Church leaders struggle to protect kids from sex abuse

By Jennifer Garza

The Sacramento Bee

January 19, 2010

The Rev. Kay Doyle, dismayed by the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the U.S. Catholic Church eight years ago, felt some comfort in distance. A pastor of a small Carmichael church, she didn't worry about such problems in her congregation. And then the distance closed.

Her church organist was accused of sexually molesting a minor and arrested in October. Doyle, pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church for 13 years, was unprepared. James Charles Jordan, 53, was charged with six counts of lewd acts upon a child under the age of 14.

"We had no experience with this," said Doyle. "It was awful for everyone, because there weren't any guidelines."

Even now, many faith leaders still struggle to find ways to protect their most vulnerable members. Religious leaders in the Sacramento area have adopted policies – from screening prospective workers to codes of conduct – that are sometimes as different as their approach to worship.

Methodists who work with children or vulnerable adults, for example, must be fingerprinted and undergo a background check through the Department of Justice. Mormons are interviewed by their local bishops to determine if they are worthy to serve. Southern Baptists are not required to screen any church workers.

And Catholic workers in the Sacramento diocese, including all employees and volunteers, must adhere to a written code of conduct that emphasizes appropriate boundaries.

Mary Hastings, coordinator of the Safe Environment Program for the diocese, said, for example, that a priest cannot give a child a ride home from catechism class, as he may have done in the past. And the code advises priests not to be alone with children, except for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly known as confession.

"This is to protect the child as well as the priest," she said.

It has been a costly lesson. The Catholic diocese paid $35 million to settle 33 claims of clergy sexual abuse in 2005.

The diocese now has a comprehensive policy for checking and training employees and volunteers. In addition to providing a code of conduct, the church conducts background checks, takes fingerprints, and requires employees and volunteers to take a 2 1/2-hour online training program about protecting children.

"It is definitely a priority for the diocese now," Hastings said. The diocese spends $175,000 a year on safe-environment programs. Individual parishes and schools incur additional costs.

Nearly 10,000 active volunteers serve in the diocese, which stretches from Vallejo to the Oregon border.

Every year, two or three of those applying to work in the church have a serious felony on their record that shows up on the background check, Hastings said.

"Of course, they are automatically disqualified," she said.

Religious leaders of all denominations called the abuse crisis a wake-up call. But how they have responded has depended on a faith's traditions, denominational rules and their experience.

Southern Baptists, the second-largest faith group in the country after Catholics, said they cannot mandate a policy for the entire denomination.

Dennis Fredricks, director of missions for the Sacramento Association of Southern Baptist Churches, which serves 90 churches in the area, said the churches are self- governing.

"We can't tell them what to do," he said. "We strongly encourage them to check backgrounds, but we can't make them."

In 2008, Southern Baptist leaders rejected a proposal by an Oklahoma pastor to create a database of Baptist clergy who have been credibly accused or convicted of child molestation.

The issue continues to draw attention within the church. Lifeway Christian Resources, a Southern Baptist Convention publishing house, reported last year that one in eight background checks of volunteers or church workers revealed a criminal history that might have prevented them from working at a church.

While Southern Baptists are self-governing, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requires its members to adhere to its overall policies. Members of the Mormon church are called to serve by church leaders and are interviewed by their bishop.

"We don't do background checks and fingerprinting," said Lisa West, spokeswoman for the Mormon church in the Sacramento region. "We don't need to. We feel like we know the people in our congregation. They're not strangers to us."

Nearly 20,000 volunteers serve in the Mormon church in the Sacramento region. Two years ago, the church adopted a policy requiring two teachers be present in a classroom.

Are the policies of the various churches effective?

"They have absolutely not done enough," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests. "We see spotty compliance with their own policies. … Sadly it seems, in almost every instance, church officials claim to do everything possible, and it turns out, they're not."

Clohessy said lay workers and volunteers are not the root of the problem. That, he said, rests with "the virtually limitless power within the church."

He said that while background checks and fingerprinting are steps in the right direction, "there is no magic screening tool to weed out predators."

Background checks have created a new dilemma for church workers: What to do about other violations or illegalities that show up on records? Hastings said about 10 percent of the background checks turn up something. Driving under the influence comes up the most. Domestic violence and shoplifting, for example, show up, too, she said.

"If it's a DUI, then we tell the pastor that that person cannot drive," said Hastings. She added that the church protects their privacy. Each record is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. "People change, and we believe in forgiveness," she said.

The Baptists' Fredricks noted that anyone convicted of hurting a child should not be allowed to work with children. But, he added, "you have to remember, some people come to the church after difficult times."

Other church leaders said background checks are not foolproof. "It's important to know your people," said Gary Zavoral, media relations specialist for the Mormon church. "Of course, some things you can't predict."

Gethsemane Lutheran's Doyle learned this after Jordan's arrest, in October.

Jordan was arrested last fall after a 17-year-old accused Jordan of kissing and fondling him at the church four years earlier, on his 13th birthday.

According to court records, Jordan admitted his actions were inappropriate and should not have happened. Jordan did not have an arrest record.

Doyle said the accusation against the musician shook the Arden Way church, where about 60 people worship weekly.

"A lot of people had a hard time believing it, refused to believe it," said Doyle. A sheriff's deputy and a social worker specializing in child abuse talked to the congregation on the Sunday after the arrest.

"People were really upset," she said.

Jordan could not be reached for comment.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America does not have guidelines for what church leaders should do.

"But the Web site has a list of suggested resources that would be helpful," said Barbara Keller, consultant for the prevention of sexual misconduct for the ELCA. She said the church recommends that individual congregations prepare their own safe-church policy. Local church officials should also consult their insurance providers and legal counsel.

The accusation against Jordan has taken a toll on Doyle and the congregation. His arrest – as well as health concerns – contributed to Doyle's recent decision to resign as pastor.

In her retirement, Doyle hopes to become an advocate for children's safety in the church.

"My faith hasn't been shaken, but my faith in some people has," said Doyle. One of Doyle's last duties as pastor was to interview prospective organists. On her last day at work, Doyle met a job candidate at the police station where he was fingerprinted, something she never imagined requiring.

"I know there's no guarantee, but I'm going to do what I can," Doyle said. "Children should be safe in church – of all places."