by Josh Bryant
Nehemiah had a big task in front of him. Jerusalem was in ruins, its walls battered. "You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach," he said to the Jewish leaders in Nehemiah 2:17. Likewise, it should be clear to church leaders that we have a big task in front of us. The Church in many regards is in ruins. We are in a bad situation. We have become a reproach to many. They say churches do not care about protecting women and children from sexual predators. They say we do not respond appropriately and are more apt to sweep an allegation under the rug. "They" are right; there is no denying that churches and church leaders have done so. We can and must do better; it is time to rebuild our walls.
While they are right that the actions of some churches and the inaction of others have been tragic and reprehensible, I do not think this is the character of the church. The church is the Bride of Christ which He is sanctifying to present blameless before God. That is to say not only must we rebuild our walls, it is a certainty that we will do so. The only question is how.
Many have added their voices to the conversation. Some have called for apologies; others have called for reparations of sorts. I do not claim to have a solution to past problems. What I can add is simply that these events are rather conclusive evidence of the fact that churches as organizations are ethical actors and agents. While this may seem like a foregone conclusion, we cannot afford to assume as much. Only when we start there - at a place where the church and the Church as organizations have moral responsibilities - can we begin to set aside personal differences of opinion for the good of the church and the Church.
We have an ethical responsibility to respond appropriately to sexual abuse claims in the church. We owe it to God who grieves at every sin committed against His children as anyone reading this would grieve at such sins against their children. We owe it to each other to love one another enough to protect one another. We owe it to the victims and the vulnerable who are far more likely to struggle with their continued walk with Christ as a result of an assault. We owe it to our community: to our neighbors and friends, and to law enforcement and the justice system. We owe it to our mission. Too many seem to believe that sweeping conduct under the rug protects the church. That's myopic. When the accusation becomes public (and it will become public) it will do more harm to the church than had we dealt with it immediately.
Jerusalem's walls were made of rock. Nehemiah did not patch their gaping holes with spackle. He had to tear them down and build them back up again. We must do the same. We must tear down our old paradigms and systems and build new ones that are more secure. This week on the Law and Church podcast, our guest is Gregory Love from Ministry Safe. We all need to go listen. Pay attention to his description of the list - a piece of paper with a checklist on it that serves as our defense against child sexual abuse in the church. At the foundation of that list is a background check, despite statistics that of all abusers in the church in recent history only four percent would have failed a background check and statistics that offenders will offend an average of 150 times before they are caught. Our paper list is mere spackle. We need to get some hewn stone.
Ministry Safe is one such stone. Their training materials and processes are key in putting systems in place that protect children from sexual predators. We'll never know this side of heaven how many children have been protected because of their work. The Church Law Group (Church General Counsel) hopes to be another such stone. Our desire is to train church leaders in how to appropriately respond to claims of sexual abuse in the church in a way that protects the victim and the church. We help investigate claims. We help document prevention practices online so that everyone who needs to know how the church works together to prevent abuse has access to it. We make ourselves available on a day's notice to answer church leaders' questions about what to do in a wide variety of circumstances.
After Nehemiah told the people what God had done to bring him to Jerusalem, their response was "Let us arise and build" and Nehemiah records actions that followed their words, "So they put their hands to the good work." (Nehemiah 2:18). It wasn't just a work - it was a good work. Ours is a good work as well. Let's get to it!
by Josh Bryant
Churches have a heightened sensitivity to background checks right now in light of a report by the Houston Chronicle that found 700 cases of sexual misconduct over the last 20 years in Southern Baptist Churches. But do you know what to do when you get a positive result? The answer may seem to be as simple as telling the person they cannot volunteer or serve on staff, but because of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it isn't that simple. Here are five things you need to know about a positive background check.
1. Make sure you had their permission before you do anything. Several laws require written consent of the person before you run a background check on them. Failure to have that permission could get your church into trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and any number of state institutions, not to mention a law suit for invasion of privacy. If you didn't have their permission, go get it and run the background check again.
2. Don't say no...yet. Before you take an "adverse action" against a volunteer or staff member by not allowing them to serve, you must give them a notice that includes a copy of the background check report you received. You must also include a document put out by the CFPB called "A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act" and give them at least five days to explain or contest the content of the report. To be safe, give them ten.
3. Now you can say no. If they don't contest the information or explain it to your church's satisfaction, now you can tell them no. But you have to do it in a certain way too. You have to tell them that they were rejected because of the information in the report, give them the name, address and phone number of the company that ran the report, inform them that the company who ran the report did not make the decision to deny them the opportunity to serve, and inform them of their right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of the report and get a free copy of the report from the company that ran it within 60 days. But...
4. Make sure you say no uniformly. Especially in the context of employment, failure to uniformly say no is discriminatory and can get your church in trouble. For example, if you tell one applicant no because they had a DWI on their record and another yes even though they also had a DWI on their record, you'd better have a very good reason for treating the two differently or you could be in trouble with the EEOC. Volunteers really don't have much of a recourse, but it does look bad. So write down what disqualifies a person from what roles in the church so that you plan in advance how to handle certain findings on a background check. And...
5. Make sure you maintain confidentiality. You need to lock the report up for a year and then either shred or burn it. If you store it digitally (which I don't recommend), you need to make sure you've got adequate data security in place and that you have the proper IT infrastructure to completely erase the data from your systems after a year. Moving it to the recycle bin or trash can on your computer is insufficient; the FCRA mandates that electronic copies cannot be reconstructed. That usually requires special software or hardware to make happen.
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me." It is a sad state of affairs that given such a command we have to talk about a policy that protects kids. Nevertheless, year in and year out, the abuse of kids and vulnerable adults is the top reason why churches end up in court. Since churches get sued most frequently on this issue, the question isn't "why have an attorney review our child protection policy?" The question is, "why wouldn't you?" Here are a few good reasons your church needs a child and vulnerable adult protection policy written by an attorney.
- Your church needs a policy that protects children and vulnerable adults from sexual predators.
Let's start with the main reason you need a good child and vulnerable adult protection policy: sexual abuse in the church hurts the cause of Christ, especially when its victim is a child. The church should be a beacon of hope that points to Christ, not the object of criticism because church leaders did not have a good policy in place to protect kids when they know how prevalent sexual abuse in the church has been up until now. Your church must have a robust policy that does everything it can to prevent abuse from ever occurring.
Secondly, you need a policy that aligns with what most liability insurance companies want. Josh Bryant has experience working with insurance companies on obtaining supplemental sexual incident coverage that is not covered by most general liability policies. Insurance companies are in a great position to know how sexual abuse in the church has occurred in the past, and know exactly what kind of policies they want to see before underwriting an insurance policy.
Third, your church needs a policy that perseveres evidence that a defense attorney will want to present to a judge or jury in the event your church is sued after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately, churches in which sexual abuse has occurred are more likely to be guilty until proven innocent, and the only things that proves innocence is evidence. You must preserve evidence as best you can, and Josh Bryant has experience in litigation such that he knows what kind of evidence is necessary.
Fourth, your church needs a policy that is as legally defensible as it is operationally manageable. No policy is worth the paper it is written on if the pastors and volunteers responsible for enforcing that policy don't do it. Most pastors and volunteers don't want to be insubordinate to church policy - they simply don't have the time to do much of what a policy requires sometimes. That is why it is important to have an attorney with experience not only in law, but in ministry as well. Josh Bryant can help balance the ministry needs with the legal best practices.
Finally, you need someone to help with your child protection policies like Josh Bryant, who has the experience necessary to get the job done well. When you sign up for our attorney access plan, this is usually one of the first policies that Church General Counsel will review.
It is so important to have a good child protection policy. Members can see more tips on drafting this policy in our members only area, or you can contact us for more information on how we can help you draft a good child and vulnerable adult protection policy.
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.