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Terrified by the wave of child sex-abuse scandals that has American
religious institutions awash in lawsuits, Denver's churches are doing everything they can to screen pedophiles from the pool of workers staffing their preschool, Sunday school and daycare facilities.
But critics say a number of local churches are taking this newfound vigilance too far--by forcing prospective employees and volunteers to reveal if they themselves were sexually abused as children.
Recently, for instance, Denver's Central Presbyterian Church put the question "Were you a victim of abuse or molestation as a minor?" on application forms to be filled out by parents who want to work in its various youth programs. First Baptist Church of Denver plans to do the same. At Southern Gables Evangelical Free Church in Lakewood, teachers now must disclose if they were victims of sex abuse before taking jobs at the church's Front Range Christian School. Otherwise, they don't get hired.
"We know that might be difficult," says Wayne Robey, children's ministry pastor at Southern Gables. "But our children come first."
The new move, prompted in part by the insurance industry, is based on the theory that a large percentage of molesters tend to have been victims of sex abuse. "Very often, perpetrators are known to have been abused themselves," says First Baptist senior pastor Mel Taylor.
But some experts say that theory is flawed. The Reverend Marie Fortune, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, calls the policy "totally unreasonable" and says it will do virtually nothing to stop sexual assaults on children in churches.
"This isn't going to help," Fortune says.
And others call it a gross perversion of the churches' pastoral mission. "I think it revictimizes a person who's been victimized before," says Joyce Seelen, a Denver attorney who's successfully sued churches on behalf of women molested by church personnel. Stephanie Ferris, who runs the daycare program at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver, says that churches, in forcing the disclosures, risk "opening up wounds that have already healed."
"How can you ask something that personal?" Ferris says. "I really don't think that's right. It's totally an invasion of someone's privacy."
Many church leaders acknowledge that asking the question makes them uncomfortable. Cynthia Cearley, co-pastor of Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, says she is "hesitant" about the idea. Nonetheless, Cearley says, Montview is considering putting the question on its application forms as part of the church's new "zero tolerance" policy on sexual misconduct. First Baptist's Taylor says he feels the same. "I just don't see any way out of it," he says.
Church officials say the impetus for the measure was provided by a widely circulated national newsletter called Church Law and Tax Report. Newsletter editor Richard Hammar, an attorney who also works as general counsel to the Assemblies of God denomination in Springfield, Missouri, has put out a "resource kit" designed to help churches prevent child-abuse lawsuits, which have proliferated around the country in the last ten years.
In the kit, which includes written material and a video, Hammar alerts churches to a 1993 decision by the Alaska Supreme Court holding that a church was liable in a child-molestation case because it failed to ask youth workers and volunteers if they had been abuse victims.
Though the decision is not legally binding outside Alaska, Hammar says, it did set a precedent that lawyers will probably try to import to other states. "Plaintiffs' attorneys are going to be seizing on that and using it," Hammar says.
In the past year, Hammar and Church Law and Tax Report publisher James Cobble have conducted a number of seminars for churches in cities around the country. Many of the seminars were sponsored by the Indiana-based Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, which issues liability coverage to thousands of churches in Colorado and 22 other states.
Brotherhood Mutual spokesman Hugh White says the company does not specifically require its church policyholders to ask prospective youth workers if they were victims of child sex abuse. But it does urge churches to follow Hammar's recommendations. White says he finds the idea of the question "outrageous" but says it has been made relevant by the Alaska court ruling.
"It's a necessary evil," White says.
Church officials who include the abuse-victim question on job application forms note that they already subject prospective child workers to criminal background checks. And they insist the information they receive will be shared with only a select handful of clergy. If applicants indicate that they have been victims of abuse, that won't disqualify them from getting jobs, say Taylor and others. Most church leaders say they merely want to discuss the issue with the applicant to make sure they're stable enough to work closely with kids.
Some child-abuse experts laud the idea. Salee DeGarmo, a sex-abuse therapist and director of the Christian Women's Center in Denver, says molestation is so traumatizing to children that it should be prevented "at all costs."
"You can't be too cautious," DeGarmo says.
But Seattle's Fortune says the new policy will be ineffective because the vast majority of child sex-abuse victims are female. Women, she says, are "highly unlikely" to abuse children as adults. "It is a misuse of the data," Fortune says.