Before I dive in, let me be clear about what this post will not be. I am not writing to rehash what happened in the Duggar household. I’m not writing to applaud or lambast the media for their treatment of the situation. If you clicked on this to find a post adding to the hype, sorry. That’s not what you’ll find here. I have no desire to sensationalize a hot topic.
I do, however, have a deep desire that children be safe in our churches. Steve shared a post here last week with statistics on sexual offenses committed by juveniles, and those numbers indicate this isn’t an isolated situation. According to the US Department of Justice, juveniles account for 25.8% of sexual offenders known to law enforcement personnel, and commit 35.6% of offenses to minors.
We would love to say that this is exceedingly rare and never happens within families at our churches, but we live in a broken world. Sometimes that brokenness is demonstrated through criminal sexual assault of children, and sometimes the offender is a juvenile too.
As such, church leaders need to be asking ourselves how we would handle the situation if an adult with a juvenile history like Josh Duggar’s wanted to serve in children’s or youth ministry. I’m not asking for us to complete an arbitrary mental exercise in hypotheticals, rhetoric, or what ifs. I’m asking you a real question that needs to be considered, given the rates of sexual abuse in our society.
If someone like Josh Duggar wanted to serve in your children’s ministry, what should you say?
I’ve considered this question and consulted a few legal experts, and that’s our consensus. Repentance doesn’t remove the earthly consequences of sin (though it does, thankfully, void the eternal ones for those of us in Christ). I do sympathize with these families, thinking of how I would feel if I were in the shoes of Lacy, the mother of a 13 year old boy who was convicted as an adult for sexual contact with his five year old cousin. She asks, “How many of you would like a poor decision you made at the age of 13 to follow you around for the rest of your life?” But if Lacy’s son grew up and wanted to serve with children in our ministry, I’d say no. Our first priority in children’s and youth ministry must be the safety of those entrusted to our care. While experts only estimate that 10% of juvenile sexual offenders show risk indicators for becoming adult pedophiles, that percentage is still higher than the general population.
What if they’ve been through treatment? Good! I’d hope so. If a previous offender wants to serve but hasn’t received counseling for their prior acts, then your first priority in serving that individual would be to connect them with a place where those needs can be met. (Also, as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer point out, church leaders are mandated by God’s word and often by law to cooperate with the state in reporting offenses against children, so that’s another step needed in addition to helping an offender seek help.) But proven best practices in the treatment of sexual offenders don’t guarantee results, and re-offending is more common in this area of criminal sin than any other (though recidivism rates for juvenile offenders are the lowest, with only 5-12% re-offending). Our first aim in family ministry is to keep the children and youth in our care safe, and sometimes that means we say no to potential volunteers. We can and should welcome them to serve elsewhere, just not in family ministry.
Even if your inclination would be to say yes to the individual asking to volunteer, you’d need to consult with your church liability insurance provider and legal counsel to make sure you’re being a good steward of resources. If you are aware of someone’s previous sexual offenses and still allow him or her to serve with children, is your liability coverage still valid or is it voided by your choice to say yes with knowledge of prior abuse? Could you be legally guilty of negligence or gross negligence for providing this person with access to children at your church? I bet you can guess the number one reason churches went to court in 2014: sexual abuse cases. In our litigious society, anyone can sue, and many end in settlements to avoid a costly legal battle and to protect the reputation of the church, even in cases in which leaders have been above reproach. Beyond just the legal ramifications, consider the emotional ones too. If a child was violated in your care, how would you answer a mother or father asking, “If you knew this had happened before, why did you trust this individual with my child?”
What if the individual wanting to serve in your ministry wasn’t charged for their juvenile offenses and doesn’t disclose them, much like the Duggar situation before this recent news broke? Background checks don’t show offenses that never entered public record. They also exclude most juvenile offenses, though the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act passed in 2006 does require some youth offenders aged 14 and up register as sex offenders if their offenses are among the most serious. Given research indicating that only 30% of sexual assaults against children are reported, background checks aren’t enough (though they’re a necessary start). Our policies, from how we interview potential volunteers to how we train them to how we put our plans in place, need to focus on child safety. (What sort of policies? Mending The Soul is a good place to start. This book is also a resource I’d recommend.)
Given my role as a special needs ministry leader, I am a tough watchdog on our safety policies. Because sexual predators usually target children they consider easier to assault without getting caught, our kids are some of the most vulnerable, especially those whose impaired communication skills limit their abilities to tell trusted adults what happened. So I’m unapologetically fierce about protecting our kids (as well as protecting our volunteers from situations in which they could be falsely accused, like any instance in which they are alone with a child). In our respite night volunteer trainings, I spend about half the time stressing our safety policies, explaining their importance, and warning volunteers that I love them and these kids enough to gently call them out if I find them breaking the rules we set for everyone’s protection. For example, if one of my volunteers steps off the elevator with a child and no one else present, I address that behavior immediately.
Does it feel harsh to say no to someone who wants to serve? Can it sting a little if your ministry, like mine, is hurting for volunteers? Do I wish a foolproof test existed that could tell us absolutely if an individual might endanger our kids? YES! I answer a loud yes to all of those questions.
But those aren’t the most important questions. Here’s the number one: Am I doing everything I can to protect the children and youth entrusted to my care each week? As a leader in the church and an ambassador for Christ, I need to be able to answer yes to that question, even if I have to answer no to someone who wants to serve with us.
Shannon Dingle provides consultation, training and support to pastors, ministry staff and volunteers from churches requesting assistance from Key Ministry. In addition, Shannon regularly blogs for Key Ministry on topics related to adoption and foster care, and serves on the Program Committee for Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s Disability Ministry Web Summit. Shannon and her husband (Lee) serve as coordinators of the Access Ministry, the Special Needs Ministry of Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. She regularly blogs at Dinglefest.
Click here to check out Key Ministry’s resource page on Trauma and Kids. We share links to all the posts in Dr. Grcevich’s blog series, links to educational resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Dr. Karyn Purvis, and resources on PTSD developed by for Key Ministry by author and well-known disability ministry leader Jolene Philo. Please share with friends, colleagues and families who might benefit from the resources.