Successful Church Assimilation of Sex Offenders
In a recent survey of nearly 3,000 church leaders, an overwhelming number said they believe churches should welcome known sex offenders, despite their criminal pasts. Nearly 80 percent said sex offenders should belong to a church, while only 3 percent thought they should be completely excluded, according to the “Sex Offenders in the Church” survey conducted by Christianity Today International (hereinafter called SOC survey). On the other hand, though survey respondents overwhelmingly signaled a desire for the church to be part of an offender’s re-entry and recovery process, most churches are doing nothing to provide for such rehabilitation or protection. With so many church leaders apparently willing to make a place in the pews for known offenders, one significant question is how can they do this and still keep their congregants safe?
Public concern regarding sex offenders has been burgeoning over the past several years. In response, Congress passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) in 2006. SORNA mandates that each state maintain a registry of sex offenders. Most states have established registration guidelines regarding sex offenders, and some are revising their standards. Additionally, courts have ruled on seminal cases that will impact how churches and sex offenders are able to interact. That tension has put churches in the cross hairs of difficult decisions on a case by case basis.
I. Practical Implications
Statistics warn that sexual offenders have a strong potential to repeat their crimes despite secular treatments. Statistics also demonstrate that an offender’s involvement in church or Bible study is an effective approach to reducing recidivism. Although the power of sin and death is ultimately broken in the life of a Christian, we live in the age where Christ’s Kingdom is not fully realized. Because even truly regenerate saints are capable of falling into grievous sin, even sexual sin (King David), church leaders who have been entrusted to shepherd God’s people, must show wisdom and discernment when protecting Christ’s bride (I Peter 5:1-4).
When attempting to assimilate sex offenders into a church, church leaders need to consider a few critical points in order to protect their congregation from repeat offenders.
1. Not All Sex Offenses Or Child Sex Offenders Are The Same
Inaccurate depictions of child sexual abusers impede effective abuse prevention and investigation. Most take comfort in the myth of “stranger danger” since most believe that people who commit such heinous acts could not possibly be friends, family, or other people we know. Unfortunately, it is a fact that most child sexual abusers are people we know and who befriend children. Estimates suggest that as many as 85% of child sexual assaults are committed by someone known and trusted by the child. In about 60% of cases the perpetrator is a non-relative acquaintance, such as a neighbor, babysitter or family friend. Relatives account for 30% of sexual abusers while only 10% of abuse stems from a stranger. Myths that purport stereotypes such as child molesters as “mentally retarded or insane,” “drug abusers or alcoholics,” “dirty old men,” or “physically identifiable,” explode in the bright light of facts and knowledge.
Although many people use the terms “pedophile” and “child molester” interchangeably, they are not synonymous terms. Pedophilia is commonly used to describe a sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual objects. A pedophile may never act out his or her fantasies or preferences for sex with children, whereas a child molester may not have a preference for children, but may sexually abuse them due to their availability, to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, to satisfy a curiosity or to hurt a loved one of the molested child.
While preferential child molestation is a sex offense, many other crimes also fall under the definition of the term. One definition of child sexual abuse is “the engagement of a child in sexual activities for which the child is developmentally unprepared and cannot give informed consent.” The abuse may be sexual and/or physical, but can also be accomplished without force or touching through exhibitionism, voyeurism, or using a child in the production of pornography. A recent study suggests that “approximately 20% of children will be sexually abused in some way before they reach adulthood ….”
More than half of the survey respondents felt that standards for a sex offender’s participation at church should be determined, in part, by the seriousness of their crime. Richard Hammar, a good friend and noted church legal expert in his article “Sex Offenders in the Church” (Church Law & Tax Report, Sept/Oct 2010), cautioned churches about the potential danger of “erring on the side of mercy” in dealing with known offenders. “Many sex offenders are classified as ‘tier 1′ on a sex offender registry,” Hammar said, “not because they committed a lesser offense, but because they ‘plea bargained’ down to a tier 1 offense.” If a church allows a known offender to serve with children or youth, and this individual reoffends while on church property, a jury likely will be incredulous that a church would expose its most vulnerable members to such a risk, regardless of whether the offender only had a minor sex offense in his past. No court has exonerated a church from liability for the molestation of a child on the ground that the offender was merely a tier 1 offender who did not impose a duty on the church to implement reasonable restrictions.
Child sex offenders are generally categorized on the severity of offenses and the propensity to recommit the sex offense as preferential sex offender, repeat situational offender and first time situational offender (categories are Level 3, 2 and 1 respectively). However, while not all sex offenses are the same, a jury won’t necessarily see it that way. A person on a sex offender registry is likely to be viewed by most juries as a serious risk warranting serious precautions and restrictions.
2. Establishing Precautions and Policies That Are Enforceable and Practical
Churches that are willing to accept sex offenders fitting their criteria should create “reasonable precautions and restrictions.” Churches should establish policies and practices regarding allowing sex offenders to be part of the church before they have to deal with the issue. Although one-third (34 percent) of survey respondents said they are not aware of a known offender in their church, they likely will be in the future. There are over 550,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, and the number continues to rise.
Unfortunately, few churches in the national survey have any policy or use conditional attendance agreements (also called “covenant agreements” at some churches). These include safety stipulations, such as being chaperoned at all times while on church property, and maintaining accountability with specific people in the church. The following guidelines should be considered by churches as to whether they should take on this risky but great ministry:
- The church is receptive to such “messiness” which often accompany such addictions and are involved with recovery type ministries like Celebrate Recovery, AA or NA.
- A vibrant, healthy, and stable church! An unhealthy church or the church in transition should never attempt to take on this ministry.
- The church with an established pastor (preferably more than three years), not a church with a new pastor.
- Churches need to have the manpower, vision, leadership and discipleship resources at their disposal. A larger church (more than 500 members) with many resources, both in programs, personnel and energy can often handle it better but regardless of the size the church should have the ability to have a hands-on discipleship and mentorship relationship.
- Churches that have members who have a gift of discernment and a calling to serve in this area to serve as mentors and accountability partners. This is not a ministry for most churches.
When the senior pastor, or any member of the church board, is informed that a registered sex offender is attending the church, there are steps that can be taken to manage risk. These include the following:
1. Obtain a record of the sex offender’s prior criminal convictions by conducting a national criminal records check. The church must be fully informed regarding the sex offender’s criminal background.
2. If the sex offender is on probation, identify his or her probation officer and ascertain the conditions that have been imposed. In some cases, sex offenders are not even allowed to attend church. If the probation officer says that the offender is free to attend church, ask the officer if he or she would recommend that the offender be allowed to attend church, and if so, under what conditions. Obtain this information in writing, or, if that is not possible, make a detailed written account of the officer’s response.
3. Condition the sex offender’s right to attend church services and activities on his or her signing a “conditional attendance agreement” that imposes the following conditions:
- The sex offender will not work with minors in any capacity in the church.
- The sex offender will not transport minors to or from church, or any church activity.
- The sex offender will not attend any youth or children’s functions while on church property, except for those involving his or her own child or children, and only if in the presence of a chaperone (see below).
- The sex offender will always be in the presence of a designated chaperone while on church property. This includes religious services, educational classes, activities, and restroom breaks. The chaperone will meet the sex offender at the entrance of the church, and accompany the sex offender on church premises until returned to his or her vehicle.
- A single violation of these conditions will result in an immediate termination of the sex offender’s privilege to attend the church.
- The conditional attendance agreement option will not be available unless the church’s insurer is informed and confirms that coverage will not be affected.
4. In some cases, exclusion of the offender from church is the only viable option. This option is advisable if (1) for any reason the conditional attendance option is not feasible or enforceable; or (2) if the offender’s crimes are so frequent or heinous that exclusion is the only appropriate option; or (3) one or more of the offender’s victims attends the church. This will be a judgment call made by the pastor and board.
5. It is often desirable to draft a short policy addressing the church’s response to registered sex offenders attending the church, and have it adopted by the congregation during an annual or special business meeting. This would allow the membership to discuss this issue in a rational manner.
6. Seek legal counsel in formulating the church’s response.
3.Repentance Is A Good Sign, But Be Cautious And Discerning
Most church leaders in the survey said they believe offenders deserve a place in the faith community. Nearly 80 percent said that a registered sex offender should be allowed to attend church under continuous supervision and with appropriate limitations. When asked what influences their opinion on whether a former sex offender should be allowed to participate in church, 83 percent said a repentant attitude would be the number one factor.
Many sex offenders are notoriously good liars. Clinical psychologist Anna Salter offers a word of caution from her 2003 book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders: “Decades of research have demonstrated that people cannot reliably tell who is lying. Many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.”
While a repentant attitude is a necessary and healthy sign of change in a person’s life, it’s a subjective basis for making such a critical decision. Many churches look to the facts of one’s past and the patterns they have established to ensure positive, ongoing change. Churches need to learn the terms of an offender’s parole or probation, both to help keep the offender accountable to the law as well as to avoid inadvertently making an offender break their agreement.
4. Recovery Is Hard And A Life Long Process
The Seven Link Chain Church Plan
Realizing that integrating sex offenders requires diligence, hard work and spiritual maturity, churches should evaluate their situation to ensure they have the resources to partake in this endeavor. This type of ministry requires an established and stable church leadership, a spiritually mature congregation that is accustomed to a culture of discipleship, and a congregation gifted with discernment. The benefits are rich, as the body of Christ gains a newly committed member a picture of the Gospel, and the offender can commend the Gospel by living a new life worthy of Christ’s call (Mark 5:18-19).
Therefore, a church should adopt a plan to address that seeks to safely assimilate sex offenders. Simms Showers LLP provides churches with a seven point policy for considering admitting sex offenders into membership.
II. Legal Issues that Address the Sex Offender’s Relationship to the Church
1. Areas where Sex Offenders’ Presence Prohibited
Numerous states have established zones in which sex offenders are not prohibited to reside or even be present. These restrictions may have varying impacts on churches, but are more pertinent to congregations that operate schools or child-care centers, depending on the unique statutory definitions provided such respective entities. For instance, Florida recently enacted a law that prohibits a sex offender from being present within 300 feet of where children congregate. The law specifically prohibits sex offenders from being present on any child care facility or school for children from kindergarten to grade 12 unless a school official has granted special permission.
Iowa law is even more specific, as the statute bars registered sex offenders from being present on school real property or a school vehicle, a child care facility, a public library, or within 300 feet of the premises of any place intended primarily for the use of minors including but not limited to a playground available to the public, a children’s play area available to the public, recreational or sport-related activity area when in use by a minor, a swimming or wading pool available to the public when in use by a minor, or a beach available to the public when in use by a minor. Likewise, Tennessee restricts sex offenders from being present on the premises of any building or grounds of any public school, private or parochial school, licensed day care center, other child care facility, public park, playground, recreation center or public athletic field available for use by the general public in this state when the offender has reason to believe children under 18 years of age are present. Texas also has similar restrictions that prohibit sex offenders from being in, on, or within 1,000 feet of a premises where children commonly gather, including a school, day-care facility, playground, public or private youth center, public swimming pool, or video arcade facility. Texas law does permit a defendant to request a court to modify an individual offender’s child safety zone per the statute’s regulations.
In some cases, child molesters are given probation instead of imprisonment, subject to various conditions. If such a person attends a church, it is important for church leaders to be apprised of such conditions so that they can help to ensure that they are followed. A case in Washington state in 2009 illustrates how important it is for church leaders to know these conditions. The Washington state supreme court affirmed the revocation of a child molester’s probation as a result of his repeated violations of the terms of the probation which, among other things, barred him from attending church or other places frequented by minors. On appeal, the sex offender argued that his suspended sentence could not be revoked without proof of willful violations of the terms of his sentence (i.e., that he frequented areas where he knew that minors congregated), and, that there was insufficient evidence to support the revocation. The state supreme court rejected the sex offender’s arguments, and authorized the commencement of his term of imprisonment. It concluded:
“The government has an important interest in protecting society, particularly minors, from a person convicted of raping a child. ….The evidence demonstrates that Brian went to a food bank located in an elementary school that is connected with a church. The trial court could reasonably conclude that the location of the food bank in a building housing a church school presented a risk to the safety or welfare of society. This violation, combined with his prior violations for visiting a church, high school, and a park on three separate occasions, justify revoking his suspended sentence.”
This case demonstrates that convicted child molesters may be subject to a supervised probation arrangement that restricts their church attendance. Some churches do not allow such persons to attend church until they have determined whether they are subject to probation, and if so, the conditions imposed by the probation arrangement. In many cases, probation arrangements prohibit a defendant from attending church under any circumstances (which appear to be constitutionally problematic), while in other cases a defendant is allowed to attend church but under strict conditions. A church’s exposure to liability is increased if it allows a known sex offender to attend services or other church activities without ascertaining the existence and conditions of a probation arrangement. State v. McCormick, 213 P.3d 32 (Wash. 2009). While these kinds of probations may be legally problematic under the 1st amendment freedom of religion and other legal arguments, no denomination or church has successfully challenged as yet such restrictions and thus, church must comply of pay the high cost in terms of liability and negative public relations should something go amiss.
2. Prohibitions Against Sex Offender Employment and Volunteer Activity
States also have distinct laws which pertain to a sex offender’s eligibility to obtain employment or volunteer in organizations that provide access to children. In May 2010, the Georgia legislature revised its law that was previously ambiguous in regard to whether sex offenders were allowed to volunteer at a church. The new legislation (HB 571) provided that the term volunteer “should not include participating in activities limited to persons who are 18 years of age or older or participating in worship services or engaging in religious activities or activities at a place of worship that do not include supervising, teaching, directing, or otherwise participating with minors who are not supervised by an adult who is not required to register” as a sex offender. This clarification enables sex offenders to participate in activities like adult Bible Studies or adult choirs. Also, Georgia laws goes even further, as it prohibits an individual who is a sexually dangerous predator from being employment or volunteering at any business or entity that is located within 1,000 feet of an area where minors congregate if the offense occurred after July 1, 2008.
The New Jersey statute bars sex offenders from holding a position or participating, in a paid or unpaid capacity, in a youth serving organization. The state statute also bars an individual from knowingly hiring, engaging or appointing an excluded sex offender to serve in a youth serving organization, as the responsible individual is liable of a criminal offense.
Other states require sex offenders to disclose their status as a sex offender to an organization. For example, California requires certain sex offenders to disclose their status in writing to his or her employer, supervisor or other person similarly situated, when he begins employment, begins a vocation or volunteers his or her services, regardless of whether the sex offender receives payment or other compensation. Yet, sex offenders who committed an offense that involved a person under 16 years of age are prohibited from employment and volunteer activity that involves minors.
3. Community Notification Systems
Although Rhode Island’s legislature is still developing comprehensive sex offender guidelines, the state requires religious organizations to participate in the community notification program, which alerts organizations to the release and residence of local sex offenders. Although most other states do not require churches to participate in such programs, numerous states include schools to participate in community notification programs, which could include schools operated by a church. Additionally, many states provide mechanisms by which churches can stay alert to sex offenders in the neighborhood, and may help churches stay involved in local neighborhood issues and be more vigilant in protecting children.
4. Sex Offender GPS and Internet Monitoring
A few states provide regulations that enable law enforcement to monitor the location and activities of sex offenders. Such regulations involve GPS and Internet monitoring. For example, Wisconsin law enables the government to craft individual GPS exclusion zones for sex offenders if necessary for public safety. In creating exclusion zones, the department is instructed to focus on areas where children congregate, with perimeters of 100 to 250 feet, and on areas where the person has been prohibited from going as a condition of probation, extended supervision, parole, conditional release, supervised release, or lifetime supervision.
In terms of Internet monitoring, New Hampshire requires sex offenders to register their “online identifiers,” including electronic mail address, instant message screen name, user identification, user profile information, and chat or other Internet communication name or identity information pursuant to RSA 651-B:4. Sex offenders are required to report any changes to an existing online identifier, or the creation of any new online identifier to law enforcement before using the online identifier. Other states, like Nebraska, require prohibit sex offenders from accessing social networking functions that would enable them to have access to minors. Churches should be aware of these requirements, especially if the church communicates with the offender electronically, as Internet access is potent source of temptation for offenders. Churches can help hold offenders accountable in the realm of Internet access with appropriate monitoring technology if the sex offender is allowed and requires Internet access.
5. Broad Sex Offender Discretion
As the government recognizes that preventing sexual offenders from committing additional crimes is important, North Dakota granted courts great liberty in crafting individualized probation requirements for released sex offenders. In North Dakota, the court is permitted to use its discretion to enact conditions of probation that are reasonably necessary to assist the defendant in living a law-abiding life. If a sex offender desires to become a church member, the church should inquire to see what specific restrictions the court may have imposed on the individual.
Sex offenders that become Christians and are successfully assimilated into a church environment have a much lower chance of recidivism; however, sex offenders are highly volatile and require many precautions and restrictions to succeed in incorporating them into the church and community and not taking unnecessary risks that will not serve the church to the sex offender should the train run off the track. Only certain churches and certain sex offenders as outlined above should try this desperately needed but highly risky process which requires walking a fine line that must be closely monitored in which tough love must be practiced.Any church is strongly encouraged to seek appropriately trained and experienced professional legal counsel who specializes in church law and sex offenders prior to taking the step of implementing a church policy regarding assimilating sex offenders and actually assimilating certain sex offenders.
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 Id. Id. Kenneth V. Lanning, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis 19 (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 4th ed. 2001) available at Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines on Child Sexual Abuse, American Medical Association at 5, available at Id. Id.