June 06, 2020

Insurers pressuring churches to deal with sex abuse issue

PORTLAND — Insurance carriers, facing rising costs in claim settlements and judgments, are demanding that churches take action to lessen their financial liability arising from sex-abuse cases.

At the Maine Episcopalian convention in Lisbon Falls, members on Saturday were expected to consider questionnaires and background checks for clergy, church employees and volunteers who supervise youth activities.

The screening would be in addition to eight hours of mandatory training on sex abuse and harassment that started last month.

Such measures could help educate clergy and laity to discern and prevent sex abuse, and may be accepted as a legal defense if a church worker or pastor is sued.

Elsewhere, the Northern New England District for Assemblies of God requires that anyone working with youth undergo a background check.

Many United Methodist Churches in the New England Annual Conference have been told by an insurer, Preferred Risk Mutual, that misconduct insurance will be dropped for churches with no prevention policies.

The Episcopal Church Insurance Company told the Diocese of Maine that liability coverage for sex-related claims would be forfeited unless the diocese adopted preventive policies.

“Sex molestation is not like a fire loss,” said Jack Kelley of Preferred Risk Mutual, a major church insurer. “A church burns down; people can put it back. But if you have a bad experience of sex molestation, many times it destroys the church.

“Since 1984, about 5 cents out of every each dollar we paid in commercial losses has gone to sexual molestation,” said Kelley, a senior vice president at Preferred Risk Mutual. Each year, Preferred pays out $15 million to $20 million annually in claims over molestation cases.

But church people fear an unintended impact from background screenings and training: a chilling effect on recruiting volunteers and clergy, especially for youth work.

“I think there will be people who will want to work with the church in some capacity and then, when faced with this, won’t want that kind of background check, just on principle,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Lameyer, pastor of Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Church.

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