Child abuse in all its forms — physical, sexual, or mental abuse or neglect — is a crime in California, with additional criminal penalties if a victim is a minor (18 and younger) at the time the crime was committed. Churches should bear in mind that if facts show that church leaders knew about abuse and failed to stop it, they may have committed crimes as well. In some cases the church itself can be prosecuted.
Even if prosecutors don’t pursue criminal charges in connection with abuse claims, the victim may pursue civil litigation to recover compensation for the suffering he or she has endured. The church itself is likely to be sued if the abuser was a member of its staff or one of its volunteers, or if the abuse occurred on church grounds or at a church-sponsored event.
Under California law, clergy members — defined as “a priest, minister, rabbi, religious practitioner, or similar functionary of a church, temple, or recognized denomination or organization” — have a duty to report incidents of child abuse. This reporting duty applies even if the victim is over the age of 18 by the time the report is made. Failure to report is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. If the failure to report is willful, the jail sentence can go up to one year.
Child Abuse Reporting Requirements
How to report. Reports of abuse should be made by telephone to local law enforcement, a county probation department, or a county welfare department. If the person reporting the crime is unable to reach the appropriate authorities by phone after reasonable efforts, then he or she should make a written report and submit it to the authorities via fax or email as well as make himself or herself available for follow-up by the appropriate authorities.
When to report. Abuse reports are required to be made immediately or as soon as practically possible via phone as described above, followed by a written report made within 36 hours.
Reporting privilege for clergy. A clergy member who discovers or has reason to suspect child abuse or neglect following a “penitential communication” (e.g., confession) is not required to report.
Tips to Help Prevent Abuse
Churches can take steps to prevent abuse problems within their organizations by taking some simple steps:
- Take complaints seriously. Not believing the victim is a classic mistake that leads many organizations into trouble.
- Adopt an anti-abuse policy that the congregation will see and discuss.
- Know if your staff or volunteers have a criminal background or are listed on the state’s sex offender list. People with these red flags may need to be monitored more carefully than others.
- Talk to an attorney any time an allegation of abuse is raised.
The Church Law Center of California assists churches with organization, governance, and risk management. We can help your church craft policies so it is in a better position to address problems of abuse should they arise. And if someone accuses the church of abuse, we can help leadership make a plan for addressing the problem. To find out how we can help your church, call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.