When planning Vacation Bible School activities, Nicole Carmines decided it wasn’t enough to require background checks on volunteers and to inspect photo IDs at child pickup time.
So she decided to hire two uniformed police officers to stay on church premises for the entire week. Excessive? Carmines doesn’t think so.
“We constantly hear comments about extra measures that we go through,” said Carmines, Vacation Bible School director at Concordia Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas. She says parents are grateful for the precautions — which include everything from ID tags to a walkie-talkie network. Seven years ago, 650 elementary school-aged students signed up for Concordia’s Vacation Bible School. VBS enrollment this June broke the 1,300 mark, and she believes the staff’s diligent security is one of the biggest reasons.
In light of well-publicized sexual abuse scandals at churches, background checks aren’t just for paid staff anymore — they’re virtually standard fare for any children’s ministry worker. Likely, that’s because child abuse allegations surface at the rate of 70 per week in America’s churches, according to national surveys conducted from 1993-2002 by Christian Ministry Resources, a tax and legal advice publisher.
VBS programs pose an acute set of security challenges for churches, especially since they attract throngs of unfamiliar children and a small army of volunteers.
“One of the problems is we need a lot more (children’s) workers than we do on Sunday,” said Jerry Wooley, VBS ministry specialist at Lifeway Christian Resources, which provides VBS curriculum to most of the Southern Baptist Convention’s more than 42,000 churches and many outside the denomination. “Sometimes we become desperate for workers and take them even if we don’t know who they are.”
Lifeway has long used printed “leader guides” to coach teachers on child safety.
The company added a new item this year — ID wristbands.
Wooley says it’s just one more way to ensure that at the end of the day, kids end up in the arms of parents, not predators.
“Unfortunately, pedophiles hang out in churches,” said Richard Odom, pastor of First Baptist Church in Summerfield, N.C. With a background in law enforcement, Odom is adamant that his church screen all VBS volunteers, from teachers to “the kitchen helpers preparing Kool-Aid.”
“Pedophiles think twice about a church that takes a step (to perform checks),” he said.
Research from Christian Ministry Resources suggests that most abuse in churches involves volunteers, not staff. Abusers typically seek to build a relationship of trust before preying on their victims, and a week-long VBS doesn’t provide enough “alone time” for most criminals.
Still, a careless church has a lot to lose. Even if an incident does not occur, a child abuse accusation can be just as destructive.
“It can be devastating for the church and the accused,” said attorney Charlotte Cover, a member of the Christian Law Association, which offers free legal counsel to churches. Even if they are false, she said, accusations can be a tool of manipulation.
“Some of the kids are pretty street-wise and know if they get mad at a worker, if they allege abuse … (the worker) will get in trouble.”
That’s why the Christian Law Association is encouraging churches not only to be above reproach, but to have documents to prove they’re above reproach. Keeping detailed attendance records comes in handy when an accusation arises. In one case, Cover recalled, an individual claimed a church worker committed misconduct on a specific date. Since the church kept detailed attendance records, it proved the accuser wasn’t even at church on the alleged date. The charges were dropped, Cover said.
“Taking measures does work,” she said. “It’s not 100 percent foolproof. But courts require due diligence.”
The Christian Law Association (www.christianlaw.org/articles/protecting_vbs.html) encourages workers to avoid any situation that might suggest compromise. If a male worker is involved with children, the association advises, the worker should always be in the company of another adult and avoid hugging a child or letting them sit on their lap.
There are down sides to such policies. Rules like these bar the kind of affection that a fatherless child might need, said Christian Law Association attorney Barbara Weller. And the cost of background checks — especially when volunteers are checked annually — can add up.
But, Weller said, “Churches really want to protect children.” And many “are in the vanguard of enacting and enforcing policies that protect children from abuse.”
Pastor Odom is one of them.
“Personally, as a pastor and a father I would hate to sit in someone’s living room and explain that harm came to one of their children,” Odom said, “and that we did not do everything humanly possible to prevent it.”