Risk Factors and Risks
It is important to keep an open mind about persons who may take advantage of a condition of vulnerability. There are predatory adults, no doubt: self-centered, narcissistic, capable of denial to an extraordinary degree, and devious. Such persons seem to possess finely-tuned radar, allowing them to identify someone whose life circumstances and dependency needs make them especially ready targets. And there are lifelong pedophiles (those sexually attracted to children) and ephebophiles (those sexually attracted specifically to teenage boys; the term is sometimes used to designate those attracted to adolescents regardless of gender).
Far more common are irresponsible persons who, although they would never think of themselves as capable of doing harm to another human being, use alcohol or other substances to release themselves from their own ethical commitments. Indeed, the prospect of such release may be the largest single purpose of the abuse. Common, too, are individuals who exercise poor judgment for a variety of reasons.
The risks such persons pose to children, teenagers, and vulnerable adults are grave, extending to the breach of selfhood, of psychological and physical integrity, with lifelong effects. The risks their activities pose to congregations and to congregation’s leadership, ordained and lay, are serious. In congregations where leaders fail to check the references and the background of such persons, both the congregation as an institution and the leaders as individuals can be held liable for negligent hiring. In congregations where leaders turn a blind eye to inappropriate, much less predatory, conduct, the institution as a whole and the governing board as individuals may be liable both for negligent supervision and for failure to report.
In the past year criminal conviction checks (a.k.a. “criminal record searches,” or “criminal background checks”) have become increasingly popular as a way for congregations both to identify individuals who may not be suited to work in a religious or caring community, and to limit the liability of the congregation and its leaders. Of course, criminal conviction checks are limited in their scope and must never be seen as anything more than a long-shot rule-out. The guidelines we recommend to congregations and other UUA organizations will require empathy, sensitivity, education, and above all persistence on the part of those charged with recommending the call, hire, or recruitment of a minister, professional leader, or staff member to positions of power and sensitivity in a congregation, a District, or in the UUA.