Look out for the future, because you never know what it might bring…
Question #91714 posted on 11/07/2018 6:12 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

Why doesn’t the Church run background checks on those who work with children?



Dear you,

This is related to the question you asked, but it's my thesis and I think it's important to set it out out front since my answer gives a lot of reasons I don't think background checks are the right answer. In my opinion, the Church already has policies in place to prevent the vast majority of child abuse, and efforts to further prevent abuse may well be more effective if they focused on increasing compliance with Church policies and making any necessary refinements to Church policy, rather than on background-checking members.*

I can't tell you why the Church doesn't background check, but I can offer a few reasons I'd be wary of doing background checks if I ran an organization that worked with children the way the Church does. Although even a problematic method of preventing abuse is worthwhile if it is the best method, I don't think background checks are necessarily the best method. Here are a few of the difficulties checks could prevent that may contribute to their potential inferiority versus other methods of abuse prevention. 

  1. Infrastructure/Logistics: The number of people who work with children (and I assume you'd include youth) in the Church is huge. It might not seem that hard to background check a few primary teachers, right? But let's consider the number of people you'd need for a primary in a decent-sized ward. A simple count: 3 presidency members, 2 music specialists (pianist, conductor), 2 nursery, and 2 each for CTR 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and Valiant 9, 10, and 11. Assuming you have no primary subs EVER, that's like 23 people right off the bat. Then we add in 2 scout leaders and 2 activity day leaders. Then we get to the youth program and add presidencies for YW and YM (at least 3 people each), scout leaders (at least 2) and camp leaders (at least 1). Then add an adviser for each of Priests, Teachers, Deacons, Laurels, Mia Maids, and Beehives. Now we're up to something like 42 people who need to be background checked and who can never be absent from Church. Additionally, lots of these callings will be rotated frequently. On top of that, you lose a ton of flexibility if you can only use background-checked people for substitutes in Sunday classes or additional help at an activity, or babysitting during a Relief Society activity, or whatever. Further, you're going to have to repeat these background checks every few years in order to maintain the quality of information. That becomes even more burdensome.
  2. Cost and availability of checks. In the US, I think it's relatively cheap to get background checks and there are checks that are at least decent in terms of quality. However, "relatively inexpensive" adds up when it's 40+ people (at least), and when you have to do them on a continual renewing basis. However, the cost you pay to the agency (is the Church going to contract with one particular agency? Another complication...) isn't the only cost: you also will lose a lot of time cost because you'll basically need a new background check specialist or an additional clerk in every ward to help people fill out paperwork, keep on top of renewals, etc. Additionally, we're a global Church. I don't know to what extent complete, affordable background checks are available in other nations. 
  3. Legal/Liability: I speculate but do not know that by starting a policy of background checks, the Church could open itself to legal liability (or perceived liability by people trying to sue) in certain situations: what if a ward wasn't careful enough in making sure people filled out the paperwork properly? What if a ward missed someone because they knew they'd had a check done in another ward in the Stake last year? What if a ward wasn't careful enough when it chose a background check service? What if a ward ignored something on a background check that was later claimed to be relevant?
  4. Loss of willing volunteers: There are a lot of people in the Church who I think would look askance at the Church doing a background check on them. We believe in repentance, after all - why does my bishop (or ward clerk, or "background check specialist" a calling we'd probably have to invent to handle this many checks) need to know that I [got arrested for pot as a teenager, spent time in prison for tax fraud before moving to this ward, got a DUI 10 years ago, whatever]. I can imagine a decent number of people taking the stance of "Look, I do service with the children/youth as a form of service. I'm not going to sacrifice my privacy when I'm already giving up my time and adult socialization to do something I might not even really want to do."
  5. Standard-setting Problems: What, exactly, should be the standard for something that's "bad enough to keep you from working with youth"? Any crime that required sex offender registration at any point (such as public indecency or urination)? What about domestic violence? What about domestic violence in the presence of a child, or toward a child? Sexual offenses towards adults, or only children? What about non-sexual or non-violent offenses like drug use? Is there a time limit on any of them? What about stuff that happened when you were a minor? This becomes a logistical issue that the Church has to establish guidance on (or else you risk significant local variation, again possibly opening up liability or at least criticism). What if the check turns up court records where someone was accused, but acquitted? What if they lost a civil trial with a lower standard of proof but weren't guilty on a criminal case? (In case that's unclear: imagine that someone punches someone else- the criminal standard to convict them of assault is "beyond reasonable doubt" but the victim can sue them for the cost of the steak they put on their eye and have the standard to recover the money only be "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not.)) This becomes yet another logistics nightmare where you need a hugely complicated set of guidelines and probably significant guidance from Salt Lake to ensure consistency, and that means that you probably end up erring on the side of restricting where you might not need to and suddenly there are a lotttt of people who can't hold callings that they would be totally fine doing.
  6. False Sense of Safety: Finally, if people know that the Church generally background checks those who work with youth, they may actually fail to take appropriate cautions in protecting their own children (even though this seems backwards, it's related to the Moral Hazard problem.) Background checks on the level an organization like the Church would be doing them aren't likely to find anywhere near every case of abuse: they're mostly only going to turn up the ones that resulted in convictions. This could leave out not only people whose victims never came forward, but even cases where the victim came forward but no conviction resulted. People who don't understand this might get lax about using the Church's other, important safeguards. "Oh, it's okay if you ride home alone with Brother Johnson, he's been background-checked." "Oh, Sister Smith has been a member her whole life, I'm sure it's fine if she takes the primary class by herself; we're waiting on her background check still but she must have had one in her last ward because she mentioned working in primary there." "Oh, we'll just have the campout with Brother Franklin, after all, several of the boys are almost 18, and that's close enough even though none of the other adults can come..." etc. etc.
So why not add background checks in spite of these difficulties? The Church already has safeguards in place that, when followed, will prevent the vast majority of abuse of children without these difficulties.
This publication, "Preventing and Responding to Abuse" explains Church guidelines that I'd encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with and to stand up for. To summarize the relevant ones, the Church:
  • requires records be in the ward before giving a child-facing calling
  • will give no child-facing calling if note for abuse on record
  • requires 2-deep leadership
  • requires a second adult "in an adjoining room, foyer, or hall" or in the office at interviewee's request when a child is being interviewed
  • restricts adult-child sleep arrangements on overnight activities
Not every ward perfectly follows these guidelines, and that should change. I would urge people who see their ward's youth programs violating these points to raise the issue with the bishop (or stake president, if necessary). If you're asked to sub for primary, tell them you'd be happy to but you know the guidelines say you have to have a partner teacher, does the president know someone who's available, or should you run over to Gospel Principles and grab your spouse/friend? Etc. 
It is still sadly likely that some few cases of abuse would occur even if compliance with these rules were perfect; it's hard to come up with a set of rules that is perfect in any possible situation. However, the relevant questions seem to me to be:
1) Would background checking adult leaders improve compliance with the Church's anti-abuse guidelines?
Maybe, if people with even a non-abusive record are generally less rule-abiding and more likely to fudge or outright disobey abuse prevention rules and so you just exclude them from these callings entirely. But that's a pretty excluding way to use a background check. So, if the background check doesn't really improve the existing anti-abuse framework, 
2) Would background checking adult leaders prevent abuse the Church's anti-abuse guidelines don't currently prevent?
It's clear to me that background checks could identify some people who shouldn't work with youth, and maybe that includes people who haven't been already flagged as such by the Church. If these people are identified, maybe they don't get the calling to work with the youth. Maybe this prevents some abuse because a potential predator doesn't get a calling and so there's never a situation where they're left alone with a kid because their ward doesn't follow two-deep situations, or whatever else permitted the abuse.

3) And, more importantly, will background checks prevent abuse to the best amount in the best way (i.e. efficiently)?

This is the crux.
However, this also gets sort of unpleasant, because even though the worth of every person is infinite, the amount of resources we can devote to preventing any specific harm to that person is not. The safest way to prevent abuse of children in Church would be to refuse children any entry to Church buildings and require parents to find childcare before attending Church alone. We're obviously not going to do that because children, on the whole, benefit from Church. What's tricky is finding the exact point at which the benefit to children of decreased chance of abuse is more significant than the harm to children (or the Church as a whole) resulting from increased burdens of whatever prevention methods we use.
Let's take an example of a relatively simple policy: two deep leadership. This policy assumes that, with another adult watching, a predator won't risk getting caught and therefore won't abuse a child. A quick google indicates that there is something on the order of 750,000 (747408, but let's round) sex offenders in the US. That's a broad categorization that includes people who aren't necessarily a danger to children. The US population is roughly 329,000,000. That means that sex offenders make up less than .23 percent of the population. Now, the odds that any two randomly selected individuals will BOTH be sex offenders is about .05% per these numbers. And that's if we started randomly pairing people together that nobody knows anything at all about. This isn't close to an accurate representation of how things would actually work in the Church, of course, for many reasons: there may be non-offenders willing to protect offenders, which would raise likelihood of abuse, but there are also plenty of people on the sex offender registry for something like public urination who would absolutely report or prevent abuse of a child. Furthermore, we don't pair random people we don't know together to make up primary/youth callings: we have bishops to make callings, primary presidents to supervise, etc. But the point of this exercise is that we can see that a simple step like 2-deep leadership makes it very unlikely but not impossible that an abuser will have an opportunity for abuse. What we have to decide is, since there's still that remaining tiny chance, what else are we willing to do to reduce it? How far down do we need to get the number before we're happy having primary, and still able to have it from a cost perspective? Maybe if we did everything we can think of (say, 6-deep leadership with mandated teacher-student ratios, only using professional teachers who pass an annual background check and who pay a large bond to the Church that they'll lose in case of abuse, using rules that say teachers can never touch children) we could prevent abuse almost entirely (but still not totally, because people break rules and find ways), but at that point we can't functionally run the program.
So, we have to decide on the acceptable level of risk and then once we've got that we want to use the most cost-effective methods to get our risk down to that level.
In my opinion, the bulleted points above that the Church counsels for abuse prevention are relatively low-cost while being very effective at reducing risk when actually implemented. By contrast, an additional background-check requirement seems to me to add a lot of "cost" that could decrease volunteer willingness (hurting programs), cost time (hurting programs), add complexity, and still only reduce risk a little bit, assuming the Church's already-extant policies are being followed. Now, the policies are not always followed, and I think that needs to change. However, my argument would be that the more efficient way to reduce abuse is to increase enforcement of the anti-abuse policies and make any changes we need to them, rather than to add a secondary background check system.
Your mileage may vary, of course. You may have different opinions (or maybe you've got evidence I'm uninformed of, my knowledge of background checks or child abuse statistics/profiling are very limited) regarding how effective background checks are or about flaws with the Church's policies or the difficulty of enforcing compliance therewith. However, I hope that my reasoning above at least shows how it's possible, in good conscience, to believe that resources are better devoted to preventing abuse through mechanisms other than a background check.
Child abuse is evil. We all have a responsibility to be our brother's keeper, and that includes those of our brothers and sisters who are children. I urge everyone reading this answer to review the anti-abuse policies linked to above and commit to comply with them and encourage others to do the same, while still remaining vigilant to any situations that need reporting or revising.
Thanks for reading,
~Anne, Certainly

*For an example of recent refinement, see the announcement of allowing a second adult in the Priesthood interview of a woman or minor. The Church's policies might not be perfect yet, and what needs to change (and how) will likely vary based on who you ask, but the Church has shown a willingness to continue to improve them as good ideas are presented.  

posted on 11/10/2018 11:47 a.m.
I live in Pennsylvania, where essentially every organization that works with children (including churches) are required to have background checks and fingerprinting performed on the adults that work with children. The background checks by the state are free for volunteers, however, the fingerprinting is around $25, which is reimbursed by the ward. Although I think it's good that this is done, it is definitely a major stumbling block to quickly getting people into callings with the Primary and Youth programs. Not because everyone is a sex offender - it just takes time and paperwork (and remembering to turn in said paperwork).