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How Religious Organizations Can Fight Sexual Abuse with More Thorough Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 10/8/2019

Two decades have elapsed since the Boston Globe exposed the widespread problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Since then, many churches and religious organizations have taken significant steps to protect their congregations from predators and other bad actors. However, according to Jennie Morris of LifeWay Christian Resources, there is still a long road left to travel to create a genuinely safe church environment for all. 

LifeWay is a Nashville-based organization that supplies bibles, hymnals, educational materials, and other resources to thousands of churches nationwide. LifeWay offers the OneSource program, which connects churches and organizations to discounted services for background checks. The checks, which are conducted by background check provider backgroundchecks.com, enable churches to learn more about employees and volunteers from pastors to janitors to Sunday School teachers. 

The good news, Morris says, is that a lot of the churches LifeWay serves are eager to adopt these background check solutions. Since 2009 when LifeWay first partnered with backgroundchecks.com, LifeWay has helped conduct more than 320,000 background checks for 16,000 churches. Each year, another 1,500 to 2,000 new churches join the list. [If they have updated internal numbers, we can plug those in. These are the same as the ones in the January article.]  

“More and more religious organizations are starting to see background checks as an essential thing,” Morris said. “That’s a very positive trend.” 

The bad news is that predators are still slipping through the cracks. According to a report conducted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Church received more than a thousand new “credible allegations” of priests sexually abusing minors between June 2017 and June 2018. In the same 12 months, the Catholic Church spent more than $301 million on sexual-abuse-related expenses, most of it on legal settlements. 

These numbers show that cases involving sexual predators working in church environments are not a thing of the past. One recent example occurred in Sarasota County, Florida this past July when police apprehended 66-year-old Charles Andrews, who served as a pastor at the local Osprey Church of Christ. Andrews was a registered sex offender in both Florida and Alabama based on a 2006 conviction for second-degree sexual abuse. When police arrested Andrews this year, they charged him with 500 counts of child pornography possession and three counts of violating sex offender requirements. 

Morris says that such situations continue to arise as churches fail to complete their due diligence. “Some churches still aren’t doing background checks,” she said. “Others are maybe relying on one type of check but aren’t looking at all of the different facets of a person’s history. Maybe they’re running a criminal history check but not searching sex offender registries, or maybe it’s the other way around. Not being thorough enough risks missing key red flags.” 

The background check that LifeWay offers to churches and religious organizations through the OneSource program is the US OneSEARCH check from backgroundchecks.com. That service includes a search of a proprietary database that contains more than 650 million criminal conviction records and spans offender registry data from all 50 states plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and Washington, D.C. 

Morris says that the check is a good foundation for any religious organization looking to establish a system for vetting its employees and volunteers. However, she also recommends that churches dig even deeper, supplementing OneSource with additional background checks. 

“For the churches that approach LifeWay looking for background check services, I’ve been recommending that they consult with backgroundchecks.com to see which types of screenings are best for their organization. The OneSEARCH database search is wonderful because it spans so much data. But it’s also important to recognize that any background check database isn’t going to be updated daily. The most up-to-date criminal history information will be found by going to source—where those records are filed in the first place. In most cases, that means running county criminal history checks in the area where your church is based.” 

Morris adds that backgroundchecks.com offers background check services in areas that don’t pertain to criminal history but might still be relevant for some or all church jobs or volunteer roles. Examples include driving history checks, credit history checks, verification checks for education and employment history, reference checks, address history searches, and ongoing criminal monitoring. 

Thorough, multi-faceted background checks could be the key to helping churches and religious organizations close the loopholes that have enabled predators to keep finding positions of power. Morris says that county criminal history searches in areas where Sarasota offender Andrews had lived previously likely would have found his past crimes. Using multiple types of checks reduces the risk of an overlooked red flag. 

“What I advise is treating background checks as what they are, which is a form of security,” Morris said. “In the security industry, there’s a big focus on redundancy, because if one protective system fails, another one is there to serve as a safeguard. By incorporating multiple different types of background searches into their policies for employee and volunteer vetting, religious organizations can minimize the likelihood of someone dangerous slipping through the cracks.” 

LifeWay customers can save up to 58 percent on background screenings, including the backgroundchecks.com US OneSEARCH. To learn more, visit LifeWay.com/backgroundchecks or call (800) 464-2799.

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