Can Background Checks Foster Safer Environments in Churches?

Some places are meant to be sanctuaries of safety — places where the risk of encountering problems should be as low as possible. Schools are obvious institutions where the safety of those in attendance must be of paramount importance. Religious organizations fall under this umbrella, too. From churches to private schools to youth groups and beyond, safety for those in attendance should be front and center.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. We’ve seen headlines revealing terrible crimes against the vulnerable in religious institutions for many years. As a result, there is a keen interest in putting up as many barriers as possible to prevent potential bad actors from gaining access to those they might harm, such as children under supervision.

The criminal background check has been held up as one of the ways that such organizations can work to foster a safer environment. Just as with any other job, religiously-affiliated bodies should ensure that those they hire — even on a volunteer basis — don’t have any serious red flags in their past. Adding a background check to onboarding a new member of the clergy or even a parental volunteer can provide a critical check against possibly unsafe hires. 

However, criminal checks are no silver bullet. It is essential to consider that background checks aren’t a predictive tool — you can’t draw firm conclusions about an individual’s behavior in the future based solely on what shows up on a background check. While that can be a good reason to consider some applicants with minor records, it rings even truer when applied to a seemingly-clear background check. A report that comes back clean and free of any black marks is not, contrary to popular belief, an automatic indicator of safety or suitability.

In some cases, an individual might have old criminal records under seal, or they may have been expunged. Someone with a clear background check can still commit a crime in the future. There is no shortage of stories where someone without a prior record commits crimes of abuse once in a position of power or authority.

Training to reinforce the importance of these rules and why they are in place should be on the to-do list. Merely creating background check requirements for a religious organization alone is not enough. Consider a case in Missoula, Montana, where both a principal and an athletic director working for the Catholic school system were placed on administrative leave for policy failures. The diocese said that the administrators did not conduct a mandatory background check when hiring a coach, nor did they ensure the coach underwent diocese-mandated child safety training.

For these reasons, background checks and ongoing monitoring are the first line of defense, but they should not be the only measures churches and other religious groups take. Organizational guardrails, reporting requirements, and thorough training are essential, too. Rules that aid in preventing the development of situations where abuse or mistreatment can occur have a key role to play.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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