Most U.S. churches require backgrounds checks on clergy, but few screen volunteers.

Seventy-two percent of churches require written applications from prospective staffers, and 26 percent of churches screen volunteers, according to a trend-tracking survey conducted by Christian Ministry Resources, the largest provider of legal, tax and risk management resources to churches.

“We have found clergy are less likely to molest children than those who volunteer from the congregation to work in children and youth programs,” said James F. Cobble Jr., founder and executive director of CMR.

CMR’s most startling finds are the large numbers of children molesting children at church. “About 20 to 30 percent of the sex abuse allegations are children molesting children,” Cobble said.

This usually means that a teenager under 18 is sexually abusing a younger teen or child. In such cases, Cobble said the church is negligent in supervising children’s programs.

Because so many of these cases are easily prevented, Jeff Hanna, executive director of the GuideOne Center for Risk Management, said church negligence on this issue is “ludicrous and irresponsible.”

“How dare we betray the trust that parents put in us at church and allow such inexcusable, criminal acts against our precious children,” Hanna said.

Hanna—an ordained Methodist minister, former undercover law enforcement officer and author on church risk management issues—was hired by GuideOne Insurance Company in Des Moines, Iowa, a national property and casualty coverage provider, to operate its Center for Risk Management. The center provides current information and educational resources to churches.

Hanna said child sex abuse incidents surfaced in the mid-1980s and rose until the early 1990s.  In 1992, denominational agencies were named as liable parties with churches in multi-million dollar lawsuits. Allegations declined when denominational leaders began urging churches to screen everyone who worked with children and youth.

Cobble agreed that allegations have declined over the past decade. CMR survey results show that about 70 child sex abuse allegations are made every week against churches. Other cases go unreported.

While most U.S. churches have fewer than 100 members, Cobble said these small churches, especially in rural areas, do not report as many allegations as those in urban and suburban churches.

“In 1999, we surveyed 1,117 churches,” Cobble said. “One percent said they had allegations made against them the previous year. Of those churches with memberships over 1,000, four percent said they had allegations of sexual misconduct with a child, but allegations were filed against one percent of the churches with memberships under 250.”

Hanna said large churches tend to receive the most media attention, but that does not negate abuse in small churches. He said people are reluctant to report sex crimes for fear of being chastised by the community or because they are too embarrassed.

“Pedophilia cuts across the gamut and it is a major issue nationwide,” Hanna said. “I have files full of incidents and they are happening across the board. I have discovered that sexual predators don’t discriminate. They will hit anywhere they can molest a child. Big city or little town. Large churches and small churches. It doesn’t matter to them.”

Cobble agreed: “Sexual predators will target places where they can have immediate access to children with the least amount of interference.”

Hanna said churches provide the perfect environment for sexual predators because so many children are available and the people are trusting.

Churches need to consider how neighboring organizations are preventing child sex abuse. Hanna said churches that do not screen paid staff and volunteers are particularly vulnerable if the local schools, YMCA and other organizations are screening.

Screening is the frontline defense.

“The company we recommend for conducting background checks says that for every 100 people they investigate, at least three have something in their background that would prevent them from working with children and young people,” Hanna said.

He cited four initial steps churches must take to protect their children:

  1. Require every employee to complete an application, complete with references.
  2. Ask every volunteer to complete a screening form and provide three references. Conduct reference checks. Hanna recommended that volunteers be church members for six months before working with children. Sexual predators want quick access and are likely to go elsewhere if they have to wait.
  3. Establish policies and procedures, and then follow them.
  4. Train and educate staff and volunteers.

“In light of what has happened in the last two months with respect to the Roman Catholic Church, no church can survive a jury trial on this issue,” Cobble said. “The public has made it very clear there will be no tolerance on this issue.”

Nor should there be. A single incident can destroy a church and—even more tragically—the life of an innocent child.

Ray Furr is a freelance writer and operates his own communications / marketing business in Poquoson, Va.

Jeff Hanna is available to consult with churches on risk management. Materials and resources are available to all churches by phone or through the GuideOne Center for Risk Management Web site (

Resources are also available from Christian Ministry Resources by calling (704) 821-3845.

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