NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- He looked like the ideal youth minister -- recommended by a friend of the pastor, personable, and leading a thriving ministry to teens at Wayside Baptist Church in Miami.
But looks were deceiving.
For months, he had been sexually abusing boys during sleepovers at his home. When the offense came to light, the church had its very existence jeopardized by a $6 million civil judgment in favor of the victims. Eventually the case was settled for an undisclosed amount, and Wayside determined to do everything it could to protect children in the future.
"Now we do criminal background checks on anyone who is volunteering, and they put glass in all the doors [of children's and youth classrooms]," said Carrel Youmans, a longtime member at Wayside who taught youth when the abuse occurred in the 1970s.
Wayside is not an isolated case, said Patrick Moreland, vice president of marketing at Church Mutual Insurance Company. Church Mutual averages four to five reports of child sexual abuse each week from its approximately 100,000 clients, the vast majority of which are churches. That includes roughly 9,000 Southern Baptist congregations.
Every church needs to have policies in place to protect its children, Moreland told SBC LIFE, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.
"It is common for a congregation to think, 'It can't happen here. We're small and everyone knows everyone,'" Moreland said. "That is not sound thinking when it comes to child sexual abuse. Most abusers are known to the child and trusted by the congregation. Child sexual abuse occurs in churches of all sizes and denominations and in all parts of the country -- urban and rural."
REPORTING SUSPECTED ABUSE
If abuse is ever suspected, Moreland urges churches to contact the proper government reporting agency immediately and to suspend the alleged offender (with pay for employees until the situation is resolved). They also should contact their attorney and insurance company.
Representatives of the church, accompanied by a reporting agency official, should meet with the child's parents and, in their presence with their permission, the child.
"Reassure the child that he or she has done nothing wrong and that it was right to report the incident," Moreland said. "Allow the child to speak freely. Do not coach responses from them and do not become defensive. You want the truth and you want to protect the child's wellbeing."
ABUSE PREVENTION POLICIES
Among the policies Church Mutual recommends to prevent child sexual abuse:
-- Have all potential children's and youth workers (employees and volunteers) complete an application form. Look for irregularities. Ask for and check references. Conduct interviews.
-- Perform background screening on all employees and volunteers who will have access to children. The screenings should be national in scope since it is common for offenders to move from state to state. The Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender public website can be accessed at through the SBC website at SBC.net at www.sbc.net/localchurches/ministryhelp.asp.
-- Never allow anyone to be involved in children's or youth ministry who has not been active in the church for at least six months.
-- Implement and enforce a two-adult rule. Never allow one adult to be alone with a minor. The two adults should not be spouses.
-- Install windows in classrooms and keep doors open. Have a hall monitor circulate through the building during children's and youth activities.
"Most incidents of child sexual abuse can be prevented by following these simple steps," Moreland said. "The primary facilitators of child sexual abuse are failure to screen and supervise those who will be in contact with your youth and children."
For Wayside, which averages 800-900 each week in worship, prevention stems from "good people with good training, and … good policies to back that up," said Leigh Byers, director of preschool and children's ministries at the church for the past decade.
Today anyone seeking to work with children in the congregation must fill out volunteer forms, including a confidential questionnaire, a background check permission form and an affidavit of good moral character. Volunteers also are required to provide references, and Wayside follows the six-month rule.
Though hardly any potential workers have been turned away, some have declined to go through the application process, Byers said. She added that domestic violence and sex crimes would disqualify a member from working with children.
"If someone is a potential abuser, they're not looking for the hardest place to accomplish their goal," Byers said. "They're probably looking for a place that's a little easier. So we try to put some things in place that would make somebody think twice before they would necessarily say, 'This is easy. I don't have to work too hard to get access.'"
PREVENTION AT SMALL CHURCHES
Child abuse prevention is not just for large churches, noted Jonathan Ruth, minister of music and children at Springdale Baptist Church in West Columbia, S.C., which averages approximately 230 in worship.
Before his church instituted mandatory background checks for all children's workers, one parent asked if volunteers were screened. Ruth said no, and the parent withdrew her children from an after-school program.
"I'm not saying that's why they left, but she seemed concerned that our volunteers were not checked," Ruth said. "And if it's going to be a hindrance to a parent to bring their child to a church where volunteers are not background checked, I think it's worth it to make sure you have those assurances in place for parents."
In addition to background screening, Springdale has an unwritten policy of always having two adults in a room where there are children. The congregation is in the process of developing official, written policies, Ruth said.
"I think every church needs to have protection in place for their children so that there's not going to be abuse taking place," he said.
With proper screening and an attitude of transparency though, churches stand a better chance of never having an incident to report, according to Byers.
Church members should be "watching and helping each other," she said. No one should ever think, "There's somebody watching the kids … let's not worry about it," she added. "There needs to be working together."
For additional information about preventing child sexual abuse, visit www.sbc.net and click on the "Sex Abuse Prevention" tab on the left side of the page in the "Resources For" box.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Ky. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE (www.sbclife.org
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