In the wake of sex abuse scandals involving various denominations, Assemblies of God churches and organizations are taking additional steps to examine their responsibility in acting pre-emptively and preventatively in order to protect children from harm.
A new and innovative website – ReducingTheRisk.com – contains a wealth of information, including an updated "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse" resource kit developed by Richard Hammar, legal counsel for the General Council of the Assemblies of God. When first released in 1992, the kit set the standard on protecting against child abuse in churches. More than 120,000 copies were distributed.
An entirely revamped kit has been reissued, and the web site has every form that a church needs to implement a risk management program. It also contains online seminars that include the issuance of a certificate upon successful completion of an examination.
Hammar, who has produced a spectrum of resources on the subject of sexual abuse in churches, is widely viewed as the foremost expert on the topic.
Using the new tools, church leaders can verify that youth workers are trained in reducing the risk of child sexual abuse. With the new comprehensive support program, which is being promoted by insurance companies, church leaders can demonstrate that they are exercising reasonable care.
Despite the risk, many churches do not take measures to protect children from potential abuse for a number of reasons. "There is the impression that churches should ’trust’ people rather than question their motives and background," Hammar says. "There is also an impression among church leaders that screening workers will make it more difficult to recruit volunteers, and there is a pervasive view that ’such incidents could never happen in our church.’ "
Yet Christian Ministry Resources, a tax and legal advice publisher serving more than 75,000 congregations and 1,000 denominational agencies nationwide, reports volunteers are more likely than paid staff to be abusers in Protestant churches.
Dennis Gullion, associate pastor at Crossroads Cathedral (Assemblies of God) in Oklahoma City, credits screening procedures with preventing a convicted sex offender from working in their Royal Rangers program for boys. Almost two years ago a man visited the church and soon expressed interest in assisting with Royal Rangers.
The church requires completion of a background check prior to involvement in children’s and youth ministry. Inconsistencies in the man’s application raised red flags. With the help of local police it was discovered that the man was a convicted sex offender, was using a false identity and had a warrant out for his arrest. He is now in jail.
"After the event, there was a sense of confidence in the procedures of the church," Gullion says. "We care about the children of our community and church and are willing to take extra measures to be sure they are protected."
As with Crossroads Cathedral, Freedom Valley Worship Center in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, has made protecting children a priority by screening workers and implementing a number of safety procedures.
In addition to requiring mandatory police checks and references from each worker, there is a church-wide policy that an adult should never be alone with a child for any reason. Ushers make rounds through children’s areas to ensure that this policy is upheld. All rooms, with the exception of restrooms, have windows in the doors. Church staff members, ushers and children’s ministry leaders are aware of potential problems and are instructed to alert the police should a questionable situation arise.
Robert Cirtin, assistant professor and director of the criminal justice program at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, agrees with Hammar that the threat cannot be ignored. "Many people have the attitude that this cannot or will not happen in their church," he says. "People don’t want to have to admit that they have to protect themselves from pedophiles, or that they have to take steps to protect their congregation’s safety. We know from experience that it can happen in any church."
"Pedophiles, like any other criminals, are looking for the weakest link," says David Boyd, director of the Assemblies of God’s National Children’s Ministries Agency. "They will visit a church, express an interest in helping with the children, then carefully listen to the requirements associated with that involvement. They go to great lengths to earn the right to be alone with kids. So you have to go to great lengths to protect yourself from those individuals."
"Pedophiles figured out a long time ago that most churches don’t screen people," says Cirtin, whose book on the subject is due to be published next year.
Donna Washburn, social work program field coordinator at Evangel University, recommends that churches implement a multi-pronged preventative abuse strategy that includes:
- Conducting thorough background, criminal and child abuse screenings on all individuals who work with children in the church.
- Not allowing individuals to work alone in nursery programs or in any children’s program.
- Carrying out reference checks.
- Having a six-month waiting period before allowing volunteers to work with children.
- Installing windows in doors in children’s areas.
Experts say these precautions are crucial. "It is a tragedy if we do not protect our children," Gullion says. "This is one of the ways that is provided for us to do so. Many churches are facing lawsuits, which can destroy a church, hurt the community and hurt the message of Christ."
The legal issues surrounding child abuse are complex and vary from state to state. "Churches are not guarantors of the safety of minors," Hammar says. "They are legally responsible for the molestation of a child only if they were negligent in the selection or supervision of the offender."
However, churches that do nothing to screen volunteers and employees who may have unsupervised access to minors could be opening themselves to liability, Hammar says. Churches that implement safeguards are not only protecting children, but also establishing a defense against a charge of negligent selection.
The new "Reducing the Risk II" resource kit devised by Hammar includes training videos on making a church safe from child sexual abuse, understanding the profile of child molesters, selecting and screening workers, principles of supervision and responding to allegations of abuse.