grooming process’ is the key.
The grooming process of the sexual offender is known, validated and understandable. Offenders ‘groom’ a child for abuse: gaining access to children within the offender’s age and gender of preference, selecting a specific child, introducing nudity and sexual touch, then keeping the child silent. This process is recognizable, and church staff members should be familiar with the process and how it might play out in ministry contexts.
6. Policies are what you do, not what you say you do.
When an allegation of sexual abuse results in civil litigation, both defense counsel and plaintiff’s counsel will immediately request the church’s policies. Policies demonstrate a church’s reasonable efforts to address the risk of child sexual abuse, but they’re only effective if applied. Often, church staff members and volunteers need to understand the ‘why’ of preventative protocols in order to adopt the ‘what,’ and that boils down to training.
7. Criminal background checks are not enough.
Criminal background checks are no ‘silver bullet’, because less than 10% of sexual abusers will encounter the criminal justice system, ever. Background checks alone cannot eliminate risk, but can provide useful information when used effectively. For each staff member or volunteer, the depth of a criminal background check should be determined by the extent of direct contact with children.
8. ‘Matching tags’ do not solve the problem.
Matching tags rely on the concept of ‘Stranger Danger’– not an effective preventative protocol, because 90% of children are victimized by someone they know and trust — not a stranger. The child check-in system was simply not designed to address the risk of child sexual abuse.
9. Sexual offenders are looking for trusted time alone.
That means churches should have a two-adult rule in place and, at minimum, a mandate that prohibits one-to-one, unsupervised, unstructured interaction between an adult and a child in ministry programs.
10. Prevention requires a system of protection.
There is no stand-alone safety protocol. An effective Safety System includes:
*Sexual Abuse Awareness Training equips staff members and volunteers with a better understanding of the characteristics, grooming process and common grooming behaviors of sexual offenders.
*Skillful Screening utilizes screening forms and processes meant to elicit a high-risk response, thereby keeping the wolf out of the sheep pen. Skillful screening requires training of intake coordinators and interviewers, providing them with information and tools to recognize high-risk responses on applications, reference forms, or during an interview.
*Appropriate Criminal Background Checks alone cannot eliminate risk but can be a helpful tool when used effectively. For each staff member or volunteer, the depth of a criminal background check should be determined by the extent of direct contact with children.
*Tailored Policies and Procedures illustrate a ministry’s reasonable efforts to address the risk of child sexual abuse. Policies should be succinct, understandable, and tailored to ministry programs. Remember, policies are what you do, not what you say you do.
*Monitoring and Oversight requires a period review of safety system elements, evaluating new programs and addressing ongoing need for policy updates.
Kimberlee Norris is a partner in the Fort Worth, Texas law firm of Love & Norris, providing child sexual abuse expertise to ministries worldwide. After representing victims of child sexual abuse for more than 20 years, Gregory Love and Kimberlee Norris saw recurring, predictable patterns in predatory behavior. MinistrySafe grew out of a desire to place this information into the hands of ministry professionals, providing churches of all sizes with effective safety protocols to protect the Church and its children from the devastating impact of child sexual abuse. MinistrySafe trains over 11,000 ministry personnel each month in live and online formats.
Representative clients include the United States Olympic Committee, Awana International, Church of the Nazarene, Methodist Conferences, the Christian Camp and Conference Association, Reformed University Fellowship, Baptist associations, and many churches, schools, camps, and ministries.