Protect Your Ministry With Employee Background Checks
by Glen M. Johnson
Since the mid-1980s, there has been a virtual explosion of litigation
and media attention relating to sexual abuse and misconduct by ministers
and teachers who violate their position of trust. When these incidents
occur within the church, the consequences are devastatingnot
only for the individuals involved but also for their families, the
parish, the denomination, and the community at large. The violation
of trust can precipitate a true crisis of faith that destroys the
victim's faith in God, the church, and religious leaders in general.
Until recently, inappropriate sexual conduct by clergy toward those
they ministered to generally was not talked about. Often, an attitude
of denial or minimization existed among church leaders concerning
this serious problem. If the problem was dealt with at all, denominational
leaders handled it very quietly. As often as not, an offending clergy
person quietly resigned or was moved to another congregation.
Victims, frustrated by some ministers' reluctance or refusal to
deal effectively with the serious problem, increasingly sought remedy
in secular society's legal institutions. And as these courts have
repeatedly demonstrated, the church itself may be held legally responsible
for the actions of the individual offenderwhether clergy,
lay employee or volunteer. Damage awards have been staggering; endowment
funds, operating budgets, and even church buildings have been sacrificed
to pay damage awards.
In response, many churches have begun to take much more meaningful
action to better understand, prevent and eliminate sexual misconduct
by clergy and other church workers. Many believe that any sound
risk management strategy should start with a thorough background
investigation of clergy and other church workers before they are
hired. Although no background investigation is foolproof, experience
shows that requiring one as part of the selection process is beneficial
- It will encourage "self-screening" by deterring high-risk
individuals from applying.
- It may identify applicants with histories of inappropriate conduct
and enable church leaders to reject their applications or invoke
- It will demonstrate to the applicant and to other parties your
genuine concern for ensuring the safety of the church.
While it may seem intrusive, many ministries apply a background
check not only to people being hired as full-time employees, but
also volunteer workers. Churches are legally responsiblenot
only for their paid staff, but for volunteer workers. The concepts
of "negligent hiring" and "negligent supervision"
are themes in many of the lawsuits arising from sexual misconduct.
This issue of volunteer workers is very relevant given that many
children's and youth ministries require large numbers of volunteer
workers. Frequently, pedophiles will volunteer to work in such ministries
to gain access to children.
In addition to performing a background check on these people, it
also may be a good idea to implement a six-month waiting period
before allowing someone to work with children and youth. In other
words, a prospective youth worker would need to be an active member
in good standing with your church for at least six-months before
this person is put in an area where they would have access and/or
responsibility for children. While such policies may offend potential
volunteers, they are needed in today's world and are very successful.
Additionally, as long as such policies are set forth in a detailed
procedures manual and applied to everyone, there should not be any
issues. Some ministries even require retroactive background checks
on current employees and volunteers, just to gain an extra level
Background checks can be extremely complex. To help address the
concerns of church workers and legal experts, many are turning to
outside third parties who have experience with this work and who
can assure that the background investigation performed is one that
is independent, confidential, and also consistent with the requirements
of others in the religious community. There are a number of services
and companies, including our own, that can assist you with these
However, if you choose not to enlist a third party, there are many
resources your ministry can consult to assist them in performing
Child Abuse Registries. State-maintained databases contain
the records of individuals who were referred to the child protection
services agency for investigation of child abuse allegations. The
records are typically available on a very limited basis. Churches
who want access to child abuse registry information for screening
applicants should check their state laws to determine its feasibility
in their state.
Sex Offender Registries. Most states have laws requiring
individuals convicted of sexual related offenses to register with
law enforcement agencies. Religious or youth serving organizations
can often access these records when screening applicants. An advantage
of sex offender registries is the requirement that offenders who
were convicted in another state are required to register in the
state in which they live.
State Criminal History Records. State record checks are
usually name-based checks of criminal information databases on the
state level. They are usually performed by submitting the applicant's
name, sex, address, date of birth or social security number to the
state's criminal history record repository. Generally, state level
record checks do not require an applicant to submit fingerprints.
Name-based criminal records checks, however, do not have the same
level of reliability as do finger-print-based record checks. State
checks will not pick up offense histories from other states.
Pre-employment background investigations alone will not solve the
problem of sexual misconduct in the church or anywhere else. They
should be part of a larger strategy that needs to include training,
education, supervision and monitoring. Fortunately, there are now
a variety of resources written by religious leaders or others familiar
with the religious issues involved to help religious institutions
effectively deal with this tremendously important topic.