(RNS) — Day and overnight camps are a staple of summer, a welcome relief for working parents.
But they can also present opportunities for sexual predators.
Last week, Noah Paradis, 19, a staffer at a LifeWay camp in Arizona, was arrested on five counts of inappropriate touching.
The abuse allegedly took place during CentriKid Camp,which was held at the Bison Ranch Retreat Center in Overgaard, Ariz. Paradis is accused of abusing two children at the five-day, four-night camp for third through sixth graders.
Paradis was being held in the Navajo County Jail in Holbrook on no bond as of Monday (June 17). He is a Georgia resident.
The camp is a ministry of LifeWay, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. This year, LifeWay anticipates more than 122,000 children from 40 states will attend one of its summer camps or mission projects.
“We are heartbroken for the victims and the victims’ families,” said LifeWay acting CEO Brad Waggoner. “Our primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of all our camp participants. We are grieved that someone representing LifeWay would behave in this manner and abuse their position of authority with a child.”
The arrest on Thursday came one day after the SBC ended its annual meeting, dominated this year by discussions on countering sexual abuse in churches. It passed a resolution denouncing “the evil of sexual abuse” and adopted changes to its governing documents that will allow the convention to kick out churches that mishandle sex abuse allegations.
During the conference, Matt Chandler, a Texas megachurch pastor, addressed concerns about the way he and his church handled an accusation of sexual abuse by a former youth minister at a church camp six years ago.
This weekend, a former pastor at a Houston church was charged with sexual assault against a teenage relative. Stephen Bratton, a former pastor at Grace Family Baptist Church, was arrested after authorities said he confessed to two other pastors.
More than 14 million youth attend camps each year. And thousands of those camps are faith-based.
They are not immune from abuse.
Last year, CBS News reported that more than 500 youth were sexually abused in camps over the past 55 years. Twenty-one of those cases took place in 2017.
Part of the problem, according to the report, was the lack of uniform regulations. There are no national standards for camps to follow.
The American Camp Association, however, accredits some 2,700 of the nation's 14,000 day and resident camps (8,400 overnight and 5,600 day camps). Among other things, the accreditation process addresses abuse prevention.
“ACA accreditation is at the top of the list of things camps can do to help prevent child sexual abuse,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association.
ACA accreditation includes some 200 standards camps must meet. Those include screening all staffers and volunteers, running criminal background checks, requiring voluntary disclosure statements, reference checks and personal interviews. ACA-accredited camps must also provide staffers and volunteers with training to recognize, prevent and report child sexual abuse. The accreditation requires camps to have around-the-clock policies for supervising children.
ACA accreditation is voluntary.
The CentriKid Camp in Overgaard is not accredited, the ACA said, though some LifeWay camps (for example, Camp Ridgecrest for Boys and Camp Crestridge for Girls in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains) are accredited by the group.
Some states require camps to be licensed but licensing standards are not uniform. States may require camps to follow certain policies with regard to food safety or pool maintenance, but their licensure policies may not require background checks for employees.
Arizona, for example, is one of 18 states that do not require overnight camps to perform criminal background checks on staff and volunteers.
A spokesperson for LifeWay said all its 291 camp and mission projects require staff to complete training on sexual abuse prevention. Staffers are instructed to never be alone with a child and to report anything suspicious to the camp director.
Staffers must also undergo background and reference checks.
“LifeWay takes every allegation of abuse seriously and investigates and reviews everything brought to our attention,” said spokeswoman Carol Pipes. “We continue to advance our sexual abuse training for all our staff, including all summer staff who work with kids and student camps.”