Dear 100 Hour Board,
Why doesn’t the Church run background checks on those who work with children?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
3) And, more importantly, will background checks prevent abuse to the best amount in the best way (i.e. efficiently)?
*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.