Excerpted from a Baptist Standard article by Bob Smietana

About 10 years ago, when Pennsylvania passed a law requiring a background check for anyone who worked with children, Megan Benninger volunteered to help her church comply.

At the time, Benninger and her husband were members of a small Southern Baptist church, where the nursery was run by volunteers and things were a bit disorganized.

“Everything was loosey-goosey,” she said. “I don’t know if we even had a schedule for the nursery.”

Before they got started organizing the background checks, Benninger said a church leader pulled her aside and told her not to include the church’s pastors. None of them worked with kids. Besides, they were pastors and so above reproach.

“They said, ‘Don’t even think about the pastors,’” she said. “So I didn’t.”

Years later Benninger learned that one of the pastors, a former Christian school principal, had been convicted of abusing a minor—a revelation that tore their little church apart.

Since the Catholic sex abuse scandal of the early 2000s, many congregations have moved to make their churches safer for kids, passing new policies and procedures designed to screen out abusers and to report any abuse to authorities. But few denominations check to see if churches follow those procedures or track those who do.

Difficult to find hard data

A recent report on Southern Baptist churches from Lifeway Research found that about 58 percent of those congregations said they do background checks on staff who work with kids, with small congregations—those with fewer than 50 people—least likely (35 percent) to do those checks. Large churches, those with 250 people or more, are much more likely (94 percent).

The Lifeway data was limited—only 29 of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 41 state conventions collected data on abuse prevention in churches—and churches were not required to answer those questions.

Dealing with abuse has been difficult for the SBC, as all of its congregations are autonomous and there is no hierarchy to require them to follow safety policies for children.

But even denominations with hierarchical structures—like the Episcopal Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—don’t track what happens on the local level.

Instead, that is left to the local congregation or diocese.

Develop a culture that cares about children’s safety

Darrell Morgan, the pastor of CrossWinds Community Church in Stillwater, Minn., part of the Converge denomination, said his congregation background-checks all volunteers who work with kids. A church member who is a former investigator helps coordinate those background checks, he said.

Emily Garcia, assistant rector at Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington, Mass., has worked with children’s ministries about 15 years, starting before she entered the ministry. She said the local Episcopal diocese requires them to report details of its safe church programs on an annual basis.

Volunteers who work with children must pass a background check, Garcia said, and be an active part of the church for at least six months before starting the screening process.

Garcia said potential volunteers also spend time observing with experienced volunteers—and then the more experienced volunteers give their feedback—just to make sure they feel OK with how the volunteer interacted with kids. Volunteers also are required to do a series of trainings.

“The sense is that no one is above a background check,” she said.

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