In 2010, Christianity Today International conducted a survey of nearly 3,000 church leaders and members. The purpose of the survey was to explore attitudes and beliefs about whether or not to allow sex offenders to participate in church gatherings.
According to the survey, 20% of leaders knew of at least one convicted sex offender who was attending or was a member of their church. 80% of the respondents agreed that that sex offenders who have legally paid for their crime should be welcomed into churches. I haven't found a more recent survey, but, in light of the Sandusky scandal at Penn State and others in the church, I bet those numbers are changing.
On the one hand, the welcoming approach is understandable. Like the prodigal son’s father, our Christian desire is to welcome with joy men and women who turn away from their sins. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul makes clear that people who continue to hide in sin will not enter God’s kingdom. In his list of offenders, Paul includes those who would today fit the category of sexual offenders. Then he says, amazingly, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” It's an amazing picture of grace. We want our churches to follow that New Testament ideal. We want them to be places where sinners can come out of hiding and find a new identity—not in “what you were” but in “what you have become” in Christ.
Having affirmed that desire, I want to encourage caution as well. Pastors and church leaders don't just have a responsibility to extend grace. We have a responsibility to shepherd the congregations we lead with wisdom. We have to think about possible worst-case scenarios before they happen. It's important to think through and plan what you will do if a sex offender wants to attend a church gathering. It's important to put that plan in writing. Policies and procedures are not life-giving by their nature. But they are good, because they work to restrain evil. Policies protect individuals and churches from danger and from accusation, and they expose sin. An individual’s willingness to submit to a policy can show us whether or not their heart is repentant and teachable. In this way, a policy can prepare the way for life-giving gospel care.
Here are 12 things to consider when crafting a policy for registered sex offenders:
- Know your priorities. Protecting children is of first importance. Jesus said, "If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18:6). Deepak Reju, author of On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church, reminds us, "In addition to teaching children, Christians also have a fundamental responsibility to protect them. We learn this... from God, who throughout the Bible has a special burden for the young, weak, and oppressed in society." For church leaders (particularly those who have direct responsibility for children's and youth ministry), protecting kids must take pride of place in our list of priorities. Also consider making it a priority to protect the vision and reputation of your church. If our gospel ministry to the body as a whole is threatened, it must be prioritized over ministry to an individual.
- Know the danger. Most sex offenders consider themselves religious. Victor I. Vieth, Director of the National Child Protection Training Center, warns that most sex offenders describe themselves as religious, and most egregious sex offenders are actively involved with their local church. Just because someone uses religious language or shares their personal testimony, that doesn't mean they are safe and demonstrating works in keeping with repentance. It doesn't mean they won't offend again.
- Prepare your team. Would an usher or member of your hospitality team know what to do if a registered sex offender was recognized or self-identified during a service? It’s important to put together a simple response protocol and train your volunteers, staff, and leadership. Here is a sample protocol using the acrostic, “GUARD”
-Go and inform. Inform all appropriate church staff or leadership immediately. Then, if you are comfortable with doing so, go to the individual and introduce yourself. Registered Sex Offenders should not be on church property unaccompanied. Only move on to the following steps if you are comfortable doing so. If not, wait for a trained church leader.
-Understand. Meet with the individual before they leave the facility. Offer them water or coffee and listen to their story.
-Ask for the name and number of the individual’s parole officer and any court documents the individual can provide that are pertinent to the case. Ask the individual to complete a background check form and a release form so that your team can talk to his or her treatment provider and parole officer.
-Review a copy of your church’s policy and code of conduct for Registered Sex Offenders(see below). Go over the timeline within which their situation will be reviewed. Remind them that they will not be allowed to return to the facility until this review process is completed and a shepherding plan is put in place.
-Depend on God. These situations are more than we can handle on our own. We need God’s help. Pray with the individual and then escort them as they leave the facility.
- Make these decisions in community. The decision of whether or not an individual will be allowed to attend services is too big to be made alone. In the New Testament, the church is always led by a plurality of leaders. Don’t make these decisions on your own. It is important that churches appoint a review board or standing committee to oversee and enforce policies related to registered sex offenders. It is wise to include anyone from your church who has knowledge or experience with cases of sexual abuse. Vieth suggests it may be helpful to have someone from the local law enforcement agency, social service department or prosecutor’s office to at least serve in an advisory capacity to this board. Don’t be afraid to include advisory members who are not part of the church. Further, the members of the board themselves should be subjected to a background check, because it would be difficult to regulate sex offenders in the church if the board charged with their oversight also includes a sex offender.
- Know your options. Churches enjoy substantial freedom in the U.S. to govern and organize their internal affairs as they see fit without fear of legal consequences. These freedoms include the freedom to govern matters of membership. Churches are under no obligation to allow an individual to join or attend church services. In some cases, exclusion of an offender from the church may be the only viable option. This option is advisable if (1) for any reason the church's care plan option is not feasible, enforceable, or being followed by the offender; or (2) if the sex offender's crimes are so frequent or heinous that exclusion is the only appropriate option; or (3) one or more of the sex offender's victim(s) attends the church.
- Do your research. When an individual reveals himself or is exposed as an offender, it's important to do your due diligence in investigating all offenses. Immediately conduct a criminal background check to discover the individual's charges. Also talk also talk to the individual's probation officer, speak to their treatment provider, and review all court and investigative records. Often this can be done by visiting the courthouse in the county where the conviction occurred and asking to see all public files regarding the case. Vieth warns, “In many cases, an offender may have pled guilty to sexually abusing one child in exchange for dismissing allegations of abuse against other children. Indeed, the offender may even have confessed to abusing many more children but the other cases were dismissed as a result of the plea bargain.” In some states, the prison system will test an offender to measure the risk of the individual offending again. If your state follows this practice and the risk levels are made public, be certain to consider these in your research.
- Follow the law. Ask the individual's probation officer and the local prosecutor's office if an offender can lawfully attend services or other church functions where children are present. Veith again says, “If the offender is prohibited from attending public gatherings at which children are present, the church should inform the offender that under no circumstances will the church aid in a violation of the law.”
- Consider each case individually. Create an individually tailored conditional attendance agreement and/or shepherding plan for each registered sex offender in your care. Determine the level of supervision necessary to protect children and your church. If the offender is considered a low risk by the government and his or her treatment provider, it may be possible for the offender to attend church gatherings and events but only under supervision of at least one and preferably two mature members of the church who will be with the offender at all times to ensure no children are harmed, and also to protect the offender from accusation or any taunting that may be directed at him or her. Leaders must be particularly sensitive to an individual’s temptation. We should be concerned about being a stumbling block to an individual who may struggle, for instance, with sexual thoughts on a Sunday when the children’s choir is singing even if we would otherwise allow that individual to attend with a shadow. If the offender is high risk, or if the level of risk is questionable, the church should find a way to care for him outside of church gatherings. Some options are a gender-specific Bible study held away from the property or individual services conducted at the offender’s home.
- Create a minimal code of conduct for offenders. If a sex offender is allowed to attend church functions, they should be provided with a clear code of conduct. At a minimum, this should include the following: (1) the individual should not be allowed to attend any church function where children are present; (2) the individual will not be allowed to work with minors (children and youth) in any capacity in the church, or be allowed to enter or walk through a youth or children’s area; and (3) the individual must be accompanied by an assigned adult member, and he must never be alone on church property. This includes worship services, classes, activities, events, and restroom trips.
- Never allow an offender to join the same community as a victim. Even if the offender is at low risk, he should never be allowed to join a congregation or small group where one of his victims attends. You can work to find the individual another church home, but the emotional needs of the victim must always take priority. Full disclosure is important (see below) but it must be balanced with sensitivity. The leadership must be sensitive to the fears of survivors of abuse who may be emotionally harmed by knowing there is an offender in their midst. Close proximity to a sex offender may be a weekly, painful reminder to survivors of their own suffering. Simply put, the church must minister to the offender in such a way that survivors of abuse are not emotionally harmed. Also, note that if you are helping an offender find another church, it’s essential to inform that church about the basis of the offender’s removal. Otherwise, the offender may be given access to a new group of unsuspecting victims.
- Walk in the light. Be as public as possible in your care for registered sex offenders. Offenders thrive on secrecy and they, and the church as a whole, are best protected when there is an open discussion about their conduct and their presence in the community. Security experts suggest keeping a face book of registered sex offenders who attend the church or live in the area surrounding a church building at key security points in the building—the welcome desk, security office, and children’s ministry check-in areas. Most experts also suggest telling the communities (certainly any small group and even the entire church) in advance when sex offenders are present. In an age in which sex offender registries and conviction records are easily accessible online, members of the congregation will eventually discover an offender is present and may feel betrayed if church leadership has kept this a secret.
- Review. Finally, it is important to review the status of each offender in the church’s care at least annually. Confirm that shadows/small group leaders who care for the offenders are consistently performing their assignments and enforcing policies and procedures. Confirm with law enforcement and treatment providers that there have been no new legal developments or issues. Confirm that offenders have not been serving in ministries where children are present or attending communities with children.
- Ron Aguiar, Keeping Your Church Safe, Xulon Press, 2008.
- Deepak Reju, On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church, New Growth Press, 2014.
- Basyle Tchividjian, Protecting Children from Abuse in the Church, New Growth Press, 2013. His website is netgrace.org.
- Victor I. Vieth, "Suffer the Children: Developing Effective Church Policies on Child Maltreatment."
- Victor I. Vieth and Alison Feigh, "Understanding and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse."