Lessons from a Church Sexual Abuse Scandal
What leaders should know about preventing misconduct—and reporting when it happens.

A high-profile case involving the rape of a 13-year-old girl inside a Tulsa, Oklahoma, megachurch and other charges of abuse provides a sobering reminder about the steps churches must take to prevent sexual abuse–and a reminder for leaders to know their legal obligations if an allegation ever arises.

Chris Denman, 20, was recently convicted of raping the 13-year-old and also assaulting a 15-year-old and making a lewd proposal to a 12-year-old while serving as a janitor for Victory Christian Center. He is now serving 55 years in prison. Another janitor, Israel Shalom Castillo, 23, faces charges he made a lewd proposal to a 15-year-old. Both men, who are members of Victory Christian, were fired by the church after the allegations surfaced.

In a separate civil lawsuit filed by the victim's mother, the church is accused of delaying to report the crime for two weeks while it conducted an in-house investigation. The lawsuit also said Victory Christian didn't conduct a "reasonable investigation into the background of Denman (a member of Victory Christian Center) before retaining him and placing him in a position of authority, influence, and trust with young children." The civil suit seeks $75,000 in damages.

In a statement last fall, the church said its reporting policy wasn't properly followed by five staff members, who were temporarily suspended from work by the church but later returned. Those employees, including the church's youth pastors and human resources director, faced misdemeanor charges for failing to report the rape. Three took plea deals, while the other two–the son and daughter-in-law of the church's head pastor–chose to proceed to trial.

Screening Best Practices

The tragic situation in Tulsa provides two important reminders for churches of all sizes and backgrounds across the country.

First, many churches screen their pastors, staff, and volunteers, but may forget to screen support roles, such as janitors and other non-pastoral staff. In a prepared statement, Victory Christian says prior to hiring Denman and Castillo, both were screened through a process of personal references and nationwide background checks and no history of criminal activity was found.

There are at least 10 ways to check the background of an applicant. Several can be done internally, while others are more complex and may require the help of a background check company. Specific checks on a person will depend on the responsibilities and activities involved with the position. It's also important for church leaders to note recent action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the ways background checks are conducted.

Churches should note the following:

Identity match. This basic, simple check verifies the person's name, place of residence, length of residence, and Social Security number. Potential problems: different names or aliases; frequent moves in recent years; a mismatch with the Social Security number.

Identity theft protection. A records check may reveal a potential identity theft, raising questions to be resolved.

Criminal background check. The United States has about 3,141 counties. Criminal background checks are done county by county. Talk with the screening service to determine&from the applicant's stated residence history–how many counties will be contacted for a records check of trials and convictions on a wide variety of offenses.

Sexual misconduct check. Check for sexual misconduct records. A good place to start is the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website, a free resource maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice and local and state governments. A more detailed investigation through a service can also be made to delve deeper into state and local records, which cover sexual misconduct, including rape, abuse, predatory behavior, any history involving child pornography, or sexual misconduct with a child.

Driver history and licensing check. This check should be conducted for any role involving driving. The Division of Motor Vehicles in each state carries records for accidents, motor vehicle violations, approval or denial of a driver's license, and the type of license carried by the individual.

Financial background check. This check should be conducted for any position that involves the oversight or handling of finances. With permission, the person's bank can provide financial transaction history. The three major credit rating firms can provide a credit score and basic information on a person's credit history (including bankruptcy). Financial checks can coordinate with criminal background checks to track any history of embezzlement, non-payment, check bouncing, or fraud.

Employment background checks. The applicant's employment history can be verified. Questions may arise regarding start and end dates. Previous employers may or may not disclose any information other than start and end dates.

Professional licensing. Depending on the applicant's work responsibilities at the church, as well as the nature of professional licensing in a state, the status of a person's licensure (accounting, medical practice, psychological or counseling practice, or other professions) can be verified.

Immigration and security checks. The Department of Homeland Security maintains a database on immigration status and security clearance, particularly for those from outside of the United States.

References. As much as possible, pursue institutional references for a candidate's prior work, preferably ones involving direct knowledge of their contact with minors. Personal references are less valuable; in Church Law & Tax Report, Richard Hammar has noted that the adult friends of sex offenders often are sex offenders themselves.

Since background checks involve a lot of work, a church administrator may want to use a background check company to do some degree of investigation. It is important that a church or ministry budget–in terms of time and resources–for due diligence.

A Duty to Report

The second reminder for churches from the Tulsa case is the charges involving a failure to report the rape. Victory Christian officials provided a timeline to the Tulsa World to explain the sequence of events and the reasons for delay.

Church leaders must be aware of their state's laws concerning mandatory reporting. Each state differs in terms of reporting laws (you can find the full report on all 50 states here). The Oklahoma statute (Stats. title 10A, §§ 1-2- 101 et seq. (2009)) outlines the following:

Reportable Abuse:

To go deeper on the topics of screening and reporting in the church, check out 2012 Child Abuse Reporting Laws for Churches, ReducingtheRisk.com, Screening & Selecting Children's Workers, and the Essential Guide to Youth Ministry Safety eBook.

Bullet points adapted from "Best Church Practices: Waivers & Releases," by BuildingChurchLeaders.com.

Ashley Moore serves as Assistant Editor for the Church Law and Tax Group at Christianity Today. She assists with the creation of eBooks, and provides editorial support for Church Law & Tax Report, Church Finance Today,and ChurchLawAndTax.com.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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