Churches are discriminating against job seekers for being sex abuse victims — and it’s legal
Faced with what appears to be an epidemic of child sex abuse cases, U.S. churches have taken to asking prospective employees if they have ever been sexually assaulted based on the belief that a childhood attack may result in the victim becoming an potential abuser.
Writing at the Daily Beast, activist and journalist Zack Kopplin notes the rising tide of churches requesting the sexual history of job applicants as a condition of employment — including porn-viewing habits.
While churches should be commended for taking a hard look at applicants who might be working with small children, Kopplin points out they have another motive.
Wary of civil lawsuits when a church employee is arrested for sexually assaulting a parishioner or their child, churches have begun pressing potential employees to divulge answers to questions one would never think would come up in a job interview.
“Have you ever been physically or sexually abused as a child?” reads a question on the job application at the Twin City Bible Church in Urbana, Illinois, before asking: “If yes, when, where, and what were the circumstances?”
According to the Faith Assembly of God in New York: “answering yes, or leaving the question unanswered, may not automatically disqualify an applicant for youth or children’s work.”
“Individuals who have such a history [of sexual abuse as a minor] should discuss their desire to work with preschoolers, children or youth with one of the pastoral staff prior to engaging in any volunteer service,” states a form at the Ferris Hill Baptist Church of Florida.
According to Richard Hammar, Senior Editor of Christianity Today’s Church Law and Tax Review, he recommended asking possible new hires about being sexually abused based on his belief that victims will become victimizers.
“I included this question on the form because of a ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1991 (just months before the kit was published) finding that a church was responsible for the molestation of a young child because it failed to ask the molester (a nursery worker) whether or not she had been molested as a child,” Hammar wrote.
Hammar’s recommendation to ask about past abuse made it onto sample volunteer application forms used by Lifeway Christian Stores, a Baptist bookstore chain. In an interview, a spokesperson for Lifeway told the Baptist Press: “All people who have been abused do not become child abusers, but almost all child abusers have been abused themselves.”
A 2001 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found, “The data supports the notion of a victim-to-victimiser cycle in a minority of male perpetrators, but not among the female victims studied.”
The study also notes that the majority of sexual assaults tend to be men preying on young woman or girls.
While it may seem that questions on a job application or in an interview about past abuse or sexual history sounds illegal, they are not because the rules are different for religious organizations.
“Under the ministerial exemption, religious institutions are allowed to violate employment-discrimination law when hiring and firing their ministers,” explained Greg Lipper, a lawyer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Not everyone who works for a church is a minister, but the exception applies to employees with significant religious responsibilities, including clergy and religious-school teachers.”
According to David Clohessy, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, questioning victims of past sexual abuse is “offensive.”
“Survivors should be able to decide when, if, and to whom they will share this information,” he said, before adding, “If a predator is looking for a way to get to kids, he would very likely lie and say never abused.”
“So all it would really do is screen out people, who through no fault of their own, are victims of horrific crimes.”