Many local churches sponsor a scout troop—and such sponsorships involve more than simply allowing the group to use space within a church building. It’s important to understand what your church’s responsibilities are so that it and the children within the troop are properly protected.
There are several recent changes in how the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will approach litigation involving both that group and a church that sponsors a troop. The changes came about after the United Methodist Church’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) recently engaged in dialogue with the BSA.
First of all, churches that sponsor a troop should be aware that they could be named in a lawsuit brought against the BSA. Attorneys representing a party that files an abuse lawsuit against a scout leader may list the sponsoring church as a defendant and may seek damages from the church. In such suits, the plaintiff may assert that the church has responsibilities that it failed to perform under the charter (sponsorship) agreement.
The BSA said that it will not use the language from the charter agreement to impose liability on the sponsoring church. However, attorneys representing the plaintiff are likely to use the language to argue that the church was liable.
The BSA also said it will protect churches from having to pay punitive damages in states where insurance covers punitive damages. However, Minnesota and many other states have said that insurance for punitive damages contradicts public policy. So if a jury awards punitive damages in a Minnesota case, insurance will not pay those damages.
After consulting with our Minnesota Conference chancellor, we strongly encourage churches to follow these basic recommendations:
· Review your sponsorship agreement that describes the legal relationship between the church and the BSA. When a church agrees to sponsor a troop, the church assumes responsibility and liability that goes beyond merely providing a place for the troop to meet. You need to be aware of the responsibilities the agreement places on the church—including the liability it assumes for scouting activities and the actions of the scout leader and volunteers. It is preferable to review the agreement with your church’s attorney.
· Treat scout troops like other youth activities involving volunteers. While the church does not manage the scouting program, it needs to verify that the BSA has performed background checks on all scout leaders and that training and supervision procedures are being followed. The church should keep a record of when and how it has verified these items with the BSA.
· Review your insurance coverage. In some abuse suits, insurance doesn’t cover all forms of damages. For example, in Minnesota and many other states, insurance doesn’t cover punitive damages.
· If a case is brought against the church, immediately contact the BSA’s insurer and request that the insurer retain an attorney chosen by the church to defend the church.
This information is not intended to deter churches from ministering to youth through a Boy Scout troop (or a Girl Scout troop or any other youth group, for that matter). But, like all activities for children and youth, there must be awareness and safeguards to protect vulnerable groups and individuals. Scouting programs provide wonderful experiences for participants. They also can attract people who prey on children and youth if those individuals perceive that there are not adequate safeguards in place. Churches must have a safe sanctuaries policy in place, and church leaders must hold scout leaders and volunteers accountable for adhering to the policy.
Each church needs to assess its own situation and develop its own safe sanctuaries policy. There are a number of resources that will help you do that.
Cokesbury has the following items for sale:
· Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church for Children and Youth, by Joy Thornburg Melton (Discipleship Resources, 2008)
· Safe Sanctuaries for Ministers: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church, by Joy Thornburg Melton (Discipleship Resources, 2009)
· Safe Sanctuaries for Children and Youth DVD (Discipleship Resources, 2004)
There are also free resources, such as the General Board of Discipleship website. Additionally, you can talk to your insurance agent and visit the websites of insurance companies like Church Mutual, Guide One and Brotherhood Mutual for additional resources.
Barbara Carroll is director of finance and administration and treasurer for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church