Part 1: Safety Plan

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Hello Brent,

We’ve talked before about various aspects of child abuse investigations. In this series, I’d like to talk about safety plans. We may talk about several different kinds of safety plans, but to start with, let’s assume that we know we have an offender, guilty of child sexual abuse, and at least one victim. With most of our mission clients, any personnel who have committed child sexual abuse will be permanently removed. But what do we do in a church? Or on a field where a national is involved? Or when the offender is or was another child, who may live with or want to visit his or her family on the mission field?

Let’s talk about the legal and psychological aspects of a safety plan. How do we handle the offender? How do we care for the victim? How do we protect others from being harmed? What are the psychological ramifications for all these people, and for the general community? What types of communications are appropriate?

To get you thinking about this, I’m directing you to this blog post, about a case where a child victim in a church setting got a jury award of many millions, because the church did not protect her:

What is a Church’s Duty to Warn?

If an offender at a church has molested a child previously, what is the church’s duty to other children? Does it have a duty to warn? Does it have a duty to protect in other ways?

A recent appellate case in California, Conti v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc., April 13, 2015, considers this problem. The court decided that the church does not have a duty to warn, but does have a duty to protect children in other ways.

In this case, the offender had formerly molested another child. Congregation leaders knew about it, and he was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor. They removed him as a ministerial servant, and told him not to work with children, but overall, kept the matter confidential.

The offender then molested Conti over a period of a couple of years from the time she was nine to the time she was about 11. He became friendly with her family, and got extensive access to her, including during “field service,” when members went out door-to-door.

Much later, as an adult, Conti sued the local Congregation and the Watchtower. The jury awarded roughly $7 million in compensatory damages and $21 million in punitive damages, which was reduced somewhat after the trial.

The court on appeal held that the Congregation had no duty to warn that there was a child molester. That would cause problems with confidentiality of religious communications, and also be difficult to execute, with continued warnings of every new congregational member. However, the appellate court agreed that the jury could find the Congregation negligent for not supervising the field service and access to children during the field service for this known offender. The elders could easily have controlled the field service. And Watchtower was responsible for either not having a policy preventing child molesters from performing field service with children, or not enforcing the policy on its Congregations.

The appellate court reversed the punitive damages award and left the compensatory damages award in place, which was still a sizable award.

What is the lesson here? Churches should have carefully defined policies on how to handle those who have abused children. If someone has committed child sexual abuse, the person should either be removed from the congregation, or a stringent safety plan put in place. Churches will need to define what is confidential information, what communications are protected under the religious privileges, and who needs to know about abuse according to their spiritual principles. But then they need to carry out their policies and safety plans. One thing to keep in mind is that the safety plan must work, year after year, despite changes of leadership and changes in the congregation.


Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations