As you hang up the phone with your executive pastor, your face is flushed, your heart rapidly beating. Anyone walking by your office at this moment could easily see how distressed you are. You really want to walk out, jump in your car, and cry, but you can’t. At least not right now. You gulp down some Diet Dr. Pepper in hopes of settling your stomach, take a deep breath, and stand up to make the long walk upstairs to meet with the church attorney. You wish you could forget this day, but know you never will.
Sometimes in ministry things occur that no one ever wants to deal with. If this has ever happened to you, I’m so sorry. Whether we believe circumstances to be unpreventable or just highly unlikely, we’re sometimes unprepared when emergencies arise. Unfortunately, that lack of preparation can find a church and a children’s pastor not only liable, but possibly criminal.
So what are some scenarios that if handled improperly could lead to that kind of phone call, or worse, end a career or end with jail? Before we get to that, however, let’s make clear that the purpose of this article isn’t to give any specific legal advice. That can only be given by an attorney licensed to practice law in your specific state. These two scenarios and the points that follow are general guidelines and topics to think about.
SCENARIO #1: The Prayer Request (reporting child abuse and time restraint)
It’s Monday morning, and you’re flipping through a stack of kids’ prayer requests like you always do. Most are for sick family members, tests, or new toys, but one in particular sticks out to you. The paper reads, “Pray for my daddy. He always hits my big brother when he comes home from work.” Immediately, your mind goes to abuse. Is Dad simply using spanking to discipline the normal 9-year-old like many fathers have for generations? Or is this something more sinister? How do you know for sure? And do you have to tell anybody else?
Potential Liability = Probably Not
Potential Crime = Depends
The difficulty of this scenario is the tension we feel between invading an innocent family’s privacy and protecting children. You’ve probably heard horror stories of the Department of Family and Children’s Services swooping in and dragging crying children from their homes only to find out that parents were completely innocent. So let me help make up your mind. This is the one scenario that could end with felony charges against you and maybe your supervisor.
Often referred to as mandatory reporting, all states plus the District of Columbia have statutes requiring certain people to report suspected child abuse. More than half of those states require clergy to report, and almost all states and U.S. territories require childcare providers to report. Chances are, whether a full-time, part-time, or volunteer children’s ministry director, you are probably required by law to report suspected child abuse to government authorities. Nearly every state also defines penalties for not reporting. Florida is the only state to make it an automatic felony. Other states upgrade from misdemeanor to felony depending on the severity of the abuse or the number of times a person has failed to report.
So the next question is at what point are you required to report? How much information do you have to have to raise to the level of mandatory reporting. Many states require you to report if you “know” or have “reasonable cause” to suspect abuse, neglect, or maltreatment. Anytime you see the word “reasonable” in a legal definition, you should ask yourself this question: Would a reasonable person think, believe, agree with, or do this? In our scenario we would ask, “Based on the prayer request, would a reasonable person suspect that abuse is happening?” Most likely the prayer request alone probably does not raise your suspicion to a level that would require mandatory reporting. In other words, you don’t know for sure, and your suspicion has not yet risen to the level of “reasonable cause.”
However, because you are concerned for all your children, you are likely to ask a few questions of the child’s small group leader, other adults in his life, and maybe even some family members. Based on the information you receive, you may begin to suspect abuse. At that moment, you are required to report.
Depending on your church’s policies as well as state law, you may also be required to report to your supervisor or some other appointed authority in your church. I would say that you should always report to your supervisor, unless they are the one suspected of the abuse. But please keep in mind that in most states reporting to your supervisor does not remove your mandatory requirement to report abuse to the appropriate state agency.
And let’s just get real for a moment. As a minister of the Gospel who represents both your church and your God, you should require a high standard of care for children, regardless of what the law says. When abuse is suspected, we should report it every time.
SCENARIO #2: Young, Handsome, and Registered
You just got a call from an emotionally devastated and understandably furious mom whose 13-year-old daughter volunteers in your preschool ministry. The daughter just confided in her that she secretly met with a young adult male from church on a few occasions, and he attempted to touch her inappropriately. Fortunately, the daughter was able to get away and is safe, but Mom is threatening a lawsuit because you knowingly allowed a registered sex offender to worship at church and volunteer behind the scenes as part of your church’s production ministry.
Potential Liability = YES
Potential Crime = Maybe
We all know that we should never have registered sex offenders volunteering in our children’s ministries. We all do background checks to make sure that doesn’t happen. But what about volunteers in other ministries? The reality is that volunteers in any ministry have easier access to our children than we think. Every volunteer position carries with it an automatic presumption of church endorsement of the character of the volunteer. So should churches run background checks on every single volunteer in every ministry? Yes, they should. Why?
The answer lies in the legal terms “standard of care.” In its most basic form the standard of care is the degree of caution or care to which a person is held responsible or has a duty to give. In other words, because we are leaders who work with children, we have a certain duty to care for those children. Because children are unable to adequately care for themselves, the law requires a higher degree of caution when it comes to children—a higher standard of care.
When trying to determine what the standard of care should be, typically the question is asked: “What would the reasonable, prudent person do in this situation?” The answer relies on the specific details of the situation.
In our scenario, the church knowingly allowed the young man to volunteer and attend worship. That detail is important for a couple of reasons. First, the church knowingly allowed him to volunteer. As previously mentioned, the church should have precluded him from volunteering based on a background check, so the church is likely to be found negligent in its duty to protect children.
But what about the casual attender? How is a church supposed to handle a registered sex offender who wants to attend but not serve? If the church doesn’t know anything about it, it’s not likely to be found negligent. However, in our scenario, the church does know. In that instance, there is at least some possibility that a court would find the church negligent. So what is a church to do in this situation?
First, seek legal counsel. We should do that in everything. Second, meet with the offender to establish the premise that, while forgiveness is quickly given, trust is slowly earned. Let him know that his past mistakes necessitate certain restrictions on participating at church. Establish an agreement with the offender outlining what is permitted, who will be assigned as his accountability partner, and which church members should know his past. While each situation should be assessed individually, having general guidelines in place will help smooth this process when it comes up.
Hopefully, even though these two scenarios cover only a bit of what could potentially be legal issues, they will challenge you to think through the possible ramifications of being lackadaisical in your approach and steer you away from thinking that, “Oh, everything will be fine. That could never happen to us.” Take precautions. Know the law. Always consult a professional when any questions arise.