Reaching out to young people is a goal for many churches. But with church child abuse scandals grabbing headlines for many years now, church leaders should take precautions before launching a youth ministry in their community. Failing to take the risks seriously can expose youth to terrible danger and put the church in substantial legal jeopardy.
A church’s liability for abuse by a member of the youth ministry
Child abuse, especially sexual abuse, is a serious crime and can lead to a civil lawsuit against the church that oversees a youth ministry. In many cases of sexual abuse in youth ministry contexts, a church failed to take adequate precautions to screen its employees and volunteers, or failed to control their interactions with children. The family of an abused child may sue the church for some form of negligence, whether stemming from the hiring process (negligent selection or retention) or in its management of personnel (negligent supervision).
The consequences for a church that is sued in civil court can be devastating. Although in some cases victims are chiefly interested in getting the church to take certain actions—firing the offending minister, making governance improvements, and so on—most lawsuits will seek significant financial compensation. In addition, the church’s reputation will suffer irreparable harm and many members may leave for other communities.
Safely running a youth ministry
A properly managed youth ministry can avoid most, if not all, of the risk that a minister or volunteer will sexually abuse a child. A robust risk management program must include several components:
- Identity and background checks at regular intervals for anyone who will have contact with children to verify that the individuals do not have red flag criminal histories.
- Strict policies regarding communications with minors.
- Clear communication with the community regarding the church’s no tolerance policy regarding abuse and encouraging the community to report concerns to church leaders.
- Training of staff to help them know what abuse is, how to recognize warning signs, and what to do if they suspect abuse.
- A clear policy governing in-person interactions with minors, including restrictions such as the “two adult rule,” which prevents an adult staff member ever being left alone with a minor.
The Church Law Center is here to help
The Church Law Center of California supports the risk management and governance programs of churches and secular nonprofits. We understand the importance churches place on preventing and addressing child abuse. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.