Sex Offenders in Church
If you haven’t faced this yet, you might:
A sex offender asks to attend your church. Or you discover that a sex offender is already attending your church. What do you do? What are the implications of making a decision one way or the other? Though there are probably few churches that have had to deal with this so far, you can be certain that the number of churches facing this issue will increase, perhaps significantly.
Where do you begin to deal with such a situation?
As more and more adults and organizations receive training on how to prevent child sexual abuse, more and more people are reporting disclosures or suspicions of abuse. More prosecutions are taking place and more and more names are being added to the sex offender registry. Many of those accused plead out and never serve time. Yet they may bear the designation of sex offender. Others will go to prison and as they are released, they seek help. Some will turn to a church for that help.
It is extremely important to work through this issue in advance so you will be prepared when it happens. The first time you are confronted with it is not the time to consider all of the issues. A quick decision on the spot is very risky. But a planned response puts you and your church in a much better position to respond with confidence, clarity and with grace.
Here are some very general considerations you have to address as you begin to think through how you will handle this challenge. With each of these considerations comes a whole host of discussions and decisions that need to be included.
First, does your state even allow a sex offender to attend a church? In some states, it is illegal for a sex offender to participate in any organization that serves children. Some states base their restrictions on the designation level of the offender. So you need to consult with your lawyer regarding the laws of your state.
Next, you need to determine the factors that go into making a decision and how it will impact your congregation. Does the offender already have a relationship with the church? Is her/his victim(s) part of your church family? What impact will his/her presence have on the others in your congregation who have experienced some form of abuse? Keep in mind that, whether you know it or not, you already have child sexual abuse survivors in your church. Given that there are over 39 million survivors of child sexual abuse today, you can be certain that some in your church are included in that number. The challenge for a church is that the vast majority of these victims have never revealed their abuse. That means that a decision to allow a sex offender to attend your church could have unintended consequences.
In addition, you have to determine how engaged your congregation will be in the decision-making process. We recommend you have plenty of opportunities to not only discuss this with the congregation, but use this discussion as a springboard to provide training on preventing sexual abuse. An open discussion may encourage some who are still silently bearing the pain and shame of sexual abuse to seek help. Having congregation-wide discussions will also serve as a deterrent to anyone in your fellowship that may have an intention to abuse children, or who may be grooming the organization, a family or a child for abuse.
Also, how do you discern between real repentance and very skillful manipulation? Sex offenders are, for the most part, master manipulators. This is why so many churches have stood up for offenders and turned their backs on victims, only to learn they were deceived. How do you know if the interest of a sex offender to attend your church is because they want help or because they know churches are, by nature, very trusting people and therefore, they can have access to children while giving the impression they have changed?
Finally, apart from church participation, what are the options available to the church to provide ministry to a sex offender?
Certainly the church is called to proclaim forgiveness in Christ. He can make all things new. He can change the heart of a sex offender. And who better to help such a person understand what true repentance is and to walk that path with them?
On the other hand, if you allow a known sex offender to participate in your church activities and he/she re-offends, you have potentially put yourself in a place for a higher level of liability since your decision or actions gave this person access to children.
1). We recommend that the leadership discuss the process to be followed in making a decision. What resources do you need to call upon to help explore the decision-making process? How will the congregation be included? How will you deal with those who have very strong opinions on either side? Are you willing to potentially lose some members of your congregation, especially if you grant permission for a sex offender to attend?
2). If the leadership thinks they want to consider allowing a sex offender to participate in the life of the church, DO NOT exclude the congregation from the decision-making process. If ever there is an issue that demands a public discourse in your church, this is it. If the decision to allow a sex offender to participate in your church is made by only a select group of people in leadership without the congregation being made aware, you can expect the matter to be discovered and some members of your congregation will lose trust in the leadership. In addition, you lose the opportunity to have a rational discussion about this issue. The willingness of an offender to submit to such a public discussion may be an indication of the nature of his/her repentance.
3). We recommend that you have someone with experience in this area advise your leadership to help you work through this process to help ensure that you are covering all the issues involved.
4). Keep in mind that these are some of the possible outcomes:
You decide not to allow the sex offender to attend
You allow only certain classifications of offenders to attend
You place restrictions and limitations on their involvement
You provide constant monitoring of the individual
You consider other options to minister to the offender that doesn’t include attendance at church services or programs