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.