Predators love to come to church. Not necessarily for the messages of unconditional love, grace, and redemption that churches offer. Rather, predators come to church for another reason — because they know that many churches offer easy access to the most vulnerable and weak. Predators enter the church through numerous doors. Some come into the congregation as participants in worship who later become members and then begin to serve in ministry, often with children or youth. Other predators are called as paid staff (senior pastors, music, youth, or children’s pastors). Still others are invited into the church through church-sponsored activities, like AA, Weight Watchers, or the Boy Scouts (see lawsuit involving Boy Scouts and LDS). Churches throughout America have become one of the easiest of targets for sexual predators.
While the Catholic Church’s world-wide clergy sex abuse scandal has received the most attention from the secular media and the public, no church, denomination, or convention has been immune from their own sex abuse scandals. As a pastor of a Southern Baptist church, my own convention has too many documented cases to recount of credible allegations and/or convictions of sexual abuse perpetrated by ministerial staff. Because each of the 45,000 churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are autonomous (we are not a denomination), each church is responsible for calling or hiring their own ministerial staff. There is no convention office or entity which assigns pastors or ministers to churches. While there would be time and financial costs associated with creating a SBC database of sex offenders (at least those convicted and/or formally charged with a sex crime), neither time nor money should prevent our Convention from doing the right thing. After all, if we can create an accessible database for tracking resumes and church staff vacancies on the Convention’s official website, www.sbc.net, then we can surely come up with a fair and accurate way of tracking sex offenders trying to operate within our churches.
This sexual abuse, both against children and adults (primarily women), has been well chronicled by former appellate attorney and Southern Baptist laywoman, Christa Brown, herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a Baptist pastor. Outspoken and not afraid to take on the “good ‘ole boys” network, you can read the latest information on church sex abuse cases at StopBaptistPredators.org or on her personal blog. Her latest entry, Allegations Should Be Assessed, tackles the complicated subject of what moral obligations a faith community should show a victim of clergy sexual abuse, especially when the alleged predator — in this case a former Southern Baptist missionary — commits suicide before standing trial. Because of her legal background, Christa is able to present logical and compelling arguments which many within leadership simply cannot comprehend or do not wish to understand.
Spiritual leaders too often ignore the credible evidence of sexual abuse taking place in their churches and denominations. With clear warning signs right in front of them, many pastors and church leaders cannot believe that sexual abuse occurs within the church. How then can churches and pastors protect their flocks from sexual predators who try to infiltrate the church?
- Acknowledge sexual predators are in churches and that clergy can sometimes be the predators.
- Require all paid staff and all volunteers who want to work with minors (anyone under 18) to complete a questionnaire stating whether or not they have ever had any allegations, arrests, or convictions relating to abuse of minors.
- If the applicant answers “no” relating to abuse of minors, then conduct an interview with the potential volunteer, asking about their spiritual background and experience working with children or youth. Contact at least three references to inquire as to the applicant’s character.
- If no problems are detected with the questionnaire, personal interview, or reference check, then conduct a criminal background check. There are many services available at a reasonable cost. The applicant’s criminal record should show sexual or other moral offenses (i.e., not traffic tickets) in order to proceed.
- Have new volunteers work as a helper for at least six months. Receive feedback from the lead teacher regarding the new volunteer’s work ethic and character. If no problems are reported, then the new volunteer may be used as a leader in the children’s or student ministries.
- If your church sponsors an activity or allows the activity to take place on your property that involves minors (i.e., the Boy Scouts), make sure that the adult leaders have been properly screened. If any of the leaders of these groups is also a member of your church, insist that they go through the screening process as outlined in #2-5. We can perhaps avoid a lawsuit like the Mormons are being subjected to.
What about pastors or other ministers who are themselves sexual predators? How can churches prevent these men from serving on staff in the first place? By following the same screening procedure as outlined above. In every church where I have served, I have undergone a criminal background check. I’m sure that none of these checks were as rigorous as the background check the Florida Bar put me through before licensing me to be an attorney in that state. I am therefore not offended when asked to consent to a criminal records check.
If a ministerial candidate balks at having a criminal background check performed, that should be a major warning sign and red flag that something is not right. Before proceeding, call not only the references provided by the candidate, but inquire at the previous churches where this man has served and ask specific questions about why the minister left. Many churches will be hesitant to give a bad recommendation, but if you ask specifically about allegations or charges of sexual misconduct and receive either no answer or a vague answer, then I would advise a search committee to stop the process. If there is any question whatsoever relating to possible sexual misconduct, I believe churches would not only be foolish from a legal standpoint to move forward, but would be foolish from a moral standpoint to move forward. The stakes are too high, and the potential damage too severe, for churches to move forward in the hiring process when you know, or have reason to know, that the person you hire may be a sexual predator.
The church cannot afford to be an easy target for sexual predators. Churches, large and small, must take immediate steps to prevent sexual predators from infiltrating the church. If we fail to act decisively, not only will our witness be damaged, but individuals will be physically, emotionally, and spiritually damaged. Our churches should offer love, grace, and redemption to all. But, let us never offer an easy target to those sexual predators in our midst!