Crisis planning is critical for parishes, schools

COLUMBIA — Fire, flooding, accidents and injuries aren’t the first things church staff members and volunteers think of as part of their daily jobs, but these incidents can have a significant financial and social impact on an entire parish.

Being aware of how to deal with these crises and others was the focus of the first annual Preventative Maintenance and Loss Recovery Seminar held April 23 at St. John Neumann School. Thirty-five clergy, maintenance staff and other representatives from parishes around the Diocese of Charleston attended.

The workshop was sponsored by Catholic Mutual, which handles insurance for the diocese.

The sessions focused on fire and water damage, risk assessment, preventative maintenance, mold damage and restoration techniques for water damage.

“It’s really important for people to learn the ins and outs of what goes on with buildings — it’s vital in keeping everything running, and it’s something we need to stress because we have so many old buildings in this diocese,” said Tracy Bates, claims and risk manager for Catholic Mutual. “You need to start from the foundation of the building out as far as insurance priority and liability.”

Bates said thefts, break-ins and electrical fires have been some of the most common claims on the parish level in the diocese.

Ken Winters of Catholic Mutual – Omaha offered an overview of parish risk management involving fire safety and other prevention issues. He said the top cause of fires at parishes and other facilities include lightning, electrical causes, open flame devices such as candles, heating equipment and arson.

Fred McCutcheon Jr. of CMR Inc. described the heavy damage water can cause, and stressed the importance of cleaning up standing water from burst pipes or backed up drains because of how quickly water can ruin materials and cause mold. Ronald Sharpe of GEI Engineering Inc. in Charleston showed slides of mold damage in schools and churches around South Carolina.

Both Winters and Bates said many insurance claims can be headed off if a parish has an effective preventative maintenance regimen that includes routine tasks such as changing air filters, checking gutters and making sure drains aren’t clogged.

Discussion also focused on insurance issues that arise when church groups, community organizations and Catholic organizations use parish facilities. Audience members described examples of growing parishes that in one week can host activities ranging from regular parish religious education to hobby groups, the Knights of Columbus and community blood drives.

“With growth around the diocese, we have a lot of smaller groups cropping up who are wanting to use church facilities, and that’s becoming a big insurance issue,” Bates said. “We don’t want to discourage these ministries — we want to make sure they’re done right in order to protect the diocese.”

Both Bates and Peter Shahid, general counsel for the diocese, discussed the importance of following up with the victim of an accident on parish property and documenting the specific details of any incident that caused injury.

Bates said the insurance office is working with the general counsel to create attorney-approved forms that can be distributed to parishes to use both as a checklist for facility safety and to know what information to gather if an accident occurs.

The next insurance seminar will be scheduled for the fall and focus on the specifics of what is and isn’t covered by diocesan insurance.

If you have questions about insurance or issues related to facility maintenance or parish activities, contact Tracy Bates at