Year after year child abuse is the number one reason churches end up in court. Churches are no different than any other organization when it comes to the need for having policies and procedures in place for handling misconduct by leaders, employees, and volunteers. Failing to do so can leave a church vulnerable to litigation or, even worse, prosecution for criminal activity.
Child abuse in all its forms — physical, sexual, or mental abuse or neglect — is a crime in Arizona, and if it is proven that church leaders knew about the abuse and failed to stop it, they may have committed crimes as well. In some cases, the church itself can be prosecuted.
Even if prosecutors don’t pursue criminal charges in connection with abuse claims, the victim may pursue civil litigation to recover compensation for the suffering he or she has endured. The church itself is likely to be sued if the abuser was a member of its staff or one of its volunteers, or if the abuse occurred on church grounds or at a church-sponsored event.
Abuse prevention and protection policy framework.
An abuse prevention and protection policy should contain the following key elements:
Purpose. The policy should articulate the organization’s concern and proper care for the children and other vulnerable persons served.
Scope. The policy should cover minor children as well as other vulnerable populations, including the elderly or those who lack the physical or mental capacity to protect themselves.
Goals. The policy should set clear goals, chief among them a zero-tolerance policy for abuse. It should also include guidelines for staff and volunteers on how to protect themselves and others from harm.
Context. The policy should closely align with the church’s mission and culture of good stewardship, care, and compassion.
Employee screening and oversight.
Church employees are entrusted with the safety and wellbeing of the congregation. It is essential that the church take formal steps to ensure that its staff is appropriately qualified for the job.
Conducting a background check on prospective employees and volunteers can be an important part of protecting the organization from significant risk. A background check can include a range of different searches of public records, some of which can be conducted for free, and many of which require a volunteer’s consent. Checks can include:
- Criminal background checks. A criminal background check will reveal convictions for felonies and most misdemeanors within the last seven years that have not been expunged through a pardon, or kept secret by court order. A check can be conducted at the state and federal levels and may need to be conducted in other states if the person has moved around. Note that the results of a person’s criminal background check must be kept confidential.
- Credit checks. A credit check will reveal if someone has declared bankruptcy or had other significant financial problems in the past. A volunteer’s financial history may be relevant if he or she will handle significant sums of money for the organization.
- Sex offender list. Arizona provides an online tool for screening individuals against the state’s sex offender registry.
In addition, all workers should receive training on abuse prevention and protection protocols as well as their responsibilities under the law to report incidences of child abuse.
Churches can check with their liability insurance carrier that, in most cases, will be able to recommend an abuse prevention policy.
Provident Law’s nonprofit attorneys can help churches and religious organizations and their boards. We stand ready to counsel and serve churches, charities, and foundations, as well as private schools, colleges, universities, and other types of nonprofit organizations—providing broad transactional and general counsel services in Arizona and surrounding areas. Contact us to learn more.