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.
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:
Southern Baptists have been busy discussing what is appropriate in counseling after statements Southwestern Seminary's President Dr. Paige Patterson made regarding counseling divorce in the case of abuse came under scrutiny. The line of demarkation is clear at this point - some defending Patterson with a heavy emphasis on the sanctity of marriage; some calling for his resignation over insensitivity to abuse. I can add little clarity to that discussion, except to say that I pray I am raising a daughter who will run from such a situation (God forbid she ever find herself there), and sons who will never treat women so disrespectfully. We should also remember that we live in a day in age in which wives can abuse husbands too.
What I can add to the conversation is a review of the risks churches assume in counseling victims of domestic abuse. Here are a few liability vectors that churches and pastors need to consider on this subject.
A pastor can be held liable in this situation under a theory of general negligence. There are four things an abuse victim would have to prove: 1) the pastor or church owed a duty to the abuse victim, 2) the pastor breached that duty by an act or omission, 3) damages, and 4) the pastor in some way caused the damages.
Generally, the courts will not hold a pastor responsible for counseling on strictly spiritual matters due to the First Amendment. For many evangelicals, marriage counseling is a deeply spiritual matter to which Scripture speaks a great deal. Unfortunately, our culture is increasingly divorcing marriage from spiritual life. As such, some courts have held that pastors have a duty of care to persons seeking marriage counseling, the breach of which is not subject to First Amendment protections. Damages would be easy enough to prove in the case of physical abuse. Causation can be established by the trusting and somewhat authoritative relationship between pastor and person seeking pastoral guidance. Pastors therefore take a big risk by advising abuse victims to stay in an abusive situation.
Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention
Liability for the church in this scenario would only stand if proven vicariously. In other words, the church is not directly responsible to the abuse victim, but as with all organizations it does have a responsibility to adequately interview, supervise, and if necessary fire any employee of the church. The duty is not the focus; churches have duties to oversee their employees. If the church does not do a thorough interview of a pastor, or if the church knew the pastor's stance was that victims should only pray for their abuser and remain in an abusive home, then the church could be held liable for negligent hiring. If the church does not supervise activities of a pastor that a court could deem as "non-spiritual" so as to allow a suit to proceed, then the church can be held liable for the actions of the pastor under a negligent supervision theory. If the church does supervise and knows that a pastor is counseling abuse victims to remain in abusive situations, then the theory would not be negligent supervision but negligent retention. In either of these cases, both the church and the pastor could be held liable and worse, the pastor and church will often end up bickering over who is more liable.
Some churches utilize peer counseling ministries in lieu of strictly pastoral counseling. Even in these scenarios, churches must be very careful in selecting, supervising, and revoking the privileges (if necessary) of lay counselors. Failure to do so can result in the church being held liable for the advice of the lay counselor.
Knowing now that counseling in and of itself contains risk regardless of the circumstance, what are some things we can do to protect ourselves?
1. Hire or refer. The psychological dynamics of abuse take counseling here out of many pastors' realm of expertise. However, seminaries are churning out tons of counseling graduates that could work at your church. Hire a pastor of pastoral care for your church to handle things like hospital, assisted living, and hospice visits, counseling, benevolence, and so forth. If you don't have the budget for another staff member, gather a list of good Christian counselors in the area and refer the matter out.
2. Statement of Ethics. While your statement of faith will not change with the culture, your statement of ethics will at least grow as conduct once reprehensible becomes more commonplace. Based on what your church believes the Bible says about man, sin, the church, and marriage, how do you expect members to act? In light of the #MeToo movement, growing allegations of sexual assault, abuse, and more, your statement of ethics or white papers should directly address and repudiate any form of abuse. Pastors and lay counselors should then be not only held to that standard, but also enforce that standard by encouraging separation from abusive situations.
3. Documentation. If you are going to have a pastoral counseling practice in your church, you need good documentation. This should include an agreement that a) requires alternative dispute resolution in the event the person seeking pastoral guidance is injured by the counseling process, and b) specifies exactly what you are qualified and not qualified to handle. It should also include routine note taking about what took place in every counseling session and a final letter of some sort indicating that the counseling relationship has ended. These documents must remain confidential.
4. Basic Policy Protections. Institute policies that prohibit male pastors from counseling females alone or that only women may counsel women. Establish other guidelines such as an open door policy or windows so that others may see inside the office while counseling is taking place. Utilize technology for video or telephone counseling. These should be in effect with all interpersonal relationships to prohibit the appearance of impropriety and hopefully limit the chances of a false claim of sexual misconduct. Counseling is often the first step to such an allegation.
5. Specific Policy Considerations. Limit what your pastors or lay counselors can discuss to things that are strictly spiritual or biblical in nature, that deal with a person's sanctification, and so forth. Limit the use of the term "counseling" because that can bring you under state licensing requirements. Instead, offer spiritual guidance or biblical guidance.
6. Insurance. Talk to your insurance carrier about professional liability insurance and Employment Practices Liability Insurance to cover the church in the event a pastor or lay counselor is found to be negligent in the practice of biblical counseling. Depending on the specific practices of your church, these policies can be rather inexpensive.
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.