Ministers and other church leaders can learn that a minor is being abused in a number of ways, including a confession by the perpetrator or a disclosure by a friend or relative of the victim or perpetrator.
Dennis Watkins, the Legal Counsel for the Church of God denomination based in Cleveland, Tennessee, gets about three calls per month regarding just such an occurrence. Pastors, youth pastors, and children's ministry directors describe how they became aware of an abuse and ask for help on what to do next. In all but one instance over the years, his recommendation has been the same: report it to the state.
That's because every state has a child abuse reporting law, and often, ministers and other church leaders are legally considered "mandatory reporters" by their state. Failing to report can trigger serious consequences.
"It's just such a precarious environment anymore to decide not to report that I've taken the position we need to find a way to report [all suspected abuse]," said Watkins, whose denomination consists of 6,000 churches and 1 million congregational members in the United States and Canada.
Often, church leaders desire to resolve such matters internally through counseling with the victim or the alleged offender—without contacting civil authorities. And often it's because the parties involved all may be a part of the same congregation. "Pastors can find themselves in highly pressurized situations," Watkins said.
But such a response can have serious legal ramifications, including the following:
- ministers and other church leaders who are mandatory reporters under state law face possible criminal prosecution for failing to comply with their state's child abuse reporting law;
- some state legislatures have enacted laws permitting child abuse victims to sue mandatory reporters who failed to report child abuse.
"In years past, I might have said that keeping a situation internal might make sense because there may be ecclesiastical avenues to resolve things," Watkins said. "But unfortunately, the legal landscape over time has changed and that no longer is a tenable position."
As a result, it is imperative for church leaders to know their state's child abuse reporting laws, how they apply to churches, clergy, and other church leaders, and why every church should review their state's law (as well as the practices and policies their church has in place) to ensure actual or reasonably suspected cases of abuse involving minors are immediately addressed.
To help church leaders, Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax Team created a report on the child abuse reporting laws for all 50 states, which is available as an online article on ChurchLawAndTax.com and as a downloadable resource at ChurchLawAndTaxStore.com. Along with this, church leaders should read the following 21 facts that ministers and other church leaders should know about child abuse reporting.
1. Every state has a child abuse reporting law.
Many leaders are surprised to learn their state has a child abuse reporting law, but the fact is, the vast majority of these laws have been around for decades. A few states enacted child abuse reporting laws as early as the 1960s. Most passed their laws in the 1970s.
These laws are subject to changes every year when state legislatures are in session. Minor amendments are regularly made, often to update terminology or address a specific area of the law, but occasionally, amendments can create far-reaching effects. States with significant changes to their abuse reporting laws in recent years include Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Ministers and other church leaders are highly encouraged to regularly consult with qualified local legal counsel regarding the current version of their state's statute.
2. Each state's law defines abuse, and those definitions can be broad.
The definition of child abuse varies widely from state to state. Child abuse is defined by most statutes to include physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and sexual molestation. A child is ordinarily defined as any person under the age of 18 years. Some states specifically limit the definition of child abuse to abuse that is inflicted by a parent, caretaker, or custodian. Other states define abuse without regard to the status of the perpetrator.
Church leaders often associate the triggers for reporting to incidents occurring on church property or during church-sanctioned activities, or an allegation involving a minister, staff member, or volunteer. But clergy and other leaders also must be mindful of other potential triggers to report. For instance, they may become aware of actual or reasonably suspected abuse occurring outside the church through conversations with minors or other adults. They may become aware through observations. Leaders must remain mindful of their potential responsibilities to report whenever any of these types of situations arise.
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