News reports have spotlighted the problem of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, but Protestant churches also have reason to be concerned. Our research indicates that on average, over the past ten years, approximately 3,500 churches per year have responded to allegations of sexual misconduct in church programs involving children or youth.
Thousands of churches have taken steps to reduce this problem. Yet much more still needs to be done. Screening workers is essential to protecting children from sexual predators. Churches are making progress in screening paid employees, but screening volunteer workers remains problematic.
Screening workers is vital, for two reasons.
First, churches can be found liable for the negligent selection of a volunteer, just as they can for a paid employee. Second, our research indicates that volunteer workers are just as likely to be the perpetrators of abuse as are paid staff members.
The main goal of a church-screening program is to ward off individuals who have an intent or history of abusing children. A church that establishes a screening program sends a message. Predators do not want to be in such a church.
Now is the time to review your church's screening process and childcare supervision policies.
Two kinds of molesters
Time magazine estimates the prevalence of adults who are sexually interested in children (pedophilia) at 4 percent of the population. That does not include the percentage interested in teenagers (ephebophilia), which psychiatrists don't classify as an illness. The point is that the number of adults interested in sexual activity with minors is higher than one would imagine.
The two general profiles of child molesters are important for church leaders to understand: preferential molesters and situational molesters.
Preferential molesters have a preference for children, often of a particular age and gender. While these individuals are few in number, a single perpetrator can molest hundreds of children. Preferential molesters pose a unique and serious danger to churches. Such an individual may appear as the ideal worker for children. They enjoy being with children and will spend lots of time socializing with them. Since most churches find it hard to recruit adults to work with children, finding someone who enjoys being with children and who is willing to invest significant time in church programs may be viewed as a blessing. Thus, the church's guard may be down.
The best way to ward off preferential molesters is to develop an environment that puts the molester at risk rather than the children. That process begins with a thorough screening program for both paid and volunteer workers, and some healthy skepticism among the leaders responsible for recruiting and training workers.