When in Doubt, Report Suspicions of Abuse: Lessons from Vinelife Church (Longmont, CO)

Youth Pastor arrested and Five church officials charged with failure to report.

A recent situation in Longmont, Colorado touches on several important teaching points for church leadership:

1. Sexual Abusers have no visual profile;

2. Sexual Abuse Awareness Training is critical to protect our young people;

3. The ‘grooming process’ involves manipulation and deception, rather than violence;

One of the most important lessons to be learned from Vinelife Church, however, is this:
When in doubt … REPORT ABUSE

Article :
Huffington Post

ABC “7” News

Brief Facts
Jason Allen Roberson (son of senior pastor, Walt Roberson) was the youth pastor at Vinelife Church from at least 2005 until September of 2013.  On his website, Jason Roberson describes himself as a Christian musician, son, husband and father.

A former teen member of the youth ministry has recently alleged that Jason Roberson engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with her as a minor including: repeated fondling, showing her a picture on his cellphone picture of his penis, and watching her undress.  The victim now claims that the inappropriate sexual behavior lasted for years.

In March of 2013, the former teen member (now 24) disclosed Jason Roberson’s behavior to Vinelife church leaders.  Apparently, church leadership confronted Jason, who admitted much of the behavior.  Following the confrontation, Jason submitted to a polygraph examination at the request of the church leaders.  Jason Roberson was removed as Vinelife’s youth pastor.  Notwithstanding the knowledge of Vinelife leadership, no one from Vinelife’s church staff notified the authorities of the former teen member’s allegations.

Vinelife youth pastor Jason Allen Roberson, aged 35, was arrested by Boulder police on September 4, 2013.   Roberson was charged with one count of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust, one count of sexual exploitation of a child, one count of unlawful sexual contact, and one count of stalking.

According to the statement posted on the Vinelife Church website, the former teen member has filed a civil lawsuit against the church.

Jason Roberson has been charged – but there has been no guilty plea or conviction.

Church Leaders Face Criminal Charges
This week, five church officials at Vinelife Church have been criminally charged with failure to report child abuse pursuant to Colorado law: C.R.S. 19-3-304.  Failure to report child abuse in Colorado is a Class 3 misdemeanor – punishable by fine and/or six months imprisonment (see C.R.S. §18-1-106.1).

Reporting Statutes
Every state in the US has law mandating the report of sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect – and the suspicions thereof.   Reporting statutes often designate particular people or employment positions who must report (mandatory reporters) and those who may report.  State reporting statutes commonly identify the time period within which a report must be made, the form of the report, and to whom the report must be made.

The five Vinelife Church staff members were charged under Colorado Revised Statute §19-3-304 (misdemeanor offenses).  C.R.S. 19-3-304 lists clergy in Colorado as persons who must immediately report suspected abuse and neglect as of 2002:
“A person who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to                                   abuse or neglect … shall immediately upon receiving such information report or cause a report                           to be made of such fact to the county department or local law enforcement agency.

It is important to note that Colorado does recognize a narrow exception to clergy as mandatory reporters when the information that gives rise to a suspicion is:
-a communication directly between the member and the clergy,
-the communications occur within a professional context (i.e. confessional communication),                               or the communication is otherwise protected by C.R.S. 13-90-107.

This form of protected communication (“clergy privilege”) is intentionally narrow.  If information is received by a member of the clergy in virtually any other way OR is subsequently learned or confirmed in a non-protected way, the clergy member must report the suspicion to the county department or local law enforcement agency.

In Vinelife’s case, church leadership received the information directly from the former teen member – which did not fall within the narrow clergy privilege; the information was clearly not protected.

The next question: does the age of the former teen member (now 24) impact Vinelife’s mandatory obligation to report the allegation of abuse under C.R.S. 19-3-304?

Though the former teen member is now in her mid-twenties and no longer at risk of abuse, this did not prevent Colorado authorities from charging the church leaders with failure to report.  The fact that Jason Roberson still held a “position of trust with regard to any other child currently under 18 years old” – youth pastor – was likely significant.

Criminal Charges for Failure to Report Becoming More Common
Though state reporting statutes have been on the books for years, prosecutions for failure-to-report are rare. (c.f. Gateway Baptist Church, Loveland, Colorado http://www.greeleytribune.com/article/20070712/NEWS/107120111?layout=default).

In November 2011, the drama surrounding Penn State and Jerry Sandusky began to unfold.  In the course of that drama two Penn State University officials were arrested and prosecuted for perjury and failure-to-report sexual abuse, as required by Pennsylvania law. These officials included former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, and former Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz

Though Penn State was not the first to see officials criminally charged for failure-to-report sexual abuse, Penn State charges were so notorious that all organizational leaders were put on notice that law enforcement can and will prosecute leaders or employees who fail to report.

In September of 2012, five staff members at Victory Christian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma were arrested and criminally charged with failure-to-report sexual abuse under Oklahoma abuse reporting statutes.

After Penn State, it should be no surprise that states are tightening mandatory reporting statutes and are more willing to investigate and prosecute organizational leaders for failing to report suspicions of abuse and neglect.

Failure to Report – Other Potential Impacts
Church and organizational leaders must understand the critical importance of correctly handling an allegation of child sexual abuse.  Two obvious reasons are clear from the Penn State and Victory Christian Church (VCC) – criminal charges and loss of employment.

Other impacts reach beyond the individuals accused of mishandling information.

Denial of Insurance Coverage
Allegations of sexual abuse in an organization will often result in civil litigation – this appears to be the case in Colorado.  Failure to report can result in denial of insurance coverage related to civil litigation.

Each policy providing coverage for negligence and general liability has a notification clause requiring each insured (organization) to immediately notify the insurer (carrier) if the insured becomes aware of facts that could give rise to a claim. Any insured failing to do so risks denial of coverage.

The ‘denial of coverage’ process has begun for Penn State. PSU’s insurance carrier filed a lawsuit against the university seeking a declaratory judgment releasing the insurance carrier from any obligation to defend or indemnify Penn State in connection with claims made in civil lawsuits –based on PSU’s failure to report facts giving rise to a claim within a reasonable period of time.  Generally, if an organization does not report an allegation to law enforcement, it does not report the allegation to its insurance agent or carrier.

Allegations of Cover Up
The failure-to-report charges faced by the five Vinelife staff members are misdemeanor charges.  For these five individuals, the most significant direct impact from the criminal charges will be limited to fines.  The broader impact, however, is the public perception of a cover-up – which makes a jury angry and unpredictable.  Further, no organization (least of all a church) wants a reputation of being unsafe and unconcerned about children.

Know the Law in Advance
Given the significance of the issues and ramifications involved, organizational leaders must understand the reporting responsibilities in place for its state(s) of operation.  Unlike many statutory provisions, state reporting responsibilities are easily accessible through a simple internet search (i.e.www.childwelfare.gov). 

It is also important that organizational leaders understand the reporting requirements in advance of an allegation.  Given the time elements for reporting, organizational staff must act quickly.  Law enforcement (and juries) is unsympathetic to claims of information delays in large organizations – not forgetting that a child may still be in harm’s way.

Finally, it is important that all organizational staff and volunteers be made familiar with the state reporting requirements and the organization’s internal procedures for handling allegations of abuse and neglect.  Many allegations of abuse are initially reported to lower-level staff members or employees that are in direct contact with children.  Unlike Penn State and VCC, these outcries oftentimes never rise to the attention of upper leadership.  Because an organization can be held responsible for the failures of its staff members and volunteers, it is important that everyone who wears the organization’s nametag be trained to understand how to properly handle information regarding the abuse or neglect of a child.