Protecting Your Church in Case of Allegations of Abuse

Around a year ago, attorney Richard J. Mathews shared lessons he learned from advising the

Around a year ago, attorney Richard J. Mathews shared lessons he learned from advising the Boy Scouts of America during the organization’s child sexual abuse crisis. We recently interviewed him regarding what churches should know about insurance coverage for abuse.

What keeps churches from purchasing insurance coverage for child sexual abuse?

I think they don’t recognize the danger and how widespread the problem is. We all think it’s never going to happen to us. Church leaders don’t understand that oftentimes sexual offenders are specifically attracted to churches because churches offer what sexual offenders refer to as “cheap grace”—because churches are accepting and trusting of others. I mean, that’s generally what the ministry of a church is, to accept all people and to look on the best side and believe that nobody is beyond redemption. It’s against the church’s “nature” to be suspicious of others.

How many times have we heard, “Well gee, Uncle Joe was a good guy, and I never thought he would do that”? Churches have this tendency to believe that the problem of abuse is caused by “stranger danger”—the dirty old man in the raincoat sitting on the park bench … or the guy driving by saying, “Hey, you want a ride or candy?”

We haven’t done a good job teaching people that most abuse takes place with the victim knowing the abuser. And typically, there’s a trusted, strong relationship between the perpetrator and the child.

Why is insurance coverage for sexual abuse so important?

There’s a cost of defense. Just defending one of these lawsuits, let alone the damages that are awarded, can easily be a million dollars. So even if a church is vindicated by a finding that they did nothing wrong, those kinds of costs will bankrupt a church.

Do insurance companies offer a discount to churches that prove they have a solid child sexual abuse prevention program?

What I can tell you is this, and I see it in all areas, not just sexual abuse: insurance companies are becoming more engaged and reviewing policies and procedures and wanting to know what’s going on. From that perspective, failure to have those processes in places is likely to result in significantly higher premiums or could even be denied coverage automatically. I believe a church being vigilant and having processes in place to reduce the risk is going to positively influence costs.

Besides the immeasurable damage to victims and the potential liability to congregations, how can allegations of abuse and lawsuits hurt a church?

The brand, goodwill, and reputation of the church can also be hurt, and that can negatively affect long-term giving. Maybe your church can afford to write a check for $500,000 for legal fees, but if you go through lengthy litigation on one of these claims, and especially if it gets a lot of media attention, then people may start separating themselves from the church. They may stop giving to the church, saying, “Oh, this money is just going to pay legal fees.”… So the damage a church sustains from such claims can be significantly greater than just writing the check, and that’s where having insurance coverage and the guidance of experienced professionals to help you through it is really helpful.

On the other hand, sometimes insurance companies will look at the lawsuit from a pure “dollars-and-cents” perspective, and they may want to settle the case. It may be a situation where you say the case has no merit whatsoever, but settling it could damage the reputation of the church. It’s very tricky. One size does not fit all.

Anything else you’d like to tell churches about this?

The most important thing is vigilance. You know you have to protect your congregation and your church; insurance is one layer of protection, but it obviously shouldn’t be viewed as the only layer.

For additional insights from Mathews and other experts on insurance coverage for sexual abuse, see “The High Costs of an Abuse Claim.” To help protect children and youth in your church, also see Reducing the Risk: A Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Program featuring attorney Richard R. Hammar.

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