The Role of Internal Misconduct Investigations in Churches

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Like any organization over a certain size, large churches need policies and procedures for handling misconduct by its leaders, employees, and volunteers. Failing to do so can leave a church unaware of serious problems, or forced into making decisions without adequate forethought into how problems should be addressed. Internal investigations can be meaningful tools for examining a church’s potential risks while controlling the handling of information discovered during the investigation.

Why an internal investigation?

Internal investigations into potential wrongdoing can be warranted under many circumstances. Whether by a direct complaint or indirect rumor, when church leaders hear about misdeeds by a church employee or volunteer they risk adding to the church’s liability by not studying the issue more closely. Over the last decade there have been many high-profile cases of sexual abuse in churches, but sexual abuse is just one kind of problem a church may encounter. Financial fraud and theft—such as the case of the nuns who allegedly stole $500,000 from their church to go gambling—is probably more common than one might assume. There may also be isolated incidents of violence, verbal abuse, or other problems.

An internal investigation has several purposes. First, it helps church leaders understand the facts surrounding the problem. Second, it gives the church an opportunity to address the problem with the perpetrator, potentially by terminating the employment of someone who has behaved badly. Third, it gives leaders a chance to evaluate the church’s risks and, if warranted, seek outside help.

An internal investigation is not a shield against liability

When an agent of a church causes injury to another person or commits a crime, the church itself may be held liable to the victim or even to the state if it is found to bear responsibility. Doing nothing to respond to alleged abuse or other problems can worsen the problem. Conducting an investigation can help, but only if it is done with the right frame of mind.

A good internal investigation is designed to be reasonably impartial and bias-free. A temptation to blame the victim, protect a long-standing leader, or bury the problem to protect the church’s reputation can end up making the problem significantly worse. In some cases it will be necessary to bring in outside help. If financial fraud is suspected the church may need to hire a forensic accounting firm to examine its books. If a crime is suspected the police probably should be involved at an early stage. A qualified private investigator, someone with a distinguished background in formal investigations, could also be helpful in some circumstances.

The Church Law Center is here to help

Properly designed and conducted, internal investigations can form one component of a church’s risk-management strategy. The Church Law Center of California provides governance and operational counsel to churches and secular nonprofits. We are available to help your church examine its practices and develop a process for responding to allegations of wrongdoing. Call us at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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