Gone are the days of “sacred immunity,” where churches and similar religious institutions were immune from legal liability. Over the last twenty years, the cultural and legal climate has changed, and churches are now a frequent target of litigation. Failure to conduct background checks is one of the top ten legal risks that churches face.
Sadly, many volunteers have criminal backgrounds and prey on churches that may be trusting and look the other way. Churches must be vigilant, because they serve vulnerable populations, including children and seniors, and handle cash that supports their mission and service work.
In Pennsylvania, background checks are mandatory for individuals who have direct volunteer contact with children.
One of the most important duties a church has is to protect its children from harm. In recent years, the most common reason for churches to be involved in litigation was due to sexual misconduct of volunteers or church administrators.
Only adult volunteers who are responsible for the welfare of a child, and have direct contact with children, are required to obtain clearances. All volunteers are required to have a Report of Criminal History from the Pennsylvania State Police, and a Child Abuse History Clearance from the Department of Human Services.
If a prospective volunteer has lived out of the state of Pennsylvania in the last ten years, a federal (FBI) fingerprint based criminal history check, through the Pennsylvania State Police, is also required. Any volunteer who does not need to undergo federal fingerprint screening, because they have lived in Pennsylvania continuously for the last ten years, must affirm in writing that they are not disqualified from service based upon certain enumerated convictions.
You should consult competent legal counsel in determining as to which volunteers need to be screened.
Many churches have deacons, administrative assistants, accountants, and other volunteers who help collect and manage the church’s money. Without this, churches could not fulfill their missions.
Yet sadly, one out of every ten protestant churches have been victimized by embezzlers. Churches may screen volunteers who handle money for criminal records, work status validation, social media activity, education and licensing, credit report, and personal or professional references.
Sadly, running background checks may not be enough to protect your congregation. Many sex offenders are juveniles themselves, and thus are not subject to background check laws. Churches should always make sure that no child is ever left alone with a single adult. They also should ensure that any offices where money is stored or handled, or where children are located, are visible from the outside. For example, they should have windows or opened doors.
Contact MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser by filling out an online inquiry or calling us at 484-318-7106. We go above and beyond, because we appreciate the many benefits that churches and other religious institutions bring to the communities that they serve. We bring our personal experiences serving religious organizations and non-profits to provide the specialized counsel that our local religious institutions need and deserve.