Here at Church General Counsel, we're starting a focus over the next several weeks about dealing with sexual harassment in the church as the #MeToo movement spreads like wildfire through our society refusing to pass over the church. How the church works to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is crucial, and we'll have resources and further discussion on this topic over the next few weeks. But the second aspect of a good sexual harassment strategy is how to deal with it if a claim is made.
Churches must respond to claims of sexual harassment with a thorough investigation. However, there are many great reasons why churches should not conduct them internally.
1. Churches are not naturally qualified to conduct an investigation appropriately. I don't know of any seminary that teaches a class on fact finding investigative techniques. I know plenty of law schools that do, however. Attorneys are trained in how to build a case, and before the case can be built on the law it must be built on the facts. As such, attorneys must know how to conduct good witness interviews, collect documents and other evidence, and otherwise conduct a solid investigation.
2. Internal investigations can lead to hurt feelings and further conflict. Someone is going to disagree with your conclusion if you do the investigation by yourself. This can cause church members to be upset with you, and you didn't do anything but due diligence in investigating a sexual harassment claim as you should. It can cause more strife on staff. However, if you have an outside attorney conduct the investigation, it brings a formality to the process that relieves you of personally carrying the weight of the decision without an independent recommendation.
3. The content of the investigation can gain extra protections. This is the great benefit of attorney-client confidentiality and privilege. Attorney-client confidentiality just means that an attorney must keep information gained from the attorney-client relationship strictly confidential in a vast majority of circumstances. As such, the things that church staff, members, and others say to the attorney are usually protected. Attorney-client privilege goes further to prohibit a court from requiring an attorney to disclose that information. This is a great protection that you won't get with any other investigator.
4. The results of the investigation can also gain extra protections. This means that whatever the attorney discovers could be protected from anyone else getting access to it. This is because a doctrine known as attorney work-product. It is an exception to the discovery rules - rules that provide for the provision of evidence from one party in litigation to the other in hopes of settling a case or allowing the other party to prepare for trial on equal ground. Except in rare situations, the work of an attorney cannot be "discovered" by an opposing party such that not only communications, but the result of an investigation are protected from disclosure.
At Church General Counsel, we highly recommend our clients utilize our services to conduct investigations in sexual harassment and other personnel matters. Here are some ways we can help:
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.