Church employees often do not know how to report abuse. Many believe that they can discharge their duty to report child abuse by informing the senior pastor. In most states, while staff members are free to inform the pastor of known or suspected incidents of child abuse, this does not relieve them from personal liability for failing to report to civil authorities.
A few states have adopted statutes allowing churches to designate a person to receive reports of child abuse from staff members. For example, the Missouri child abuse reporting law states:
A religious organization may designate an agent or agents required to report … in an official capacity on behalf of the religious organization. In the event a minister, official, or staff member of a religious organization has probable cause to believe that the child has been subjected to abuse or neglect under circumstances required to be reported … and the minister, official or staff member of the religious organization does not personally make a report … the designated agent of the religious organization shall be notified. The designated agent shall then become responsible for making or causing the report to be made …. This section shall not preclude any person from reporting abuse or neglect as otherwise provided by law. RSMo. 352.400.
Most state child abuse reporting laws do not contain such a provision, and so staff members who are mandatory reporters [categories of persons who are under a legal duty to report child abuse to designated civil authorities] cannot satisfy their obligation to report known or suspected incidents of abuse to the senior pastor or some other church leader. This demonstrates the importance of church staff being familiar with their reporting requirements under state law.
Adapted from "12 Lessons from Penn State's Abuse Scandal," Church Law & Tax Report, May/June 2012.
Richard Hammar's most recent list of child abuse reporting laws for churches is the 2015 Child Abuse Reporting Laws for Churches.
For information on how churches can help prevent abuse, check out Reducing the Risk.
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