“Strategies for Child Protection in Churches and Ecclesial Organizations”

“Strategies for Child Protection in Ecclesial Organizations”
(Notes from a presentation at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, Christopher Neiswonger JD, MA)

The old presumption in ecclesial Child Protection strategy was that “Protective Information” was sufficient and effective. Churches are shifting to a perspective of “Protective Practice” partially in response to the Clergy Abuse Scandal of the Roman Catholic Church. Protective practice protocols minimize the value of information and increase safety without dependence upon character or “trust” as the means of predicting future bad acts. Churches tend to be very poor at predicting child predation but very good at negating the opportunity for harm.

California law has a 7 year restriction on all criminal background checks in relation to employment.

The limitations of protective information have always been:

1) They rely on the presumption that if a person is dangerous they will have displayed that tendency through a past activity, have been caught, tried and convicted.
2) That the church has a means of finding the information about prior bad acts regardless of their time, place and conditions.
3) That a person will not always act consistently with past behavior.
4) That those that receive that information have the background and training to understand and act upon the threat in a meaningful way.

Sections of code relevant to the use of differing kinds of background information.

Notice the code in regard to the use of the sex offender list:

California CA Civil Code §47(c): Employer reference immunity
California CA Labor Code §432 and CA Code Regs. 2 §7287.4(d)(1): Inquiries into and use of applicant’s criminal history
California CA Labor Code §980: Requesting social media account information
California CA Labor Code §1024.5: Credit report use notice and right to copy
California CA Penal Code §290.4(d)(1): Use of sex offender list

“(2) Except as authorized under paragraph (1) or any other provision of law, use of any information that is disclosed pursuant to this section for purposes relating to any of the following is prohibited:
(C) Loans.
(D) Credit.
(E) Employment.
(F) Education, scholarships, or fellowships.
(G) Housing or accommodations.
(H) Benefits, privileges, or services provided by any business establishment.”


1. Churches have a very difficult time responding to not only criminal or harmful actions by employees, staff and clergy but perhaps an even more difficult time acting to avoid dangers before they occur.

Churches are not designed or organized with child protection or law enforcement in mind as a legitimate concern.

2. Churches have been called to act in regard to their special status. They are not a “state”, a “business” or a “family”. Their special status as places of grace and forgiveness are not well suited to being shouldered with legitimate child protection concerns. There is a natural aversion to addressing issues of danger or social discomfort.

Churches teach theology, administrate the sacraments and provide material care for the community. They have no intrinsic child protection strategy other than a general desire for the well-being of children. They generally need to be convinced that attending to the protection of children while those children are in their care is a moral and legal duty.

3. Because of changes in society, the church and the culture the only more dangerous places for children might be in the public schools, cohabitation of an unrelated adult male with a minor female, and dangers from other children in foster care, orphanages or juvenile incarceration.

This is a relatively new issue for the church and lightly understood. Prior, children spent very little time at churches or church functions and churches were not perceived to be central to the social life of the community (youth groups, youth events, Sunday school and church family events are of recent invention). Churches had no caregiving function in regard to children and these matters were almost completely relegated to the family, law enforcement and the community. With the breakdown of these traditional institutions the responsibilities of care fall upon other institutions like the school and the church.

Thus the role of children in the church was minimal and the risk relative to the role.

There are Three things we don’t want people to do children: Touch, Tell or Traffic:

(Prohibitions that greatly reduce the opportunity for abuse)

1. A prohibition against any adult being within a confined space with a child without another responsible adult present. No adult and a child not related by blood, law or marriage shall be in a closed room, car, or other space without a third party present in regard to their service to the church.
2. A prohibition of confidential, secret, or private communications of any kind between an adult and a child within the scope of their work in or for the church. A parent or responsible third party must be included in all such communications by writing, phone, text, email, voicemail messages or any other kind of communication.
3. An adult or minor staff member volunteer or employee, including the clergy or any officer of the church shall not touch a child on any part of their body commonly considered “private” or open to sexualization including but not limited too, the mouth, buttocks, breasts, genitals, other areas considered personal or sensitive or to have the child touch them in any such way.
4. A prohibition against any volunteer, member of the church, staff, clergy or officer to use their position, influence, bribes, threats, violence, force or threat of force to gain sexual contact of any kind.

A draft of volunteer, staff, clergy or employment questions prior to qualification for ministry or hiring:

(This kind of list should be taken as subject to the particular temperament and culture of the given church, and revised accordingly. Not everything works within the context of every church.)

1. I have never been charged with a crime in regard to the safety or well being of children.

2. I have never as an adult desired or acted upon a desire to sexually contact a child

3. I have never molested a child.

4. I am not currently nor have I ever been a registered sex offender.

5. I am not currently under any state or court mandated supervision in regard to a sexual offense.

6. I shall not have any private contact or communications (including private conversations, texts, messages, notes, phone calls, or any other mode of communications) with a child without their parent or legal guardian’s immediate permission within the context of my role in the church.

7. I have not nor shall I have physical contact with any part of a child’s anatomy considered sensitive or “private” including but not limited too the buttocks, breasts and genitals.

8. If I know or have good reason to believe that an illegal or immoral relationship exists between a child and any adult member, visitor or child care worker at (church) I will report this information immediately to a member of the Session and whatever other authorities I might have a legal or moral obligation to contact (including law enforcement and Child Protective Services).

9. I do not have knowledge of any illicit, illegal or immoral contact between an adult and a child that has occurred at or in relation to (Church).

10. I do not use, own, intend to use, create or to distribute child pornography or pornographic materials.

11. Because as a staff member, volunteer, helper, officer or employee of the church I in a lesser sense “represent” the Church to others I shall make every effort to increase the honor and respect due the Church (and (church) as an individual instance of the visible church). I will be careful in regard to public or private statements, social media, communications or activities that would be discouraging to the faith or practice of children. I will make every effort to present my life to them as a Christian life free from doubt, moral or spiritual confusion. I shall not speak or communicate with them in worldly or profane ways that are inappropriate but as salt and light building them up in love, faith and goodness.

12. I shall be personally chaste or faithful within the context of marriage (as one’s calling demands) as an example of Christ to those that observe my faith and life.

C. Neiswonger © 2015

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