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  Churches Wrestle with Sex Abuse Checking an Employee's Background Is One Way a Church Can Protect Itself - and Its Flock - from Sex Offenders

By Karla Scoon
The News-Sentinel
November 22, 1993

Faith alone won't protect local churches from the onslaught of child sex abuse scandals tarnishing the reputations of churches nationwide, a representative of a local insurance company that insures thousands of churches says.

Al Davidson, vice president of claims for the Fort Wayne-based Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co., said churches are vulnerable targets for lawsuits that allege negligent hiring, supervision or retention of a person who is accused of child molestation. "Churches are refusing to do anything about (child sex abuse)," he said. "They won't suspect or confront anyone."

Davidson said Brotherhood Mutual, which specializes in insuring 21,000 churches in 21 states including 120 in Allen County, currently has 50 claims pending concerning sexually deviant behavior. Ten years ago, he said the company had no claims in dispute.

One claim is pending in the Fort Wayne area, but Davidson would not reveal the case's details.

Richard R. Hammar, a Springfield, Mo., lawyer who specializes in legal issues that affect churches, said 1 percent of the 350,000 respondents to a survey he conducted for the Church Law and Tax Report said they had lawsuits filed against them in connection with the sexually deviant behavior of an employee or volunteer.

Over a nine-year period, about 35,000 lawsuits were filed, with an average of 3,000 to 4,000 claims filed yearly, he said.

Hammar said the church's trusting atmosphere provides an ideal environment for sex offenders because few church leaders will scrutinize or supervise their workers.

"Typically a stammering, faltering, average 13-year-old makes a claim against a respected member of the church. . . . They can't believe it," Hammar said.

But Hammar said his survey's numbers may not reflect the total number of lawsuits that are being filed. Many cases are settled out of court and behind closed doors, he said.

The average settlement is $1.1 million, he said, and for larger churches with congregations of 750 people or more, the settlements can climb higher.

Those "astronomical" settlements and media coverage of sexually deviant behavior of church employees and volunteers have contributed to the rise in lawsuits, Hammar said.

Child sex offenders are migrating to churches because other organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Boy Scouts of America have strengthened their employee and volunteer selection. Only 20 percent of churches conduct background checks, he said.

"We have that concept that when we walk into a church, that this is a safe place," Hammar said.

While painting a profile of a sex offender is difficult, Hammar said most are men. They are evenly dispersed between members of the clergy and volunteers of all denominations.

In the book "Lead Us Not into Temptation" by James Berry, the author documents about 400 cases of child sexual abuse by priests, which he said have cost the Catholic Church about $400 million to settle.

As a precautionary measure, Davidson of Brotherhood Mutual recommends all churches have liability insurance to cover illicit sexual behavior. Written proof that reasonable care was used when selecting a worker can often be the difference between a million-dollar settlement and the case being thrown out of court, he said.

In one case, Davidson said, a youth minister left a particular church when accusations surfaced that he was molesting young men. The same youth minister later began working at a church 30 miles away and molested three children there, he said.

"You can't hold a church's feet to the fire if they have at least attempted (to check references)," Davidson said.

Meanwhile, Hammar believes some churches are taking the risk of child sexual abuse seriously. Hammar conducts many educational child sexual abuse workshops for churches and is one of the authors of "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church."

He said requests for a child sexual abuse resource kit, which includes an audio tape and video tape from Christian Ministry Resources, are increasing.

"I think the word is getting out slowly and surely," Hammar said.

In the past, church leaders did not think about the possibility of child sexual abuse affecting them, said the Rev. Ternae Jordan, , pastor of the Greater Progressive Baptist Church, 2215 John St.

Jordan, who also founded Stop the Madness, programs aimed at halting violent behavior in youths, credits the media with bringing the issue of child sexual abuse to church leaders' attention. All people have shortcomings, he said, including those associated with the church.

"Until we change the concept that everybody in church is perfect, we'll still continue to be blind," Jordan said.

"You can have insurance, but there are no assurances."

The Rev. Vernon Graham, executive pastor of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, said people who have been convicted of a drug offense, child molesting or spousal abuse probably would not be hired by member churches.

But he stressed they must be rehabilitated through counseling and medical care. If people have repented, Graham said, they should be forgiven.

Hammar said permitting someone who has adopted religion but who was suspected or convicted of child molestation in the past to work with children puts the church in a dangerous position. He strongly advises the accused be assigned to work in other capacities.

"Church leaders oftentimes are basing these (hiring) decisions on Biblical concepts (of) grace and mercy," Hammar said.

Christine Bonahoom , spokeswoman for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said all job applicants are screened and their references are checked.

Graham said he encourages screening; Associated Churches has a personnel committee that checks the backgrounds of prospective employees for the agency. Jordan said all church employees are screened and that he is considering checking criminal backgrounds of volunteers who serve as mentors for the Stop the Madness program.

The Rev. James Cotter, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 3425 Crescent Ave., said his church carries malpractice insurance in the event a lawsuit is filed. He also said every church activity is supervised by adults.

"The way to prevent (child sexual abuse) is to make sure we live up to our Christian ethos and belief," Cotter said. "Satan works harder in the church because that's where God's people are."

ABUSE PREVENTION

Steps to prevent child sexual abuse in the church.

1. The six-month rule. Wait six months before allowing a volunteer to work with children. Sex offenders usually don't wait a long period of time to gain access to children.

2. Screen all employees and volunteers. Check prior church membership and volunteer work as well as references.

3. Educate workers. Staff should be able to identify inappropriate behavior by workers.

4. Supervise workers. Any church-sponsored activity involving children should have at least two adults supervising, more if the group is larger.

Source: Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company

Help for the abused

Survivors Network of those Abuse by Priest, based in Chicago. Call 1-312-483-1059.

ALLEGED ABUSES

Locally, an ex-priest and a former church volunteer have been accused of molesting a child.

* David H. Elliot, a former occasional volunteer and van driver for the Love Church, 505 E. Washington Blvd., was charged March 30 with child molesting and criminal confinement. He is accused of molesting an 8-year-old Fort Wayne boy on March 12. The boy's parents told police they gave permission for their son to spend the night at Elliot's home in the 1800 block of South Harrison St., because he was a church van driver. A representative for the church said the church is not facing a civil lawsuit because the act did not occur on church property or during a church activity. The trial date has been set for Jan. 25 or 26.

* James Blume, a former local priest; William McManus, as president of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend; and the diocese were sued for alleged sexual relations Blume had with a boy during a three-year period. The lawsuit alleged Blume coerced a 14-year-old boy into performing non-consensual sexual acts from 1982 to 1985. Charges included negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, clergy malpractice, negligent hiring and supervision, breach of contract and invasion of right to privacy. The case was dismissed with prejudice in November of 1992, meaning the case cannot be refiled. Jack Morris, the victim's attorney, said the matter was resolved but would not comment on whether a settlement was made in the case. The diocese will not comment on any litigation before, during or after a case, said Christine Bonahoom, diocese spokeswoman.

 
 

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