Sexual Misconduct Liability, Is Your Church at Risk?

In recent years, the news of sexual misconduct cases has been overwhelming, particularly the crisis faced by the Catholic Church. However, churches of all denominations are now also facing these types of claims with increasing frequency. Cases of sexual misconduct are also being brought against social service providers in the business of residential and foster home placements, as well as schools, camps, and scouting organizations.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that child sexual abuse is the worst problem that the religious community has faced in centuries. According to Church Law and Tax, the sexual misconduct problem is the most serious financial exposure facing church-related organizations. Nationwide media coverage of such incidents reflects the growing concern of our society about sexual misconduct.

Along with the surge in claim activity and litigation, the need for insurance has risen drastically. There is no doubt that charges of abusive conduct in churches are receiving lots of publicity around the world. While it may seem that there is no way to anticipate when such claims could involve your church or by whom they might be made, there are things you can do to prevent them and to prepare to deal with them if they do arise.

First and foremost, make sure that you have a thorough, comprehensive church insurance policy that provides sexual misconduct or sexual acts liability coverage. This coverage is sometimes included in the basic liability coverage. Or it may be part of an enhanced liability package that is offered in addition to the basic coverage. In the current litigious climate, it is well worth the additional cost to have this added protection. If your policy doesn’t include specific coverage for sexual misconduct or sexual abuse claims, contact your insurance agent to get a clear explanation of your protection in this area.

Sexual misconduct insurance provides protection for legal liability up to the stated policy limits. This type of coverage usually protects the church and its members, directors, officers, employees, and volunteers. In instances of sexual misconduct, the church may be held legally responsible and liable for the acts or conduct of such individuals, even if the church is not specifically aware of instances of sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct insurance is available through most church insurers. The church leadership should review this coverage with the insuring company. Generally, the limits available for this coverage will be stated as a separate amount, usually lower than your other liability exposures. Some church insurers offer higher limits for churches that conduct appropriate screening procedures.

Most companies will not continue defense for the employee if there is a confession or conviction, but will continue to defend the church. This coverage will not usually apply to individuals who actually engage in sexual misconduct, nor will it apply if a known perpetrator is appointed to a position within the organization.

Take a careful look at your insurance coverage for sexual misconduct. There may be conditions on this coverage, like mandating that your staff attends training sessions or reads a manual on claim prevention. Make sure that your staff understands and complies with these conditions. Your church should have an official policy in place to help prevent sexual misconduct before it occurs. The policy should include at the least these four different areas:

1. Screen employees and volunteers -The first step in preventing sexual misconduct is to thoroughly screen the backgrounds of employees and volunteers. Legitimate workers will not be offended, and the process often scares off unwanted individuals.

2. Establish organizational policies and procedures – As a second line of defense, organizations should establish written policies and procedures for its employees and volunteers. Once policies and procedures are established, they must be communicated effectively to the staff, and the rules have to be consistently enforced.

3. Educate staff, children, and parents – An educational program offers your organization a third important line of defense against sexual misconduct. Education can be targeted toward employees, volunteers, parents and children to help everyone identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

4. Develop the best program for your organization – Children can be taught to understand the difference between good touching and bad touching. And parents can learn about the organization’s policies to prevent sexual misconduct.

Institute safety practices throughout your organization. These practices should extend beyond just your spiritual leaders to every member of your staff. Your Sunday school should have two teachers in every classroom every week. Encourage parents to pick up their children at the church after they return from a youth ministry trip, rather than having someone drive them home. Your ministers should know where your staff is and what they are doing at all times. Don’t let a lack of vigilance get anyone into trouble.

Communicate your efforts to your congregation as well. An important reason to engage the church fully is to ensure widespread comfort with recommended reporting procedures. There is a natural concern about the possibility of false allegations, but in fact it is much more common that fear of embarrassment or error may keep even responsible adults from reporting legitimate suspicions. Developing a church policy with specific procedures for reporting instances of suspected sexual misconduct will go a long way toward relieving these fears.

Sexual Misconduct Statistics (

While statistical information regarding sexual abuse varies substantially, here are a number of dramatic findings from government and other authorities:

  • Approximately 770,000 incidents of child abuse are reported per year, with 10 percent of those being sexual abuse.
  • It is believed that less than 10 percent of sexual abuse cases are ever reported to authorities, so the actual incidence of sexual abuse each year is much greater than reported.
  • The most common abusers of children are acquaintances of their victims.
  • Sexual abuse occurs among all groups of society, in rural and metro areas, and regardless of race, education, or socioeconomic status.
  • Child advocates commonly claim that one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually molested before their 18th birthday.
  • The Catholic Church of America has paid more than $2.6 billion dollars in child abuse claims (The Washington Post).
  • In a 2011 Oregon lawsuit, more than 500 victims were awarded $166 million dollars for abuse inflicted by priests (The New York Times).


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