By J. Robert Ross
The minister at my church recently refused to allow Sam (not his real name), a convicted sex offender in my treatment program, to attend services at our church. I understood his fear, but I cannot agree with his decision to turn Sam away. I suspect his reaction, and the reaction of many others, is motivated by anxiety rooted in several misconceptions about sex offenders, their offenses, and their victims.
A common misconception, aided and abetted by the media, puts all offenders in the same boat. Anyone convicted of a sex offense is automatically labeled a “sexual predator.” This name calls to mind a dirty old man in a minivan who seduces or forces a child on a playground to get into his vehicle. He then kidnaps, tortures, rapes, and perhaps kills the child.
Understanding the Offenders
This is one kind of offender, a truly dangerous one. This type of offender is at high risk to commit a sex-related crime after being released from prison. Another dangerous offender is the stranger rapist, who attacks women either in their own home or in isolated places outside the home. This predator should be distinguished from the date rapist, who, as the name indicates, assaults women he knows.
However, these most dangerous offenders are in the minority. Most sex offenses are perpetrated in the home by someone the victim knows well: a stepfather (more rarely a father), live-in boyfriend, or another relative or close family friend. One in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse, but not at the hands of a stranger. Studies indicate 93 percent of the boys and 80 percent of the girls are molested by someone they know. These wrongdoers are known as incest offenders, whether or not they are biologically related to the child.
Two other types of sex offenders are peeping toms and exhibitionists. These men are the least dangerous of all. The peeping toms are normally shy and will run away if they believe they might have been detected peeping. An exhibitionist may shock and frighten a woman, but he almost never attempts to make physical contact with his victims.
Setting a Policy
When it comes to dealing with sex offenders in the church, there are two distinct problems. The first is how to deal with offenders who have never been identified as such. This means the church must have a policy of carefully screening and monitoring staff and volunteers, especially those who have access to children.
Many children have been molested in churches of all denominations, including Christian churches. These offenses are commonly committed by a staff member or a volunteer, not someone previously convicted or on a sex offender registry.
I know of no child being molested in a church by a person already on the sex offender registry. From a statistical point of view, children in a church are more likely to be molested by the youth leader than by Sam, a man on a state’s sex offender registry who has been evaluated by a forensic psychologist as having a very low risk for committing another offense.
According to Matt Branaugh, editor of the Church Law and Tax Group at Christianity Today, “In 2011, allegations involving child sex abuse were the top reason that churches were in state appellate and federal courts nationwide.”
Few if any of these cases involved previously convicted sex offenders who were on the sex offender registry.
Kentucky State Police Lt. Shane Bates, commander of the electronic crimes unit, reminds us, “It’s not the scary, demonized, back-alley person that we always warn kids about in ‘stranger danger’ talks. It could be the person coaching your team. It could be the person at your church.”
Responding to the Convicted
The other issue is how to respond to a known sex offender who wants to worship in your church. I highly recommend that leadership develop a policy regarding convicted offenders who might wish to attend your church. We do not make good decisions on the spur of the moment when we are confronted by an emotionally charged problem. It is always preferable to pray and calmly discuss a reasonable, responsible policy for responding to an offender before he knocks on your door.
The fourfold purpose of such a policy is to reassure the congregation that their children will be protected; hold the offender accountable; protect the offender from unwarranted accusations; and minister to him given the person’s unique circumstances and needs.
At a minimum, the policy should include these requirements for the offender:
• acceptance of total responsibility for his offense(s) without minimization or excuses
• completion of a certified treatment program
• participation in a ministry or self-help group (if there are signs of a sexual addiction)
• avoidance of contact with children or involvement in children’s programs
• agreement to be monitored and to be accountable to the church’s leaders.
A risk management team should be assigned to evaluate an offender, monitor his presence, and minister to his needs. This will likely require input from the offender’s counselor, who can help explain the offender’s psychological profile and ensure that he is being totally open about his history. One member of the team should be assigned to the offender as an accountability partner. The team can support the reintegration of the offender in the church and larger community, and assist him in his search for housing and employment.
A convicted offender should present himself to the minister and/or elders and be completely open regarding his history. Another issue to consider is whether the entire congregation should be made aware of the person’s past. In my judgment, if the leaders have previously explained their policy, then the congregation will know how an offender will be monitored and will feel reassured regarding the safety of their children. It is not necessary, and could be harmful, to point out the offender and make him a pariah or leper in the eyes of the fellowship.
The church’s policy should also explicitly acknowledge the pain experienced by victims of sexual molestation. Anyone in the congregation who has ever suffered this wound should be encouraged to seek pastoral care. If the staff is not adequately trained to minister to these victims, some of whom may have complicated mental and emotional problems, the church should make financial assistance available, if needed, to help them receive counseling.
If an offender wishes to attend a church where his victim worships, the victim must first be consulted. The victim’s feelings should be of paramount importance in the development of guidelines for the offender’s participation in the life of the church. This issue will be moot for most offenders, who are forbidden by the court to have contact with their victim.
If there is no court order forbidding contact, but his victim has any reservation about seeing him, then the church must say to an offender, “No, you cannot worship here. But we will help you find a congregation where your victim would not be confronted and retraumatized by your presence.”
Grace and Truth
To be clear, I believe sex offenders should pay the penalty for their crimes. I encourage my clients who are victims of abuse to prosecute their offenders. It is often the only way the offenders ever accept responsibility for their crime or crimes. Over the past 15 years, nearly every man in my sex offender treatment program has expressed appreciation that he was apprehended and had to get help.
Let us recognize that excluding sex offenders from polite company by our restrictive laws regarding where they can live and by the rejection of them in public worship does nothing to reduce the risk of an offender committing another offense. Research has concluded that residential restriction laws have no effect on whether an offender commits another offense. Indeed, social isolation increases the risk of another offense.
The gospel proclaims God’s intention to unite all things in Christ. It calls us to recognize our common humanity with every sinner, no matter how repulsive we find his sin. The church that is faithful to her Lord will welcome and minister to every penitent sinner, including those with a criminal record.
J. Robert Ross serves as a marriage and family therapist with Central Counseling in St. Petersburg, Florida, and ran a sex offender treatment program for 15 years.