Seventh-day Adventist churches and schools have a basic legal obligation to protect children from sexual abuse. In the wake of a heinous crime, some families may be eligible to file a civil lawsuit.
- Inadequate supervision
- Negligent employee training
- Insufficient background checks
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Our attorneys are now representing two men who claim they were abused as students at Miracle Meadows Christian, a small Adventist-linked boarding school sheltered in rural West Virginia. Miracle Meadows was closed in 2014, after an investigation led by West Virginia's education department found that school officials had attempted to conceal at least one incident of abuse. A janitor at the school had been handcuffing students and choking them.
Subsequent reports suggest that this form of "disciplinary" action wasn't rare; in fact, brutalizing children may have been standard business at Miracle Meadows. But how common is it within the wider Seventh-day Adventist community?
"We Have Met The Enemy & He Is Us"
In his own research, Dr. William Chunestudy discovered at least 523 reports of sexual abuse between 1994 and 2013. The reports come from Adventist Risk Management, the official insurance company for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its ministries across the globe.
Dr. Chunestudy worked as the insurer's Educational Resource Specialist for over 3 years and so, in 2013, he set out to understand the scope of insurance claims filed over incidents of sexual abuse. Over less than a decade, the insurance company had been made aware of over 500 sexual abuse cases, ultimately paying out around $30 million in compensation to survivors.
- Teacher / Principal - 94
- Pathfinder / Adventurer - 40
- Member - 35
- Leader - 24 (of a Sabbath school, youth group, music group)
- Elder - 23
- Volunteer - 14
- Deacon - 9 cases
Only 2 of the case reports, Chunestudy says, had been filed in relation to abuse committed by strangers, people unconnected to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In one incident, a young member of the Church met a sexual predator online using a school's computer. The vast majority of abusers, however, were affiliated in some way with the Church.
That's why, in his presentation, Dr. Chunestudy quoted the comic strip Pogo: "we have met the enemy and he is us." And overwhelmingly, the children who are being abused are the children of Seventh-day Adventist members and workers. In short, predators in the Church have found their prey in the congregation.
Abuse In The Seventh-Day Adventist Church
Two types of perpetrator stood out from Dr. Chunestudy's research, due both to their ubiquity in the claims data and their proximity to children: teachers and Pathfinders.
Together, teachers and principals are named in 94 insurance claims, in large part, Chunestudy says, because teachers have the most "face time" with children. Between 1993 and 2014, Adventist Risk Management paid out nearly $8 million in damages to compensate the victims of teacher-related sex abuse.
An official department within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Pathfinder Club (or just "Pathfinders") is an organ of the Church's youth ministry. Similar to scouting, young Pathfinders between the ages of 10 and 15 hike, camp, volunteer within their local communities and, most importantly, take Bible study classes.
As we've seen, at least 40 reports of sex abuse in the Church name Pathfinders as perpetrators, but it's not entirely clear whether we're talking about adults who supervise Pathfinder activities or youths who participate in the program. Child-with-child abuse, Dr. Chunestudy has found, is extremely prevalent. In fact, these incidents, in which one child or teen victimizes another, may well be the leading source of insurance claims in Chunestudy's review.
A "Pattern" Of Inadequate Supervision & Training
As he reviewed the case documents, Dr. Chunestudy began to notice a pattern. "In most cases when these events have occurred, there was inadequate supervision." Chunestudy noted bathrooms, play areas, rest areas and remote hallways as the areas of particular risk, but also said that the Church had paid insufficient attention to "down time" between Church services.
"We need oversight," Chunestudy says, and "we need oversight of those who are chosen to supervise." Another problem according to Dr. Chunestudy? Training. "Many of our volunteers and supervisors simply weren't trained," the expert says. He also identified lapses in screening protocols, where a Church volunteer or worker wasn't subjected to a background check that could have kept the person away from children, or out of the Church entirely.
Is The Church Liable For Sexual Abuse?
Organizations who tend to the care and education of children are bound to protect the young people under their charge. This legal and moral duty includes an obligation to protect children from sexual abuse. And it covers religious and secular organizations alike. If your child was abused in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, you and your loved ones may be eligible to file a civil lawsuit against the Church.
As educational institutions, every Seventh-day Adventist school, academy and boarding school is compelled to do everything in its power to protect kids from abuse. The same legal standard applies to Church congregations, where Pastors, Deacons and employees are charged with momentous responsibility of encouraging the spiritual development of children and ensuring their physical and emotional security.
Protecting Our Kids
Any employee who will come into contact with children should first survive a thorough background check. Every employee should receive extensive training on proper conduct with children, identifying inappropriate conduct and reporting potential crimes to the proper authorities. And then, when the unthinkable happens, and a child or parent comes forward with a report of abuse, the school or Church must respond appropriately.
Inadequate supervision, training and reporting leave children vulnerable to dangerous predators. But they also leave a school or Church open to legal liability.
Why Families File Civil Lawsuits
Sexual abuse is a crime. It's a particularly-serious crime when the person being abused is a minor. We believe that sexual predators should face justice. In most cases, this form of justice comes through the criminal justice system, where offenders are charged, prosecuted and sentenced to punishment.
Many victims and their families, however, fall by the way-side during this process. The criminal justice system isn't designed to help survivors recover; it's about keeping abusers off the streets and holding them accountable to society for their actions. Securing compensation is another story. While state-based compensation programs can help cover a limited number of crime-related expenses, most survivors and families will have to turn to the civil justice system to recover full compensation.
Learn More In A Free Consultation
Filing a private lawsuit can be scary. It's a major decision. You should think long and hard about your options before moving forward. Our experienced attorneys can help. Call us today to discuss your situation with a qualified lawyer. We offer free consultations, so you can find more information about your legal rights at no risk and no obligation.