“You don’t know what an attack will look like at your church,” he said. “It will go down differently from anything you preconceived.”
In one 1992 case Chinn knows, a fight between a husband and wife outside a Methodist church in Colorado turned deadly in a matter of minutes: too quickly for even an armed police officer standing nearby to intervene. But when it is possible to head off violence, it is most likely to happen when a church has a security team and other staff who are trained to think on their feet and react quickly.
“What typically happens is everyone goes to the floor and freezes in fear. That’s the number one response,” Chinn said. “We’re talking audiences of people who have never hurt anybody; they’ve never been a victim of crime, and they never thought it would happen to them.”
Where liability is concerned, each case varies—but in general, if a church or ministry were to be held liable for violence, it would likely be on the grounds of negligence, said Frank Sommerville, an attorney who specializes in nonprofit tax law and assists churches in avoiding litigation. For instance, a church located in a high-crime neighborhood should consider taking steps to reduce danger to parishioners, e.g., having fences or other barriers around the church property, surveillance cameras, or hired security guards.
“Most of the time the injured party must show that the church owed them a ‘duty’ and the church failed to fulfill that duty. For example, the church owes a duty to people attending church services to keep them safe from foreseeable harm,” Sommerville said. “On the other hand, if the church member was robbed on the church parking lot and the church is not located in a high crime area, the church is not liable for the criminal act of others and had no duty to protect the member from the robbery.”
Where domestic violence is involved, a church could be liable if the harm was foreseeable and the church failed to take action to address the risk.
“For example, if the husband tells a pastor a specific threat to attack his wife at a specific time and place, the husband has the means to carry out the threat, and the pastor failed to warn the wife of the threat, then the church might be held liable,” Sommerville said.
Even without legal liability, the threat of domestic abuse is real and worth addressing in a safe, proactive manner.
Read Carl Chinn’s latest report on violent incidents at churches here.
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