Wake-up Call on Sexual Abuse
Screening: Inland Protestant Churches and Other Religious Groups Tighten Hiring Policies

By Bettye Wells Miller
The Press-Enterprise [California]
January 14, 2004

The child sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that peaked more than a year ago has prompted some Protestant churches and other religious groups to adopt tougher policies for screening clergy and volunteers, including fingerprinting and criminal background checks.

Some of those changes are occurring at the behest of companies that insure houses of worship. In some cases, religious leaders acknowledge their trusting nature may leave them vulnerable to a problem that experts say crosses all religious, economic and social boundaries.

"What's happened in the Catholic Church has been a wake-up call to everybody involved in youth ministry to take whatever steps are necessary to shield yourself from allegations," said Scott Rae, professor of biblical studies and Christian ethics at Biola University, a Christian college in La Mirada. "It's made churches be a lot more careful whom they have involved with kids, and that's a good thing."

Inland congregations have not been immune from scandal. In the past three years, there have been a half dozen reported complaints of sexual abuse of children and teenagers by Protestant clergy or volunteers.

"Most people think it will never happen to them," Chapman Clark, associate professor of youth and family ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said by phone. "Most do not take it very seriously. The ethical and legal guidelines in the average church are so loose . . . that it is not on the radar screen unless they've been burned or someone near them has been. Most of the time when it happens it's a total shock. Most of the time it's someone who's well-known and trusted."

At the First Baptist Church of Yucaipa, business administrator Donna Walker said the church has started fingerprinting every staff member and every volunteer who works with children. Teachers and staff in the church's preschool and grade school already were fingerprinted to meet state requirements.

The church's insurance company, GuideOne, is requiring a written policy for the first time, she said.

Lance Kerwin, youth pastor at Calvary Chapel of Temecula Valley, said for the past decade his church has done background checks, called references and asked pointed questions. Only clergy who come from within the congregation or who are recommended by the parent church in Costa Mesa are hired.

Volunteers must be part of the congregation for a time before they are allowed to work with children, he said.

While no religious community is immune to sexual abuse, some Muslim practices, such as the prohibition against two people of opposite sexes being alone in a room, reduce the risks, said Hussam Ayloush, Southern California executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a member of a Corona mosque.

The changes are long overdue, said Michael Der Manouel Jr., president of Premier Church & School Insurance Services in Fresno.

"The sexual predator is being turned away from nonprofits," Der Manouel said by phone. "It is the church community that has responded last to the problem of child sexual abuse."

Insurance pressures

Some companies that insure religious groups say claims for sexual misconduct by clergy and volunteers have increased since the Catholic Church scandal gained national media attention in 2002. Of all claims filed with insurers for property damage and liability, sexual misconduct accounts for a tiny fraction - less than 1 percent - but can be among the most costly.

Companies have raised prices and, in some cases, required tougher screening of clergy, staff and volunteers, particularly those who have direct contact with children.

Der Manouel, who sells policies for GuideOne Insurance of Iowa, said his Fresno agency had "minimal" sexual-abuse claims among the 800 religious groups it insures until 2002. Now there are about a half dozen.

"To have that many going at once is unheard of for us," Der Manouel said.

Nationally, GuideOne, which insures about 50,000 congregations, reported 246 claims for sexual abuse of all kinds in 2002, up from 126 in 2001. Last year, the total was 175 out of about 100,000 total claims.

Church Mutual of Wisconsin insures about 88,000 houses of worship nationally, and handles about five new sexual-abuse claims a week, about the same number as two years ago, spokesman Rick Schaber said.

The company encourages, but does not require, its clients to check references, do criminal background checks and develop written policies. Last year, the company made available an online program for background checks.

Insurance representatives said people are more willing to file claims against religious groups than a decade ago. And the litigious climate in California increases the likelihood a suit will be filed.

"Juries are less tolerant of any organization that does not do due diligence," said Jeff Hanna, executive director of GuideOne Center for Risk Management. "Courts and juries say, of all people, churches should take more care of these children."

Changing times

The Southeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Riverside, recommends that volunteers be part of a congregation for at least six months before they work with children, said Audrey Johnson, director of the Family Ministry Department.

About 40 percent of area Adventist churches do background checks, she said.

Although fingerprinting has turned up a few church members with a history of molestation, background checks won't identify abusers who haven't been caught, Johnson said.

At a rabbinic conference in Palm Springs early this month, Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, a marketing and business law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, offered advice on screening volunteers and employees in Jewish congregations.

Clergy who think they can spot a sexual predator are usually mistaken, he said.

He recalled a former colleague he admired until several women alleged they had been sexually abused, Gross-Schaefer said.

"I thought I could tell a predator," he said. "It freaked me out."

"If you're not talking about this with your youth leaders," said Rae of Biola, "you're either na?ve or foolish."

Reach Bettye Wells Miller at (909) 368-9547 or


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.