In January 2019, a Texas children’s pastor was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a then-11-year-old girl at a church camp in 2012.
The alleged victim has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the Southern Baptist church where the pastor was employed. She is accusing the church of gross negligence in their handling of the case after her parents reported the matter to church officials.
Sadly, cases like this are hardly unique.
A recent investigative report identified 220 Southern Baptist pastors, deacons and other staff members who had been found guilty of sexually abusing congregants over a 20-year period. About 380 leaders and volunteers have faced accusations involving more than 700 alleged victims. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in the United States spent over $301 million between 2017 and 2018 dealing with allegations of clergy sexual abuse.
In light of headlines like these, how can you protect your own congregation? Furthermore, how can you protect your church from liability claims and negative media attention?
Protecting Your Congregation — And Your Church
Your first step is to acknowledge one simple fact: It can happen anywhere.
Every church, and every denomination, must realize that sexual assault and other misconduct aren’t just somebody else’s problem. It’s an issue we must all address head-on.
Your next step is to take action. Every church needs a detailed policy for protecting members and visitors from harm, especially vulnerable populations such as children.
In Church Safety and Security: A Practical Guide, professional investigator Robert Cirtin offers suggestions for a comprehensive church security policy. It’s a valuable resource for expert advice on reducing the risk of physical and sexual misconduct, dealing with child abuse and other critical issues.
One essential part of your church security policy is background checks for all paid staff members and volunteers, particularly those with access to children.
How Do You Conduct a Background Check?
A qualified professional investigator will help you with employment screening services, as well as volunteer background checks. He or she will know how to collect the information you need to be confident about those entrusted with the care of your congregation.
Here are a few standard items to include in most church background checks:
- Identity confirmation to verify whether the individual is who they say they are, as well as other names they may have used
- A sex offender registry and records search for all 50 states
- Child abuse and neglect records
- State criminal records search for misdemeanor and felony convictions
- Federal court records including child pornography and drug trafficking
- Civil court records, including lawsuits, bankruptcies, marriages, divorces and other civil matters
Keep in mind that background checks do have some limitations. For example, it isn’t possible to conduct statewide criminal checks for every U.S. jurisdiction.
A professional investigator will contact every jurisdiction relevant to your candidate, and you will receive a detailed report containing documentation for all evidence obtained.
Role-Specific Background Screenings
In addition to these basics, you may need additional types of information depending on the duties the employee or volunteer will have.
- Will they be driving the church bus? Take a look at their motor vehicle records.
- Will they have access to the offering plate? Run a credit report.
- Does their job require specialized training or certification? Verify that they have the required professional licenses.
Thorough Reference Checks
Include a check of all references, including ones not provided by the prospective employee or volunteer. Seek out individuals who haven’t prepared a glowing review ahead of time.
Gather information from those who interacted with the candidate at previous churches, schools and places of employment. Did the candidate exhibit any suspicious behaviors that made others uncomfortable? Why did the candidate leave a previous job or place of worship?
Check with educational institutions to make sure the candidate actually has the degrees they claim to have.
Follow-Up Background Checks
If your church hasn’t conducted background checks up until now, screen current employees and volunteers, including deacons, administrators and support staff.
Re-screen on a regular basis to identify problematic issues that may have emerged after the individual joined your ministry team.
Responding to Allegations of Misconduct
What if, in spite of all your best efforts, the unthinkable happens? What if a parent comes to you and alleges that their child was harmed by a Sunday school teacher?
Remember, the absolute worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Take a proactive stance.
- Notify law enforcement if a potential crime has been committed. Immediately report alleged misconduct to other appropriate authorities.
- Enlist the help of a professional investigator to gather as much evidence as possible.
- Minister to the needs of the victims. According to some estimates, only about a quarter of all rapes are reported. Many people who experience sexual assault are embarrassed to talk about it. If someone comes to you and tells you they have been harmed, listen to them with compassion and suggest resources for getting the help they need.
Like many people, you may be troubled by headlines about sexual misconduct in places of worship. You worry about reducing the risk to your congregation, especially the youngest and most vulnerable.
Contact Robert Cirtin Investigations, LLC for a free consultation. We’ll provide information about background checks and other measures to meet the security needs of your church.
No background investigation is infallible. For example, it is not possible to conduct statewide criminal checks in all jurisdictions nationwide. Jurisdictions relevant to subjects of the investigation will be contacted and the final report will provide information requested by the client. Documented evidence of these findings will remain in the files of Robert Cirtin Investigations LLC unless requested by the client.