Punitive damages awarded in church child abuse case – this verdict is indeed stunning! According to news reports, in this June 15th decision, the jury found that the elders in the local congregation followed a denominational policy that prohibited them from sharing information about known sex offenders with the rest of the congregation with the result that a child was grievously harmed by a member of the congregation. United Methodist congregations have been working, since at least 1996, to prevent child abuse in their ministries. Our Safe Sanctuaries policies and our Book of Discipline provide guidance for congregations so that children, youth, and vulnerable adults can be protected from abuse. Through the use of comprehensive criminal background screening for staff and volunteers as well as protocols for assigning “shepherds” or “colleagues” to any member who is a known sex offender and restricting the acceptable participation of known offenders, United Methodist churches may diligently work to reduce the risk of harm.
Cases such as this newest Jehovah’s Witness one should serve as clarion calls to all congregations in every denomination for prudent selection of volunteers and staff at all times as well as open communication between the leaders and members of the congregation when the presence of a convicted sex offender is known. When a congregation is approached by a convicted sex offender seeking to become a member, there must be serious planning for his/her participation and for the appropriate open communications with other members of the congregation. The offender does not have a right to privacy or secrecy regarding the conviction because the conviction is a matter of public record. Congregations must therefore become able to communicate reasonably – factually – and plan for safety. No congregation can afford to face a verdict such as this one and no congregation can afford to lose its reputation because it hasn’t properly communicated with its entire membership.
For more information, contact Joy Melton at www.hindsonmelton.com.