By Richard Hammar
In recent years hundreds of churches have been sued because of child abuse or molestation occurring in church youth or children’s programs. In most cases the plaintiffs allege either or both of the following: (1) the church was negligent in hiring the molester to work with minors (i.e., the church hired the person without any screening or evaluation), or (2) the church was negligent in supervising the individual. Most churches are willing to hire, without arty screening, anyone expressing an interest in working in a volunteer capacity with minors (e.g., Sunday school, children’s choir, Royal Rangers, Missionettes, youth group). This attitude has made churches easy targets for child molesters.
Obviously a single incident of abuse or molestation can devastate a church. Parents often become enraged, the viability of the church’s youth and children’s programs is jeopardized, and sometimes leaders are considered responsible for allowing the incident to happen. Far more tragic, however, is the emotional trauma to the victim and the enormous potential legal liability the church faces.
What can a church do to reduce the chances that such a tragedy will occur? While an answer to such a complex legal question is far beyond the scope of this article, let me make a few observations.
A church can reduce its risk of legal liability for negligent hiring (and thereby the likelihood that an incident of abuse or molestation will occur) by having every applicant for youth or children’s work (volunteer or compensated) complete a suitable application form. Such a form would ask for the applicant’s identity, address, previous criminal convictions–if any, church membership, previous church work, and personal references.
Having all youth and children’s workers complete such a form may seem unduly burdensome. However, failure to use such a screening device will increase a church’s risk of liability and the likelihood that an incident of abuse will occur.
Churches electing to use such a form should have it signed by every applicant for any position involving the custody or supervision of minors. This includes Sunday school, children’s choir, Royal Rangers, Missionettes, youth group, preschool, and Christian school. Ideally the application should also be completed by current employees and volunteers having custody or supervision over minors.
Having an individual complete the form is in itself not enough to protect the church or your children or youth. Significant protection occurs only if the church takes the following additional steps:
- If the applicant is unknown to you, confirm his or her identity by requiring photographic identification, such as a state driver’s license.
- Contact each reference listed in the application and make a written record of each contact. Show the date and method of contact, indicate the person making the contact as well as the person contacted, and summarize the reference’s remarks. This record should be kept with the applicant’s original application.
- Contact each church in which the applicant has indicated prior experience in working with children or youth. Provide a written record of all the information contained in the preceding paragraph.
- Be sure your entire staff (volunteer and compensated) is aware of your state’s requirements for reporting child abuse. You will need to check with your church’s attorney for clarification.
- Be sure you are aware of any additional legal requirements that apply to your state. To illustrate, some states have enacted laws requiring church childcare centers to perform criminal record checks on any applicant for employment. Again, you will need to check with a local attorney for guidance.
- The church must treat as strictly confidential all applications and records of contacts with churches or references. Only those having a legitimate need to know such information should have access to the application and records.
These recommendations may seem burdensome to both churches and applicants for volunteer work. However, a church can respond to negative comments simply by apprising members and applicants that the recommendations are designed to provide a safe and secure environment for children.
Let me reemphasize that this article is addressing only the issue of negligent hiring of youth and children’s workers. Even if a church acts responsibly in screening youth workers, it may still be sued on the basis of "negligent supervision" if it does not act responsibly in supervising youth and children’s activities. Taking steps to avoid "negligent hiring" is not enough. A church must also ensure that youth and children’s workers are properly trained and supervised.
A number of church insurance companies are reducing significantly the coverage they provide for child abuse or molestation. Some companies refuse to cover these risks at all. Obviously the insurance industry is well aware of the risks involved. Churches should check their insurance policies to determine if they have any coverage. If so, is it limited? The recommendations outlined in this article are even more critical for churches that have no coverage or reduced coverage.Richard Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA, and legal counsel to The General Council of the Assemblies of God, has produced many legal guides for churches, including Pastor, Church & Law, application forms, and the resource kit "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church." He also operates web sites, including ChurchLawToday.com and ReducingTheRisk.com, that contain helpful information for church leaders