Churches are checking sex offender registry, but is it helping?

Since they were first offered an opportunity to pool their resources and buy background checks on volunteers and employees at a discount 11 years ago, about a third of Southern Baptist churches have signed up for the OneSource program from LifeWay Christian Resources.

Earlier this year, LifeWay reported that 16,000 congregations and other church organizations ran background checks on men and women they hired through a service called (The Southern Baptist Con­vention has so far resisted calls to set up a database of its own, saying the national registry was more dependable.)

Other denominations are also increasingly using searchable databases to screen prospective employees as the #churchtoo movement begins to shift church attitudes toward sexual abuse and prevention.

Most background checks sift through more than 600 million felony, misdemeanor, and traffic records. Perhaps most importantly, they also check the nationwide sex offender registry.

But that may give churches and other religious groups a false sense of security about preventing abuse, experts say.

“We make it clear to folks you will have to do a more in-depth search,” said Josh Weis, executive vice president of Ministry Brands, a provider of church management software that also sells screening products to some 30,000 congregations, mostly Protestant. “Not all background checks are created equal.”

Federal law requires all 50 states to implement sex offender registries. But the law does not address lower-level sexual abuse convictions, and state laws regarding sexual abuse vary from state to state. That means some sex offenders can slip through the cracks.

Jeffrey Epstein, the New York financier charged with sex trafficking underage girls, is a good example. Epstein, who died of apparent suicide in prison in August, was registered as a sex offender in Florida. But in New York, where he owned a residence, he avoided the law’s requirement of periodic check-ins by changing his address to the Virgin Islands, the New York Times reported.

And in New Mexico, where Epstein owned a 26,700-square-foot mansion south of Santa Fe, he was able to avoid inclusion in the state’s registry altogether because his conviction involved a 17-year-old. That is the age of consent in New Mexico.

Churches need to invest in deeper background searches for employees and volunteers and not settle for less expensive searches in the state where the congregation is located, Weis and representatives of other background check companies insist.

Ministry Brands recently released an audit of the 29,768 churches that have used its Protect My Ministry service, a product for churches. It showed that 40 percent of those church and ministry clients do not take advantage of deeper, more thorough searches of each of the 50 states. The report also recommended that congregations require applicants to provide Social Security numbers for background checks so that it can detect people using false names or aliases.

The national registry became law after a series of child rapes and murders, perhaps the most famous being that of Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old girl from New Jersey who was raped and murdered by her neighbor in 1994. Her

murder led to a series of bills requiring a sex offender registry, with a database tracked by the state and community notification of registered sex offenders moving into a neighborhood. President Clinton signed Megan’s Law in 1996, making sexual offender registries required in all 50 states.

But in recent years, the effectiveness of the national sex offender registry has been called into question. For one thing, the database is not updated immediately. It can take months or years before the database is updated with people who have been released from prison on sexual offenses. For that reason, companies providing churches with database searches recommend that all employees be screened every year.

“Churches have this idea of one-and-done,” said Weis. “We recommend they do it annually.”

In addition, a 2010 South Carolina study showed that many sex offenders plead down their charges to a nonsex crime so they aren’t included in the registry.

That, plus the variability of state laws on sexual abuse, leads researchers to conclude that screening people through databases such as the national sex offender registry or the state’s criminal database won’t guarantee a sexual-abuse-free church environment.

“We’re spending a lot of time and money on enforcing restricted policies that don’t prevent recidivism instead of working on prevention,” said Elizabeth L. Jeglic, professor of psychology at John Jay College.

She recommended that congregations work on procedures to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse. That could mean first establishing clear training protocols that forbid church workers to be alone with a child and submitting all new hires to a period in which they are shadowed. —Religion News Service


Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is a national reporter and senior editor at Religion News Service.

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