March 04, 2019 11:24am

he pastor truthfully testified, “I didn’t know.” The jury adamantly decided, “You should have known.” Starkly revealing, this is new territory for civil defense attorneys and their church clients. Quick takeaway: While clergy and church employees who regularly interact with children must comply with mandatory reporting laws, they are being held to a higher standard in court.

According to a claims executive in the insurance industry, the developing trend in church-related, child sex abuse, civil court cases across the country is a demand for accountability. Plaintiff attorneys representing child sex abuse victims in church settings are presenting compelling arguments, and juries are readily following the arguments. More and more, juries are penalizing defendants for not acting immediately at any hint of child sex abuse, even in circumstances where isolated acts initially appear innocuous. Traditional standards of knowledge or reasonable cause to suspect are being supplanted by plaintiff attorneys and juries with “you should have known”.

The fallout from this trend in jury decisions is extremely consequential … not only for churches, but also for church representatives involved unwittingly. Yet, how can you know what you do not know? Begin with the following conversation starters and suggestions, then follow-through accordingly:

  1. Acknowledge and accept that child sex abuse occurs and will continue to occur in church-related settings. No church is immune from the potential occurrence(s) of child sex abuse.
  2. Child predators hide in plain sight. They are adept at exploiting opportunities to engage inappropriately with minors. Be aware of activity in your midst. Report legitimate concerns directly to your pastor.
  3. Are you wise about interactions with minors? Is staff trained to recognize behavior patterns that are red flags? On the flip side, is your pastor or lay leadership complacent and/or confident that your church does not have any concerns about child sex abuse or does not have an atmosphere conducive to child sex abuse, and therefore does not need to address the issue of appropriate vs. inappropriate conduct in relation to minors?
  4. Implement boundary policies, i.e. rules and procedures designed to promote appropriate interaction among youth and adults. An additional potential situation to be mindful of is child-on-child sex abuse. Consider guidelines that address church settings in which adult supervision of minors may be lacking or absent.
  5. Enact, follow, and enforce church policies and procedures. While many churches realize they need documented policies and procedures in place in the 21st century, too many are either not properly following or not enforcing their own procedures. If you miss on any of the three (enact, follow, enforce), you’ve opened a door of opportunity to child predators. You likely have also created an easier path for plaintiff attorneys to win judgments against you.

Your Trusted Choice Independent Insurance Agent at Richey-Barrett Insurance strives to address your church’s insurance needs as well as timely topics of interest.

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