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Protect Your Ministry With Employee Background Checks

by Glen M. Johnson

Since the mid-1980s, there has been a virtual explosion of litigation and media attention relating to sexual abuse and misconduct by ministers and teachers who violate their position of trust. When these incidents occur within the church, the consequences are devastating—not only for the individuals involved but also for their families, the parish, the denomination, and the community at large. The violation of trust can precipitate a true crisis of faith that destroys the victim's faith in God, the church, and religious leaders in general.

Until recently, inappropriate sexual conduct by clergy toward those they ministered to generally was not talked about. Often, an attitude of denial or minimization existed among church leaders concerning this serious problem. If the problem was dealt with at all, denominational leaders handled it very quietly. As often as not, an offending clergy person quietly resigned or was moved to another congregation.

Victims, frustrated by some ministers' reluctance or refusal to deal effectively with the serious problem, increasingly sought remedy in secular society's legal institutions. And as these courts have repeatedly demonstrated, the church itself may be held legally responsible for the actions of the individual offender—whether clergy, lay employee or volunteer. Damage awards have been staggering; endowment funds, operating budgets, and even church buildings have been sacrificed to pay damage awards.

In response, many churches have begun to take much more meaningful action to better understand, prevent and eliminate sexual misconduct by clergy and other church workers. Many believe that any sound risk management strategy should start with a thorough background investigation of clergy and other church workers before they are hired. Although no background investigation is foolproof, experience shows that requiring one as part of the selection process is beneficial because:

  • It will encourage "self-screening" by deterring high-risk individuals from applying.
  • It may identify applicants with histories of inappropriate conduct and enable church leaders to reject their applications or invoke appropriate safeguards.
  • It will demonstrate to the applicant and to other parties your genuine concern for ensuring the safety of the church.

While it may seem intrusive, many ministries apply a background check not only to people being hired as full-time employees, but also volunteer workers. Churches are legally responsible—not only for their paid staff, but for volunteer workers. The concepts of "negligent hiring" and "negligent supervision" are themes in many of the lawsuits arising from sexual misconduct. This issue of volunteer workers is very relevant given that many children's and youth ministries require large numbers of volunteer workers. Frequently, pedophiles will volunteer to work in such ministries to gain access to children.

In addition to performing a background check on these people, it also may be a good idea to implement a six-month waiting period before allowing someone to work with children and youth. In other words, a prospective youth worker would need to be an active member in good standing with your church for at least six-months before this person is put in an area where they would have access and/or responsibility for children. While such policies may offend potential volunteers, they are needed in today's world and are very successful.

Additionally, as long as such policies are set forth in a detailed procedures manual and applied to everyone, there should not be any issues. Some ministries even require retroactive background checks on current employees and volunteers, just to gain an extra level of comfort.

Background checks can be extremely complex. To help address the concerns of church workers and legal experts, many are turning to outside third parties who have experience with this work and who can assure that the background investigation performed is one that is independent, confidential, and also consistent with the requirements of others in the religious community. There are a number of services and companies, including our own, that can assist you with these background checks.

However, if you choose not to enlist a third party, there are many resources your ministry can consult to assist them in performing background checks:

Child Abuse Registries. State-maintained databases contain the records of individuals who were referred to the child protection services agency for investigation of child abuse allegations. The records are typically available on a very limited basis. Churches who want access to child abuse registry information for screening applicants should check their state laws to determine its feasibility in their state.

Sex Offender Registries. Most states have laws requiring individuals convicted of sexual related offenses to register with law enforcement agencies. Religious or youth serving organizations can often access these records when screening applicants. An advantage of sex offender registries is the requirement that offenders who were convicted in another state are required to register in the state in which they live.

State Criminal History Records. State record checks are usually name-based checks of criminal information databases on the state level. They are usually performed by submitting the applicant's name, sex, address, date of birth or social security number to the state's criminal history record repository. Generally, state level record checks do not require an applicant to submit fingerprints. Name-based criminal records checks, however, do not have the same level of reliability as do finger-print-based record checks. State checks will not pick up offense histories from other states.

Pre-employment background investigations alone will not solve the problem of sexual misconduct in the church or anywhere else. They should be part of a larger strategy that needs to include training, education, supervision and monitoring. Fortunately, there are now a variety of resources written by religious leaders or others familiar with the religious issues involved to help religious institutions effectively deal with this tremendously important topic.

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Many believe that any sound risk management strategy should start with a thorough background investigation of clergy and other church workers before they are hired.
 

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