NASHVILLE, Tenn. – More churches and religious groups are conducting background checks and taking other steps to protect children against mistreatment in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for years.

Children’s advocates say not all background checks are equal, and warn religious groups they must be especially vigilant in screening clergy, volunteers and staff because their trusting communities are often targets for abusers.

Background checks should look into criminal databases at the local, state and federal levels and religious groups need other safety mechanisms in place, according to insurance companies. That’s because many pedophiles don’t have criminal records, either because they haven’t been caught or they haven’t been prosecuted.

LifeWay Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing and research arm, launched a partnership with backgroundchecks.com in 2008 to offer background screenings to Lifeway customers at discounted prices.

There is a $10 basic-level background check option that includes a national criminal and sex offender search, said Jennie Taylor, a marketing coordinator at Lifeway. With nearly 16.2 million members, the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

More than 900 churches or organizations have conducted 11,277 background checks through Lifeway with backgroundchecks.com since 2008, according to Lifeway. Of those, 40 percent returned a hit — which is any kind of incident, ranging from minor traffic violations to felony convictions.

About 21 percent — or 2,320 searches — returned records with misdemeanor or felony results. More than 600 of those 2,320 returned felony offenses, Lifeway reports.

Under pressure from victims rights advocates to fight child sex abuse in its ranks, the SBC in 2008 determined it should not create its own database to help churches identify predators or establish an office to field abuse claims. But the denomination did offer to help churches with background checks and other precautions, and urged congregations to vigorously check out employees and share information, when warranted, with other churches.

Rick Schaber, risk control manager for Merrill, Wis.-based Church Mutual Insurance Co., the leading U.S. insurer of worship centers and religious organizations, with nearly 100,000 customers, said the number of clients conducting background checks has gone up over the last decade because of “increased education and awareness.”

He said Church Mutual recommends clients use LexisNexis background screening, which usually costs $10 to $12 to run checks. Prices vary based on the type of screening done. He recommends checks be conducted of local, state and national court records and to find out where someone has lived over the last 10 years and why they may have moved.

In 2007, 47,573 individuals were screened through LexisNexis by Church Mutual clients, Schaber said. In 2008, it was 48,109 and increased to 67,338 in 2009. He said the number is on pace this year to be 76,262.

Schaber said the company receives inquiries on background screenings “all the time” and noted the two sections of the company’s website that get the most hits are related to background screenings and child sex abuse.

“If you’re not willing to invest this money up front for your children’s programs, how do you look a parent in the eye if something does happen and you didn’t take the proper steps to identify someone who was a risk?” Schaber said.

Greg Young, minister of education at Cedar Hill Baptist Church in Cedar Hill, Tenn., said his church started using backgroundchecks.com through Lifeway over a year ago to screen congregation members who work with children.

He said the church, which has an average Sunday attendance of 200, has run about 50 to 60 background checks. The church has not had any incidents involving abuse but wanted to try to safeguard against any possible mistreatment.

“I think morally, it’s the right thing for us to do,” Young said. “What’s the life of a child worth? You can’t put a price on it.”