Too trusting? Most local churches don’t require background checks for teachers

| August 8, 2010

While local churches, as a rule, trust their congregations, many also agree it's wise to do background checks on Sunday school teachers and take other measures to ensure the safety of children.

"(Parents) certainly need to be aware of what's going on," said Floyd Smithey, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church on 18th Avenue North. "Just because they're in church doesn't mean something can't happen."

In 2009, a man who had been a Sunday school teacher and part-time youth leader at a local congregation for several years was arrested on charges of sexual battery. According to reports, the incident occurred during a "summer-camp type setting."

Benjamin Lee Shelton, of 924 Third Ave. N. in Columbus, was arrested Jan. 22, 2009 by Lowndes County sheriff's deputies after investigators learned he may have sexually abused a 17-year-old boy. He was a youth leader at Eastview Baptist Church in New Hope.

Shelton is scheduled to stand trial in Lowndes County Circuit Court on Aug. 24.

Eastview's pastor, Junior Eads, did not return calls seeking comment about if and how the church's practices have changed since the incident.

Most churches in the city do not require background checks for Sunday school teachers, who are usually volunteers from the congregation.

One exception is Annunciation Catholic Church on College Street, which is required to perform background checks for all teachers and Sunday school teachers, paid and unpaid.

"It's really pretty much like the checks teachers go through when they're hired by the school system," said Gina Phillips, coordinator of religious education.

"I'm glad we do it," she continued. "It makes you feel more comfortable."

Their teachers must also take bi-annual courses on acceptable and unacceptable interaction and annual refresher courses, she said.

On the recommendation of the Southern Baptist Convention, Fairview Baptist Church on Airline Road now requires background checks for any teachers of children ages 18 and under, as well as any ushers or security.

"The advantage is that it helps with liability, but our main goal is protection of children," said Mickey Dalrymple, pastor of Fairview. "The day in which we live in, there is so much happening to children across the nation. … It's strictly a preventative measure, and many churches are doing this."

Fairview staff members were subjected to background checks, to set an example for the congregation, Dalrymple noted. He predicts, in the near future, most churches will implement background checks.

For most churches, especially smaller ones, the only criteria for teaching is that the teacher be a faithful member in good standing.

The position usually goes to whichever member wants it, said Johnny Spears, longtime volunteer at Central United Methodist Church in downtown.

"If they volunteer to do it, we usually let them do it," she said of church members. "It's hard to find someone who's willing to put in the work and study for the lessons."

"We know who they are," Spears added. "They're not strangers or anything."

But if a teacher was a sexual predator, "We wouldn't know that," she said.

All large churches should have mandatory background checks for employees and volunteers, said Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John.

"Regardless if they hire from the outside or inside, they should get an extreme background check," he said. "If they get mad, that's a flag that something's wrong."

While trust in other members and pastors is essential to a church, parents should recognize that people don't check their sins at the door, Smithey said.

"We like to think we can all trust our pastors, but we're human," he said. "We're very vulnerable."

"Anyone could fall," he added.

For most churches, small and large, the only criteria to teach is a willing heart, some churches use more developed safeguards.

First Baptist Church on Seventh Street North requires two teachers to be in a room together with the doors open and a supervisor in the hall, said minister of education Steve Galloway.

(Children's classes) are the area we're most on-guard about," he said.

For smaller churches with smaller Sunday school classes, there are simpler precautions teachers should take to avoid the appearance of evil, said Smithey, whose church falls in that category.

"As a pastor, I'm certainly aware of problems of sexual abuse," he continued. "I try to avoid situations where I or teachers would be put in a position like a one-on-one with students."

His church also has an education committee who oversees the Sunday School superintendent, Smithey said.

While churches should take preventative measures, they should also have a way for children to report misconduct, said Tatum Dellinger, family protection specialist with the state Division of Family and Children's Services.

"My personal belief is that churches should have a lot of youth-sponsored activities," she said. "If children have been abused, they're more likely to confide in a peer or a trusted adult."

But every step should be taken to protect children so they do not have to reach that point, said Smithey.

"Even if nothing has happened and everything is as it should be, accusations are very destructive," he said. "When accusations are made, the damage is already done."

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