I do a litigation review every year for church leaders based on about 12,000 cases I read pertaining to religious organizations across all 50 states and the federal courts. I systematically categorize them by type to help understand the top reasons religious organizations, including churches, go to court. In 2017, the top five reasons were (1) sexual abuse of a child, (2) property disputes, (3) personal injuries, (4) zoning disputes, and (5) insurance disputes.
It’s interesting. In 2016, the sexual abuse of a child dropped from first place to second place for the first time in 20 years. Additionally, it went from about 1 in 9 of the total cases (11.7%) to 1 in 12 (8.3%). It was a significant drop. I hoped it indicated a trend—a sign churches were responding more aggressively to prevention training—because of all the publicity child abuse has received in recent years. I read some of the testimony before Congress at a recent legislative initiative. There is an increasing loathing and revulsion of the public toward child molesters and toward institutions that know of abuse or suspected abuse and don’t do anything about it.
As a church, you don’t want to be in that position in a court on the witness stand. What did you know? And what did you do about it? And if you say, “Nothing,” you are in trouble. You’re looking at potential punitive damages which are not insurable. This poses an existential threat to your church. You’re also looking at your board members being potentially personally liable because immunity for personal liability does not apply to gross negligence. There are so many negative collateral consequences, not to mention the litigation.
Churches must be aggressive. Any reasonable suspicion of child abuse must be reported immediately. It doesn’t matter if you or your colleagues are defined as a mandatory reporter in your state or not. Report it. Transfer the risk to the state in terms of what can be done about it.
But here’s the sad part. After analyzing the 2016 data, I thought, Good. We’ve gone from 11.7 percent to 8.3 percent. Something is happening out there. And then I tabulated the data for 2017. It’s back up to number one—from 8.3 percent to 12.1 percent. That’s sickening. We’re not doing the job I thought we were doing. I thought maybe we turned a corner and we’re going to see this risk drop. It’s not dropping.
So the job remains unfinished. And probably that’s true for some of your churches, despite your best efforts to do something. What can you do if you find yourself in that position? Raise the warning with your church leadership using this data. Advocate for regular, formalized training following best practices that reduce the risk. Err on the side of doing more. Be aggressive.
Richard R. Hammar is an attorney and the senior editor for Church Law & Tax.
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