Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Must We Welcome Registered Sex Offenders Into Local Congregations?

Sexual abuse. Child molestation. Rape. Sexual assault. These are all loaded words that stir strong emotion. Pedophiles. Predators. Rapists. Sex offenders. All of these words also stir up equally strong emotions. The victims of their offenses are devastated, maybe for life. Their families are also victimized. After all the scandals especially among the clergy and others in Christian leadership, we ask ourselves, What should we do about these people? In the interests of protecting our members, particularly children, youth and vulnerable adults, should we keep these convicted sex offenders away from our fellowships? What about grace and redemption? How far do these go?

First of all, let us define the kinds of sex offenders we have in mind before we answer the question. They are different. Pedophiles are individuals who have a sexual attraction to children or youth. They normally are attracted to a certain type of child or youth, a certain body type, appearance and age. They may or may not give in to their impulses. It is those who yield to their impulse who pose the most danger to children and youth. Rapists are people who may sexually violate victims of any age, of the same or the opposite sex. Predators are people who prey on the vulnerabilities of victims, whether through force or grooming (luring victims with gifts or favors before taking advantage of them). Pedophiles, who act on their impulses and rapists, along with other criminals, are predators. Sex offenders are individuals who commit sexual offenses, whatever they may be. Sadly, many are no doubt unregistered and have not been convicted. We can do nothing about them until they are caught in the act, or rarely, confess. It's the convicted sex offenders we have to reckon with.

We also have levels of registered sex offenders. There are those who, as teens, may have had so-called statutory rape with underage youth (as an 18 year old having sex with a 14 year old). This young person may have to register as a sex offender, maybe for life, though he or she poses no present danger to society. Should this person be locked out of the life of our congregations as though they pose some kind of danger to us? Then there are those more dangerous sex offenders who may re-offend and who are known to have recently committed sex offenses. It's true that because of their official sex offender status, they have to follow many regulations as ordered by the courts they deal with, including wearing ankle monitors. Still, what should local churches do about them?

Yes, I know that many of you will say, Why not just lock the more dangerous sex offenders in jail, prison, or consign them to something called civil commitment to protect society? Why not let out the nonviolent drug offenders and lock up the registered sex offenders who are likely to re-offend? I have asked these same things myself and have signed petitions calling for tougher laws for convicted sex offenders and more lenient laws for nonviolent drug offenders. Sadly, it does not look like these things will happen any time too soon. As Christians, we believe in God's grace, knowing that all of us are sinners who have been saved by this same grace. Though we feel a natural disgust and revulsion for the dangerous sex offenders, we may know that they can be saved by the same grace that saved us. But even if a convicted sex offender may become a true Christian, should he or she be welcome to worship among us? What about service?

In this era of backgrounds checks, more and more congregations are adopting the policy of background checks for everyone who wants to serve, even as a greeter. many recommend monitoring escorting convicted sex offenders who want to join us. Some say that they should be made to disclose their sex offender status. Many say that these convicted sex offenders should be allowed, under supervision, to worship but that they must not be allowed to serve around people, especially children, youth or vulnerable adults. By all means we should extend grace to these offenders but we have the moral and legal obligation to protect members and to keep our churches safe. Yes, running background checks on all volunteers may lock out certain innocent and capable candidates for service, but this unfortunately has to remain the lesser of two evils. Abuse is terribly devastating to the victims, to their families and it leaves local churches vulnerable to lawsuits. And exposed abuse can split local congregations and destroy their unity. It's sad that all of us have to be treated as potential predators but this has to be done to keep our churches safe. Nothing in Scripture supports the idea of coddling criminals while forgetting their victims or failing to protect society from them.

Unfortunately, these issues are not going to go away. But we have to maintain the Biblical "tension" of protecting the innocent, supporting victims and extending grace to everyone with their redemption in mind. A suggestion is to set up recovery groups for sex offenders where they receive support to live as Christians and accountability so they will have a disincentive to re-offend. At the same time, they may have limited contact with the larger congregation. Your idea about how to address this sticky issue?

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