Sex abuse spans spectrum of churches
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What all the data show is a settling that followed "a large spike" in the frequency and severity of church sexual misconduct claims from the mid-1980s, White says.Skip to next paragraph
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"Church insurance carriers implemented educational programs and policies that have helped decrease and then stabilize the trend," agrees Jan Beckstrom, chief operating officer for the church insurer GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, Iowa.
CMR surveys also show many smaller churches have lagged in starting such programs, while larger churches with more resources and management controls have led the way. And for good reason: They have more to lose, and a larger abuse problem.
"I don't know of a church that isn't doing this," says Simeon May, of the Richardson, Tex.-based National Association of Church Business Administration, which gives training for large churches with administrators.
At Grace Community Church in Tempe, Ariz., the executive pastor, Gary Maitha, says his church has adopted a tougher sort of love since 2000. That's when criminal background checks, finger printing, detailed questionnaires, and careful policies such as never having children and adults "one-on-one" kicked into gear. It's a necessity with 700 to 800 children showing up for Sunday School and many more for other church activities during the week, he says.
"We have fingerprinting and a criminal background check for anyone over age 18 that works with children," says the Rev. Maitha. "If it comes back with a blemish, they're not working with kids. That's all there is to it."
Debby DeBernardi, director of Grace Community's children's ministry, says church policies require, for instance, that adults go in pairs when supervising bathroom breaks for children and that they check to ensure no adults are in the bathrooms, before children enter.
Men who've been screened and fingerprinted may work in the nursery. But only female staff members not volunteers may change diapers. Only adults wearing an identity badge that indicates they've been cleared may work with children and photo IDs are coming soon. Some long-time volunteers, offended by all the new policies, have bowed out of children's activities.
But the new procedures have already proven their worth, Ms. DeBernardi says. "We did have someone already apply who had a police file and had been accused of child molestation. Because of our new procedures, we caught it.... Sometimes you have to bring people in and say, 'Look, you're welcome to come to the church, we love you. But you may not minister in the children's area.' "
That sort of toughness is swiftly becoming a prerequisite for insurance coverage, and to protect against lawsuits and false allegations, which can be nearly as demoralizing to a church organization.
The problem, Cobble says, is that churches are the perfect environment for sexual predators, because they have large numbers of children's' programs, a shortage of workers to lead them, and a culture of trust that is the essence of the organization.
Churches have been active since the early 1990s in addressing the problem, Cobble reports. More than 100,000 copies of a book he co-authored, "Reducing the risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church" were sold.
Since January, when Roman Catholic dioceses nationwide began drawing headlines over pedophile priests, some church organizations have focused anew on revamping sexual abuse policies.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for instance, is reportedly drafting a new sexual- abuse policy.
Ralph Colas, of the American Council of Christian Churches, a Bethlehem, Penn. organization representing fundamentalist denominations, reports fresh activity. "I've helped several churches this last week draw up some guideline policies," he says. "I've encouraged churches to secure legal advice, to make sure they are meeting the legal mandatory reporting requirements."
But the shift to "trust but verify" impelled to a degree by current headlines has been ongoing since a conference in Chicago in November 1992 when more than 100 denominational leaders met for the first time to discuss how to deal with child sex abuse. About that time, insurance companies were dropping coverage of churches without screening policies.
"What drove leaders to begin to respond to this issue was not the welfare of children," Cobble says. "It was fear of large, costly lawsuits."