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The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a mother whose 10-year-old daughter was sexually molested by a church employee could sue a church and its pastor. The mother alleged that when the employee was hired, the church and minister either knew or should have known that he had recently been convicted of aggravated sexual assault on a young girl, that he was on probation for the offense, and that a condition of his probation was that he not be involved or associated with children. Yet the individual was hired and entrusted with duties that encouraged him to come freely into contact with children. The court ruled that the church could be sued on the basis of negligent selection.
One of the most significant legal risks facing churches today is negligent selection—carelessness or a failure to exercise reasonable care in the selection of a worker. But church leaders can take two relatively simple steps to significantly reduce this risk. The first step is to collect vital information from prospective workers in the application process. The second step involves background checks.
Michael McCarty, president of Danville, Indiana-based Safe Hiring Solutions, LLC, and a former violent crime detective, says church leaders should develop a screening and background check program that provides equal treatment for everyone so there is not even the perception of discrimination. "This doesn't mean that all positions should receive the same type of screening," he says. For example, a credit report check could be required for a person being considered for an administrative or financial position. Likewise, a motor vehicle record check makes sense for a volunteer who is required to drive.
"Failing to thoroughly screen staff and volunteers increases the potential liability a church may face if allegations surface about abuse, theft, negligence, or other issues," says Ansley Jones Colby of ChoicePoint Cares, a background search provider based in Alpharetta, Georgia. ChoicePoint recently conducted an audit of background screenings for churches and nonprofits from 2002 through 2007. This study found a "hit rate" of 5.06 percent, meaning more than five of every one-hundred volunteer or employment applicants screened had some criminal activity in their past.