Sexual abuse prevention experts Kimberlee Norris and Gregory Love spoke to Southern Baptist ministry leaders gathered in Dallas Oct. 3-5 for a conference designed to help churches navigate the abuse crisis.
The attorneys, also a married couple, founded the MinistrySafe child safety system after decades of litigating sexual abuse cases. Norris and Love train churches and ministries to look beyond the expected standard of care toward more effective protective measures.
Child sexual abuse continues to be a problem, Love said, because we don’t understand it, and therefore our efforts aren’t related to the risk. In Love’s words, “We’re building the wrong fence.” The most common protective measures are designed around “stranger danger”—teaching children to avoid people they don’t know. But the vast majority of victims are abused by people they know and trust.
Love and Norris aid churches in building fences to keep out the largest percentage of abusers—those who target specific genders and ages of children.
“Effective screening keeps wolves out of the sheep pen,” Norris told attenders at the Caring Well Conference sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But the number-one practice churches have in place to protect children isn’t enough, she said. Fewer than 10% of abusers ever encounter the criminal justice system, which means a criminal background check will not flag a large majority of abusers.
Instead of relying solely on background checks, Norris urged churches toward a multi-step screening process that understands the grooming process by which abusers identify and target potential victims. The screening process for volunteers and leaders should include:
- An application that clearly states your church is taking abuse prevention very seriously.
- An interview that includes fitness for purpose questions, but also questions design to elicit high-risk responses.
- References that are checked.
- A criminal background check.
- Access to past employment/volunteer history.
Preventing abuse will require a strategic system of continued protection tailored to a church’s unique ministry and context, Norris said. “We’re never going to be accidentally excellent about addressing child sexual abuse.”