Evaluating Allegations of Child Abuse

A recent case will be of use to churches.

Church Law and Tax 1997-09-01

Child Abuse

Key point. In evaluating whether an allegation of child abuse is legitimate, church leaders can benefit from the approach taken by the civil courts in criminal cases.

A Georgia court upheld the conviction of a man for child abuse, and its decision will be useful to church leaders in evaluating allegations of child abuse. Church leaders occasionally are confronted with an allegation of child abuse. For example, a parent claims that a youth worker molested her minor child. The alleged offender often denies any wrongdoing, and this places church leaders in a difficult position of having to determine the truthfulness of the accusation. The civil courts wrestle with the same issue in criminal cases involving the guilt or innocence of persons accused of child abuse. A recent case provides some helpful guidance. A 7—year—old girl alleged that a man molested her. The man was prosecuted for criminal child abuse, and he insisted at trial that he was innocent and that the girl had “made up” the allegations. A trial court convicted the man, and a state appeals court upheld this verdict. The court concluded that the girl’s testimony was reliable on the basis of the following ten factors:

(1) the conditions under which the statement was made; (2) the statement’s spontaneity; (3) the age of the child; (4) the child’s demeanor; (5) the child’s physical and mental condition; (6) the presence or absence of any threats or promises of benefit; (7) any involvement of drugs or alcohol; (8) the child’s general credibility; (9) the presence or absence of any coaching by parents or others either before or during the giving of the statement; and (10) the consistency between repeated out—of—court statements.

Application. The court’s checklist of factors to consider in evaluating the reliability of a child’s accusations or molestation will be helpful to church leaders in responding to such accusations. Of course, if there is reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abused, then in many states a pastor or other church leader who learns of the allegation will be under a legal duty to report it to civil authorities. Heard v. State, 471 S.E.2d 22 (Ga. App. 1996). [Failure to Report Child Abuse]

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