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I received a call from an attorney friend who was deeply disturbed by an emergency church meeting she had attended. The church had recently learned about a sexual molestation of a preteen boy in the church by one of the youth pastors on staff. During the church’s post-report fact-finding, it was discovered that this same youth pastor had molested teens in his former pastoral positions at two different churches.

They had never questioned his former employers. Of course, these discoveries raised the issue of what kinds of background checks are appropriate within the church. My friend suggested a screening program that included criminal background checks. She recommended they be done from the senior pastoral staff on down to the child-care workers, bus drivers and volunteers.

During the roundtable forum discussing the issue of the child abuse in the church, one of the pastors stood up and announced the cost of doing the basic background check on all the volunteers would cost $16 per person. He felt this was cost prohibitive and simply not financially feasible for the church.

My friend reminded him of the enormous potential financial and emotional cost to the church should it be faced with a civil lawsuit for its failure to exercise due diligence in protecting the children in the congregation. The attorney was voted down. Because of the cost, no screening program with criminal background was instituted.

The fact is, too many churches make the same tragic and shortsighted mistake as the congregation in the above example. And the results can be devastating, not only to children, families and churches, but also to entire communities.

I have prepared the following list of the top things a church can do to properly address this issue.

1. Recognize the Risk
This wake-up call has sounded. There is simply no excuse to disregard the truth. However, when churches become proactive, recognizing their vulnerabilities and taking steps to prevent child abuse, this critical step dramatically lowers the risk of such horrific event.

2. Use a Screening Form
The screening form should include a release from the individual to contact references to obtain information about his or her character, fitness and ability to work with children and youth. The application should also release the church from any liability for usage of the authorization for the church to conduct a criminal records background check and include a place to list references as well as previous establishments where the applicant has worked with children.

3. Contact References
Contact each reference listed on the application and make a written record of each contact. If churches or references listed on the screening form are reluctant to give up information regarding the applicant’s prior conduct, provide them with a copy of the release that is a part of the screening.

4. Conduct a Personal Interview
If an individual is applying for a position that would permit direct contact with minors, that individual should be interviewed by a member of the church staff who is schooled and skilled in screening child-care and youth-care workers.

5. Do a Criminal Records Check
If the criminal records check reveals a conviction of a sex-related crime, the individual should be disqualified for childcare and youth work in the church. I call this the “one strike rule.” There should be no second chances when children are involved. These persons may serve in other areas of the church but must be prohibited from direct contact with children.

6. Implement Consistent and Effective Training

  • How to recognize a perpetrator of child abuse:
    Child abuse can be carried out by anyone given the opportunity and who possesses the inclination. Persons known to the child perpetrate four out of five assaults on children.
  • How to identify victims of child abuse:
    Quite often, victims of child abuse live in a world of silence. Our responsibility is to recognize the verbal or behavioral signs of abuse so that we might rescue a child from a destructive situation.
  • How to interact appropriately with children:
    Jesus clearly demonstrated that certain forms of touching are appropriate and should be encouraged. In many cases, they can enhance a child’s feeling of safety and self-worth. Mark 10:16 tells us that Jesus took little children and babies in His arms, put His hands on them and blessed them.

7. Delegate Duties Properly
To maintain order and promote security, it is best to have one primary director responsible for maintaining the oversight of the operational portion of the child-care protection program. If possible, the director should be a paid staff member because this creates and extra incentive for the person to be alert and organized.

8. Maintain Consistent Supervision
One of the most effective ways for the director to maintain clear oversight of activities is for him or her to create a policy of “strategic supervision.” He or she must tour the facility during hours of operation. They should encompass all areas where children are present, including closets, basements, bathrooms and so on.

9. Does This Pedophile Attend Your Church?
This might be one of the most effective tools a church can use to prevent abuse. The adults should be unrelated—meaning they will not be found to have any kind of intimate or confidential relationship. If any molestation is alleged; the accused will have a witness who can verify nothing improper happened.

10. Plan for the Worst
By implementing a plan to respond to allegations of abuse, you can cover all the appropriate steps. If you don’t prepare in advance, however, it is probable that you might act on emotion and make unwise choices rather than following the most advantageous path to protect the victim, the rights of the accused and the church.

is a named partner in the law practice of Brewer, Brewer, Anthony and Middlebrook, located in Irving, Texas. He is the author of The Guardian System (Charisma House), a comprehensive system for the prevention of child abuse within an organization, which received evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Book Award. For more information on this exclusive Ministries Today product that includes step-by-step guidelines, sample forms and training videos, log on to www.charismalife.com and do a keyword search for the Guardian System, or call 800.451.4598.
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