Q&A: How Do We Handle an Application Answer that Changes?

A volunteer candidate no longer mentions a pornography addiction.

A person applied two years ago to work with children but stated, in an answer to an application question, that he once had an addiction to pornography but had an accountability partner and was dealing with it. However, the committee still turned him down, even though the pastor was counseling with him and okayed him. That pastor has since left. The person recently applied again to work with children. The question on the application now does not ask whether he had an addiction in the past, but asks whether he currently has an addiction. He responded no. Can we accept him this time knowing that he still has an accountability partner and that the nature of the question has changed? We would also note on his application the previous reason for rejecting him if we okay him this time.

I would make several observations in response to this question:

It is imperative to know if the porn addiction involved child porn. If so, that is a lifelong disqualifier from any volunteer or paid position in the church involving access to minors. This must be determined. The use of child porn, understandably, is regarded as the best indication that someone is a pedophile. Pedophiles generally are persons who have a sexual preference for prepubescent or early pubescent children. According to an FBI profile, they are promiscuous, predatory, incurable, and have one of the highest recidivism rates of all crimes. They pose a toxic threat to churches.

No court has addressed the issue of church liability for using a volunteer children’s worker with a prior addiction to adult pornography, so it is hard to predict what might happen if this person molests a child and the church is sued for negligent selection.

The biblical standard for teachers is high. James 3:1 says “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

It becomes critical for the church to determine what the community standard of care is. How is this done? By contacting, first and foremost, the public school district, and then other national youth-serving charities with units in your area.

In the final analysis, if the church elects to use this person in youth ministry and he molests a child, whether the church was negligent or not in using him will depend on one fundamental question—did the church’s decision to use this person meet the “community standard of care”? It is a breach of this standard (to exercise reasonable care, or with respect to minors, a “high” degree of care) that will determine if the church was negligent and therefore liable for the person’s misconduct. So it becomes critical for the church to determine what the community standard of care is. How is this done? By contacting, first and foremost, the public school district, and then other national youth-serving charities with units in your area, to find out how they would handle this person. Would they allow him to be considered for children’s work (volunteer or paid)? If so, under what conditions? What restrictions would apply? And so on. I would never consider using such a person if none of the other charities that are contacted would do so, especially the public school district.

Institutional references from other charities where this person has worked with minors are essential, as is a national criminal file check, and a national sex offender check. Every other church in which he has worked with minors must be contacted and asked for a reference. The ultimate question in these cases is “do you know of any reason why this person would not be suitable for working with minors in any capacity?”

It is imperative to speak with a local attorney about this.

The church’s inclination to show mercy and be redemptive must be balanced against protecting the most innocent and vulnerable among us, remembering that Jesus’ harshest words were directed at those “who would cause one of these little ones who believes in me to stumble.”

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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