Churches work to halt child sex abuse

Stung by scandals of child sexual abuse, churches are taking greater steps to become a secure place for youths.

"Churches are supposed to be safe and trustworthy," said Sally Ulrey, a trainer for Safeguarding God's Children. "When I train adults, they're surprised that this is so common. When they were younger, of course it happened, it just wasn't talked about.

Ulrey, whose training sessions are required for all adults who work with children by the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, recently held a session for about a dozen or so members of St. Edward's Episcopal Church in Lawrenceville that involved videos detailing stories about sexual abuse of youths by pastors and volunteers. They then discussed ways to stop it from happening again — perhaps in their own churches.

Child sexual abuse is hardly a problem solely in churches, but churches are trying to do what they can to halt the problem. In addition to requiring training like that conducted by Ulrey, they are conducting background checks on clergy, staffers and volunteers. Others are adding security cameras, setting child-to-adult ratios, limiting where outside events are held, and making structural modifications such as adding glass in doors so people can see inside. Such actions are often required by insurance companies that can provide up to $1 million in coverage to churches.

"One thing I've found so surprising is that some churches don't have training, they don't have policies and they don't have ratios of adults to children," said Ulrey, who also is a member and staffer at St. Mathews Episcopal Church in Snellville. "It's sort of a liability waiting to happen, which is really scary to me."

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Others do, though. The Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, for instance, has conducted background checks on volunteers and staffers since 2003, and it has held prevention training workshops since the 1990s.

In Georgia, such efforts will be aided by revisions to a state law that make its mandatory for employees and volunteers at any nonprofit, agency, business or group that works with children, including churches, to report suspected cases of child abuse, including neglect, beatings and sexual molestation, or face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

For many years, focus has been on the Catholic Church, which was rocked by a widespread priest abuse scandal. The church came under fire for practices that moved offending priests from church to church, often without informing parishioners, police and prosecutors.

In reality, such abuse happens in other denominations as well, experts say.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, commonly known as SNAP, said the 12,000-member organization has received calls from Buddhists, Presbyterians and Baptists — "virtually every denomination you can name."

"It's more widespread that anyone wants to believe," he said. "I think, in part, that predators gravitate toward jobs with access to kids and where they have power over kids. The church certainly qualifies."

As Ulrey pointed out, trust and safety are characteristics people associate with churches. But Clohessy said they can be a potential area of danger to children because some child predators can appear to have the skills of many clergy members, including "being well-spoken, charming, outgoing, popular and charismatic."

The scope of the problem of sexual abuse is hard to determine because many victims never come forward, or if they do, it may be years later.

More may come forward, though, with the news coverage of high-profile cases such as that of Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach at Penn State University who was recently convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse.

It's not just national headlines, either.

Earlier this year, for example, the parents of two young boys sued a Kennesaw church, alleging that a youth minister had molested their sons.

The lawsuits accuse the church of being negligent for allowing a man "with dangerous propensities around young boys" to volunteer with children.

A spokesman for the church said it does does background checks on all volunteers working with children.

Those cases don't surprise Susan, a 49-year-old Atlanta resident who was raised a Southern Baptist and grew up believing that "the pastor is next to God." At 15, Susan, who asked that her last name not be used, said she was lured into a sexual relationship with an associate pastor whom she had turned to for counseling.

The situation lasted about a year and ended when she confided in another adult at the church. When the senior pastor heard about Susan's allegations, he asked whether they were true and told her to stay quiet. "He said I was young enough to just forget about it and let it go," she said.

Susan left the Baptist Church and spent years in therapy.

"I'm very distrustful of the church now. ... I don't trust ministers. I don't look at them the way I used to," she said.

Mitzi Thomas, a spokeswoman for Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co., said that now "churches are much more aware of what they need to do to prevent child abuse."

"We don't get pushback anymore from churches that say, 'Why do we need to have this? This doesn't happen here,' " Thomas said. "Now, it's 'What should we do?' "

Brotherhood Mutual provides sexual misconduct coverage for ministries with limits ranging from $50,000 to $1 million.

Matt Carlucci, an associate agency owner with Brightway Insurance Agency in Jacksonville, said such coverage is a growing business.

"Whenever I meet with a church I talk to them about that coverage upfront," he said, "and I've never had a church tell me they don't want it."

Providing background checks for churches is another growing industry. But even with a thorough background check, which might range from $16 to $50, some people can slip through the net.

Churches may seek other firms and opt for the cheapest background checks available, which may miss critical information, said Mike McCarty, the CEO of Indianapolis-based Safe Hiring Solutions. The churches may lack the resources to do background checks on every staffer and volunteer, he said.

"A church may focus on their staff of 10 people, but they have a volunteer base of 200," he said. "They'll say, 'Wow, that's a lot of money.' "

McCarty, who has seen a significant increase in faith-based clients in the past 18 months, said there are other issues in gathering information. Some states may not update their information in a timely manner, others might have incomplete data or information that is not immediately available online.

Safe Hiring Solutions has uncovered cases of clergy, staffers and volunteers with convictions of sexual assault and rape, McCarty said. One person tried to change his name. When staffers ran the search, he came up clean, but they grew suspicious. A further search turned up 21 convictions for voyeurism.

"The sad part is he probably moved on down the street to another church," McCarty said. "We've seen it all."

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