Key point 10-04.3. Churches can reduce the risk of liability based on negligent selection for the sexual molestation of minors by adopting risk management policies and procedures.
A New Jersey court affirmed a five-year prison sentence for a convicted child molester whose participation in a church’s youth ministry violated Megan’s Law.
A registered sex offender served in a church’s youth ministry
An adult male (the “defendant”) was sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting two teenagers. When he was released, he registered as a sex offender with his local law enforcement agency as required by Megan’s Law.
The defendant was an active member of a church and participated in its No Limits Youth Ministry (NLYM), whose mission was “to prepare students to be effective” at home and in school. Eventually, the defendant became involved in a variety of roles in the church, serving as a leader of the youth ministry and a member of the church’s executive board.
Church leaders knew the defendant had spent time in prison, but they were apparently unaware of the nature of his crimes.
New policy banned the defendant from the youth ministry
However, in 2005, after new board members were elected, the board reviewed a file that included the defendant’s criminal history, and certain board members became concerned about the defendant’s active role in the church’s youth ministry.
The board decided to adopt policies prohibiting the defendant from being involved with the church’s youth ministry and being alone with any of the youth members. The defendant was informed of the board’s decision and complied with the board’s policies from 2005 to 2008.
The pastor did not remove the defendant from the executive board because he did not believe there was any basis for doing so.
The church stopped enforcing the ban
Between 2008 and 2010, the church went through a leadership transition. During this time, the church had multiple pastors as well as new board members, and the board’s policies regarding the defendant’s involvement with the youth ministry and youth members were not enforced. The defendant again began to participate actively in the church’s youth ministry.
At that time, the youth ministry was reorganized to provide church members between the ages of 12 and 17 with spiritual education, social and recreational activities, as well as a community setting to foster personal and religious growth. NLYM organized weekly bible study meetings, social events, and recreational activities such as trips to movies, amusement parks, concerts, and overnight camp retreats.
The church’s youth director from 2006 to 2016 testified that, from 2009 to 2014, the defendant was a youth leader, chaperone, and mentor for the young participants in NLYM. He explained that, as a youth leader, the defendant was responsible for supervising the participants during weekly meetings and facilitating discussions and activities as a part of the ministry’s goal to inspire the participants’ faith.
In addition to their responsibilities at NLYM’s weekly meetings, youth leaders acted as chaperones on trips and offsite camp retreats. The youth director said that from 2008 to 2013, the defendant was a chaperone at the camp retreats. While chaperoning the camps, the defendant would sleep in the same quarters as the young male students.
The youth director specifically recalled the defendant’s participation in at least one NLYM camp in 2010. During the retreat, the defendant’s responsibilities included driving the participants to the camp, helping set up the campsites, leading activities and games, and facilitating group discussions.
In 2008, the church’s senior pastor requested that criminal background checks be performed for volunteers working in the youth ministry and, at a minimum, every two years thereafter. He testified that the background checks had been conducted regularly during the preceding four or five years.
Ruling: The defendant violated Megan’s Law
Based on the defendant’s involvement with NLYM, a grand jury charged him with participation in a “youth serving organization” in violation of Megan’s Law. A trial court agreed and sentenced him to five years in prison. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by a state appeals court. The court concluded that the defendant “knowingly participated” in a youth-serving organization prohibited for him by Megan’s Law.
What this means for churches
This case is important and instructive for church leaders because it points to risks related to the following four vulnerabilities.
Changes in church leadership
First, this case demonstrates the potential risk to church policies associated with a change in leadership. This can occur with a change in the senior pastor, youth and children’s pastors, board members, or youth and children’s volunteer leaders. Church leaders should recognize that policies are potentially imperiled through any change in leadership, and steps must be taken to be alert to such changes and to take corrective action.
Failing to consistently enforce an abuse prevention policy
Second, having a policy that is not consistently enforced exposes a church to potentially significant risk. This does not mean that a church should avoid policies. Rather, it means that appropriate policies should be adopted and steps taken to ensure compliance.
Unwise decisions exposing the church to possible liability
Third, the pastor in this case chose to leave the defendant as a member of the church’s executive board on the ground that his abuse of minors did not compromise his fitness for serving in this capacity. This was an unwise decision that exposed the church to possible liability for any future acts of abuse perpetrated either on the church premises or through a church-sponsored event or activity.
And, if the board acquiesced in the pastor’s decision, this may have exposed board members to personal liability for future cases of abuse by the defendant.
It is true that state and federal laws provide limited immunity to uncompensated officers and directors of churches and other charities. This means that they cannot be personally liable for their ordinary negligence. However, such laws contain some exceptions. For example, officers and directors may be personally liable for their gross negligence or their willful or wanton misconduct.
Failing to thoroughly vet youth staff and volunteers
Fourth, the defendant was sentenced to five years in prison because his extensive youth ministry activities violated the limitations placed on sex offenders by Megan’s Law.
A church should thoroughly vet any volunteer or employee for work in youth or children’s ministries, and this should include, among other precautions, a search of the sex offender registry (Megan’s Law).
An applicant who is a registered sex offender should not be considered for any children’s or youth ministry position in the church, and they should be advised of the potential criminal liability they face for pursuing such a position.
State v. S.B, 2021 WL 1625025 (N.J. Super 2021).