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House bill would protect churches when disclosing misconduct of former staff

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers are considering how to help churches and nonprofit organizations weed out predatory individuals from their staff and volunteers.

Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, sponsors a House bill that would protect charities, nonprofits and churches from civil liability if they disclose incidents of sexual misconduct about former staff.

“I do believe that this would be tremendously helpful in closing the door, at least to some predatory activity in the context of nonprofits and churches,” Richey said.

In a public hearing in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Rep. John Black, R-Marshfield, indicated support for the idea.

“We don’t want predators going from one place to another because the last place they worked is afraid to let people know what happened,” Black said.

Richey, a pastor, said predators know churches and nonprofits are hungry for volunteers. They then exploit vulnerable people within.

Richey said his bill would apply in situations when a church, charity or nonprofit is doing a reference check for a new employee or volunteer. He said these organizations don’t feel they have legal right to disclose credible incidents of sexual misconduct or harassment if they did not rise to the level of mandatory reporting.

Richey said this legislation responds to the way predators operate. He said predators often depart an organization before their misconduct rises to the criminal level, leaving the organization in a bind with how to respond. Additionally, the incident won’t appear on a background check.

Rep. Robert Sauls, D-Independence, pointed out that truth is a defense against slander and libel. Meaning if the charity, church or nonprofit representative was speaking about a credible, truthful situation, the bill would be unnecessary.

Richey responded that nonetheless many are uncomfortable speaking about former employees or volunteers. He said this bill tells nonprofits it’s safe to divulge sexual misconduct to protect the next organization the predator might try to join.

The proposed law would not apply if the communication between organizations met the standard of actual malice.

“(If) you were working to assassinate someone’s character then you would not be protected,” Richey said.

Jessica Petrie is a lobbyist with Missouri Kids First, an organization that serves children that have suffered sexual or physical abuse. She called the bill an important first step in making sure that if people have patterns of troubling behavior future employers find out before it’s too late.

“We think one of the reasons why nonprofits don’t share that information is because they’re afraid of being sued,” Petri said.

Nobody testified in opposition to the bill. The legislation would need approval from the Judiciary Committee before a decision can be made in the House.

Jana Rose Schleis is a M.A. student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is studying investigative journalism and government reporting.