For too long our churches swept the problem under the carpet. When asked about the possibility of child sexual abuse, we seemed to answer with, “It could never happen here.” Then 10 years ago the stories hit the front page of the Dallas Morning News and the Boston Globe. The Roman Catholic Church was embroiled in abuse scandals complicated by decades of cover-up. In response, many Baptist churches began to put child protection policies in place. Slowly. Incompletely.
Child sexual abuse remained theoretical, the sort of thing that happened in other churches. In this excerpt from Protecting Your Church against Sexual Predators, a lawyer reviews eight reasons why our churches are still an easy target.
An Age Group at Particular Risk
All ages of children are at risk, depending somewhat on the psycho-sexual makeup of the individual offender. However, in working with sexual predators and their victims, David Grimm has found that the typical child molester is drawn to children between the ages of eight and twelve years, children whose bodies have not matured. “The pedophile is looking for a relationship, a friendship with the child,” Grimm said. “It’s as if they were a child themselves. Emotionally, they are quite immature and they really like that interaction with children.”
Therefore, though all ages need protection, special attention needs to be focused on prepubescent children, because they are likely targets. Even infants can be victims, as can those in late teens, especially if they have developmental disabilities, or home problems that leave them starved for affection. Assume that no child is invulnerable to a sexual predator. Maintaining that mind-set will keep child ministry leaders wary. Statistically, most molesters are men in their forties, but sexual predators come in all shapes and sizes and ages. They can be children themselves.
Little or No Screening of Workers
Few churches have a valid screening process. Most ministries are volunteer operations, and when someone volunteers, the response is, “Praise God! Someone will do it!”
Some churches go through the motions of screening workers, but often the person doing the screening is a friend of the person being screened. Generally, leaders focus on whether the volunteer has enough strength and emotional stability to do the job; they aren’t thinking about child molesters. The primary consideration is getting the job filled.
It’s time to refocus. In addition to having prospective workers fill out an application, ask the following questions:
Has an accusation of child molesting ever been made against you, whatever the circumstances?
Has anyone ever expressed concern that you might have touched a child inappropriately or otherwise abused a child?
Have any accusations been raised against your spouse?
Be alert if an applicant has had any past allegations, even unproven, especially if it is a male. This is not to suggest that a past allegation in itself means that the person should be considered a child molester. But you should certainly give more weight to the possibility and act with heightened awareness.
Of course, this information is only valuable if the person answers the questions truthfully. Consequently, you should give serious consideration to paying for a background check. This investigation is well worth what it costs. Not only will it give you some assurance that you have a good staff worker, but it will decrease the church’s liability if the unthinkable does happen. Leaders will be able to testify that a background check was made for the specific purpose of learning whether the individual might pose a threat to children. Though this is no guarantee that an incident will not occur, it is a reasonable step to ensure the safety of your children.
There is a tendency to think that larger churches need to screen workers more carefully than smaller churches, because the smaller churches are more likely to know the character and background of a particular member. In one sense, this is true, but it does not remove the need for all churches to do screening. Any church, large or small, should put into place a policy of screening all its workers. Some insurance companies will demand it, even if the worker has been in place for many years.
Dan Burrell, a pastor and educator who has led a school association, said,
Today’s pastor is being called upon to navigate ministries through a minefield of spiritual, legal, administrative, organizational, ethical, and regulatory issues which they are ill-prepared by most seminaries and universities to address. A wise pastor must seek outside guidance and accountability if he’s to protect the reputation, mission, and safety of the local body of believers internally and externally. No single area of ministry is more vulnerable to litigation and tragedy than volunteer screening.
The Tendency to See Only Good in People
The tendency in some churches to see only good in people can be detrimental. For example, the attitude that “we’re only human” can cause leaders to overlook and excuse questionable behavior and serious moral failures. Churches can even be lulled into trying to excuse destructive criminality. A “woman with a past” is viewed as a Rahab, a friend who has come in out of the night and now is one of us. The church may glory in a man with a shady past and a colorful testimony, because he’s “such a trophy for Christ.”
The Rahabs are indeed among us, and we can thank God for the grace that brought them into the church. But we must not forget that their past problems could recur. The fact that each of us has some area of vulnerability and weakness to temptation should make us all wary.
Trust is not a bad thing, especially among people building community with one another. In fact, trust is a necessary ingredient for solid relationships. But having trust does not mean we do not protect those we love. The man who drives the bus that picks up my child for a church outing is a sinner just like I am. I don’t know the status of his relationship with Christ. I do know that my trust of him is limited while my child’s welfare is dependent on his actions. Therefore, I will be judicious in extending trust to him. I will not be suspicious, but neither will I be blind to the potential for a problem to occur.
In a church setting, every adult holds parental responsibility for every child. So we all should adopt the attitude of limited trust toward the bus driver when our children are on the bus. The feeling is not one of mistrust, nor is it one of suspicion. It is an attitude that acknowledges the depravity of mankind, acknowledges that we are all fleshly, and acknowledges that the potential for evil lurks within the breast of every human being.
Uncritical Acceptance of a Person’s Confessional Faith
When someone comes to the pastors or leaders of an evangelical church, wishing to become a member, the individual usually makes a confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ. Churches have different procedures, but those that retain fidelity to historic Christian teachings have some sort of process by which individuals can be judged to truly have an internal Christian faith commitment and worldview.
Unless membership is granted only after a long period of association, church leaders are not in a good position to accurately judge the seriousness with which a person makes a confession of faith. Even with someone who has a long-standing relationship with the congregation, it is possible to “talk the talk” and even “walk the walk” outwardly without a saving relationship to Christ.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” intoned the narrator of the old radio program The Shadow. The prophet Jeremiah said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9 nkjv). Too often, the church has figured it out only after great harm has been done.
There is no way we humans can tell the validity of a profession of faith. When you came to Christ and joined the church, about all you did was make a verbal profession of what you believed. Another church might have sent a letter verifying your good standing and prior confession of faith. Beyond that, there was nothing. There is no trial period, and the body of believers accepts your word that you confess the same things they do. In time, you take on responsibilities, including leadership, demonstrating the validity of your faith with good works. You showed your profession to be valid.
If we are honest, we admit to more suspicion about the confession of faith given by a professing Christian with a history of child molesting. While we may accept such a man into the church, my suggestion is that there should be a probationary period. Some churches may not do this without violating their denominational standards. Perhaps it’s time to rethink such a restriction. Surely it is not too much to ask such a person to prove himself or herself, to show the validity of the profession by a demonstration of obedience over time. The apostle Paul brought a past with him when he sought fellowship and acceptance among the brethren at Jerusalem. They had reason not to trust him (Acts 9:26). It was only because he had spent time growing and doing good works, so others could observe him, that he was accepted. Others whose credibility was solid vouched for Paul. Reading between the lines of Acts, one suspects that, even then, it took time.
It should take time with a man who comes among you with a history of child molesting. Consider a one-year probationary period. But when that period is ended, don’t forget that monitoring must continue. And never allow that man to have a ministry involving children.
Lots and Lots of Children
Just as a wolf follows the food, patiently stalking its prey, so it is with a sexual predator. He will seek out places where there are lots of children. He will install himself in the environment and structure. Then he will wait for his opportunity. He will be a chameleon, saying the right things; doing the right things; exhibiting the right behavior; modeling the accepted look of a Christian man.
Jesus told a parable about tares, a weed with a root system that intertwines with the roots of good grain stalks. Tares are a particularly nasty weed because they look like barley plants until late in the season. It would take the work of God and the angels, Jesus said, to finally sort out the good grain and get rid of the weeds (Matt. 13:28–30). False Christians also learn how to mix in with members of the church. We are not always capable of sorting out the good from the bad. If it were left up to our wisdom, we would rip up true believers by the roots and leave the “weeds” in the ground.
Because we know there are “weeds” in the field, we must keep our guard up at all times.
Lack of Monitoring
In scores of churches, it is not uncommon for a male worker to be alone in a Sunday school class with small children. In some churches, a couple may be in the class alone with the children for an extended period of time without a single visit from any staff member or other leader. The common reasoning is that monitoring is not necessary. Of course the couple is trustworthy. Unfortunately, that is the kind of mind-set that gets churches into trouble. Never set anyone above any particular sin, especially sexual immorality. And this is not about trust or the lack thereof. It is about being accountable to the entire body, to the parents of the children, and to God.
The danger isn’t just that an adult might have access to children for a length of time. The danger comes when someone has unsupervised, unmonitored access. In most churches, monitoring of volunteer workers is almost unheard of. The suggestion that a program of monitoring should be implemented could raise eyebrows and provoke hostility. Such is the nature of organizations that function through volunteer labor. In a business environment, it is assumed that supervisors periodically check the progress and labor activities of workers. Sometimes, that is not the case in churches.
The attitude of most volunteer workers in the church is that they are demonstrating love and energy on behalf of the Lord and their Christian brothers and sisters. Monitoring seems to indicate a lack of trust, respect, and appreciation for their labors.
However, once they are acquainted with the bigger picture, these workers want to be responsible stewards and are more than willing to be accountable. It is an educational process. But unless the church makes the educational effort, allowing unmonitored access can open the door to a pedophile. The church actually enables sexual predation of its children.
Untrained Workers and Staff
Another problem troubles churches even when there is some effort at accountability and monitoring. In one notorious crime that was widely reported in the U.S. media, a young man admitted to molesting every child in a church nursery over an extended period. Obviously, the congregation was not paying attention to signs of sexual abuse trauma in its children. Any church that allows a young male to watch over the nursery or any other children’s activity by himself is begging for trouble.
The Tendency to Cover or Minimize a Crime
Minimizing or covering for offenders is an extremely serious problem, and it can easily be criminal. Quietly reassigning or counseling pedophile priests contributed to the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Certainly this is more of a danger in churches with a hierarchical or episcopal form of church government, but it is not simply a Roman Catholic problem. Non-episcopal church organizations have committed similar offenses, although they haven’t gotten as much “bad press.”
The instinctive desire of church members is to protect each other, or to assume that a report or complaint is overstating what happened, because the person in question could not possibly have done anything really bad. Protestants are just as prone to this as the Roman Catholics who found ways to justify their cover-ups. In retrospect, those actions seem to be horrendous decisions to hide the crimes of pedophiles, but they didn’t seem so to the people who made them. Church leaders also become conscious of preserving the church’s image. What if the ministry is pulled publicly into the scandal of a criminal prosecution? No one wants a scandal. Leaders can act out of a genuine concern for the weeping, remorseful church member whose sin lays bare before him. Perhaps they think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Such thinking has damaged thousands of lives in Roman Catholic parishes and left the reputation of priests in tatters. It also will end up costing the Roman Catholic Church billions of dollars in settlements, and more billions in lost donations from disaffected members.
Tale of a Cover-Up
A couple called me for an appointment. In my office, they told of the molestation of their seven-year-old daughter while she was in her Sunday school class. It happened in a very large and prominent Baptist church, and the molester was a deacon.
During the course of the interview, it became apparent that the pastor had attempted some “damage control.” In a meeting with the parents and the witness, a Sunday school teacher, the pastor undertook to defend the deacon against the charges. His tactic was a simple one, the essence of which was to raise doubt that any legal wrongdoing had taken place. He asked the witness whether the hands of the man were “under the skirt or on top.” The witness replied that she had seen the man rub the child’s genital area with his hand outside the skirt.
The pastor looked at the parents and said, “You don’t have a case.”
I recall that when the woman repeated the conversation, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “We didn’t come to him for money. We weren’t thinking of a ‘case.’ We just wanted for something to be done. We wanted this man removed from the Sunday school class.”
In the period after this initial meeting, the pastor proceeded to verbally shred the father, who was not a regular churchgoer and had a drinking problem. The pastor humiliated the man, seeking to induce guilt in him. It was a classic case of shifting the blame from the perpetrator to someone else. Later, another staff member did something similar in telling people that the little girl was “the most affectionate” little girl he’d ever known. He noted how she always wanted to hug him, with the implication that somehow the little girl’s “affections” had invited the molestation. (That staff member would later become the pastor of the church. He is now in jail awaiting sentencing for molesting a teenage girl he was counseling in 2012.)
The pastor—from the pulpit—suggested that the accused molester should not be tried in a secular court, but should be tried, “if he’s tried at all,” in a church court. This, of course, showed that the pastor was placing the church above the law.
Lessons from a Cover-Up
In the end, that pastor’s efforts to minimize and cover up the crime blew up in his face. It created a huge scandal and hurt the church and the pastor. To this day, many people in the community have a bad image of that church because of the way they handled the molestation accusations.
The case was later settled out of court, but the real damage to that church was not financial. There was irreparable loss to the church’s reputation for integrity and witness for Christ in the community. The lawyer for the victim, James R. Oates, told me, “I found it hard to believe that he [the pastor] could defend his deacon even after a jury found him guilty.”
The community found it hard to believe, too.
Voyle A. Glover (JD, Valparaiso School of Law) is a former deputy prosecutor for the state of Indiana and is now a private attorney in Merrillville, Ind. He is a member of Lake Hills Baptist Church, Schererville, Ind., and blogs at http://brevia.com. This article is an excerpt from Protecting Your Church against Sexual Predators, reproduced by permission of Kregel Publications.