Church background checks find many with felonies

By Greg Garrison

The Birmingham News

August 16, 2009

An agency that conducted 5,000 background checks for 450 churches said it found serious felonies in 80 cases and more than 600 people who had some type of criminal history that may have disqualified them from working at a church.

Proponents of expanding security background checks said those results point out the need for churches to keep up their guard in protecting their congregations.

The Rev. C.B. Scott, pastor of Westmont Baptist Church in Birmingham, said his church began using a background check service recommended by LifeWay Christian Resources two months ago and already has declined security clearance to a potential volunteer because of flagged background information.

The Rev. C.B. Scott, pastor of Westmont Baptist Church, supported a 2007 resolution in the Southern Baptist Convention urging churches to do criminal background checks for employees and volunteers.

Scott said 600 red flags in 5,000 background checks -- almost 1 in 8 -- shows that the service is needed.
"That doesn't surprise me," Scott said. "We've become really sensitive to this. We have a policy in place that even volunteers that work with youth down through preschool cannot work as a volunteer unless they pass the background check."

Scott supported a resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2007 that urged churches to perform criminal background checks on employees.

LifeWay, the publishing arm of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, has since been recommending resources for churches on the topic. It contracted a discount deal for churches with, which recently reported the results so far to LifeWay.

"The Southern Baptist Convention wants churches to be safe," said LifeWay spokeswoman Brooklyn Noel Lowery.

She said the churches that have taken part are not all Southern Baptist; any congregation may use the service through the Web site,

The statistics did not include geographical or denominational breakdowns, she said.

An abuse victim advocacy group said the numbers show a need for increased vigilance.

"We're still looking at a small percentage of churches that are even doing minimal bare-bones background checks," said Christa Brown, Baptist Outreach Director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

She said many independent evangelical churches, including Southern Baptists, still do not keep records of abuse allegations against clergy and church workers and do not have objective professional panels to review allegations. If they did, they would have a large database of problem clergy and church workers who may not have been convicted of a crime, but may also be unsuitable for church work, she said.

'It may be worse'

Protestants have often labored under the impression that pedophilia was a more common problem among Catholic clergy than Protestant church workers, but that may not be true, Brown said.

"We have no reason to believe it is any less of a problem among Baptist churches than among Catholic churches," she said. "It may be worse. For Baptists, there is not any screening mechanism on the front end."

She noted a 2007 AP report that three major insurers of Protestant churches had totaled claims of minors being sexually abused by clergy, staff or other church workers at about 260 reports a year for 15 years. That's higher than the average of 228 credible accusations against Catholic priests per year reported in a 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The Catholic scandal led to reforms, and most mainline Protestant churches, such as Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians, also have formal panels and reviews for abuse claims, Brown said.

"Baptists just shrug and say we can't keep records," she said. "Church autonomy isn't a reason not to keep track of this information. This is an insidious and national problem. They need a systematic way of dealing with it."

Pedophiles may be drawn to church work, she said. "You're always in an environment where people trust you and they work with kids," she said.

Churches may have at times delayed reporting to avoid embarrassing the church or the accused, Scott said. "There was a time in the past, the effort was to cover it up," he said.

He said the message is getting out to churches about the importance of background checks and reporting abuse.

"If it comes to our attention that a person or persons have in any way mistreated a child, it is investigated," Scott said. "If there is any real suspicion, we'll notify the authorities. We must deal with it in a right and biblical manner. You have to remove cancers. If I err, I'm going to err on the side of the kids."