What happens when, upon release, a convicted sex offender joins (or re-joins) a congregation? To date, my experience has taught me that there is no single “right” answer and that the process of finding the “best” answer will definitely test the mettle of a congregation and its leadership team.
What needs to be done or said? What needs to be agreed upon and when? Whose interests should be considered? What do the secular authorities require? More importantly, what does our Lord require? How prepared is your church?
Some churches require that the offender’s name be published in writing (or verbally announced) to the congregation. The rationale is that the entire congregation should be warned. Others disagree and ask the following:
- How will this affect the families involved (of the offender and possibly the victim)? What is published in one congregation is often soon known throughout other congregations and supporting schools.
- If the purpose is to “warn”, how effective is such an announcement in a larger church unless a picture is attached? Will visitors be provided with the information when they attend so they too will be warned?
- What if the offense was many years ago?
- What if the offense didn’t involve the courts but was admitted to by the offender?
- Doesn’t the effective implementation of a proper Safe Church Policy already minimize the chances of re-offending by the known offender AND also minimize the occurrence of first time offences by the “as-yet-unknown” offender? It is easier to “deal with the devil you know as opposed to the devil you don’t” but the unknown devil is far more dangerous.
Some would say that the publication is required by law; others would disagree. Some would say that publishing the names of one brand of sinner smacks of the “scarlet letter” of old; others would say we need to protect our children.
Recent publications have referred to the convicted sex offender as the “modern day leper”. Should we keep them “outside the city gates”? How do we minister to them? What if the offender is seeking God for the first time and attends as a guest of members of your church?
How do the rules change if the offender is/was a youth (in which case publication would be prohibited)? Under what circumstance can a 15 year old offender socialize with his or her peers... or is it completely prohibited? Matthew 18:15 – 17 advises as to the discussion we should have with the one who sins and refuses to cooperate. The passage finishes with:
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (NIV).
The question remains: In what manner should we treat those pagans or tax collectors... or today’s lepers?
Perhaps the best solution consists of ensuring that:
- Church leadership (including program leaders) are made aware of the facts of the situation.
- The offender signs a Covenant of Conduct that controls the offender’s involvement in church activities, prohibits involvement with children and maximizes opportunities for healing.
- A trained support group, a Circle of Support and Accountability (“COSA”) is put in place to monitor adherence to the Covenant of Conduct, to provide support to the offender and his/her family and to report directly to Council. This COSA should coordinate their efforts with any existing parole conditions. COSAs (initiated by the Mennonite Central Committee in Canada in 1994) are currently used throughout Canada and many U.S. states and have 2 simple guiding principles: no more victims and no one is disposable.
- If the offender refuses to sign or abide by the Covenant, the church is encouraged to limit access to any or all events and/or church locations.
- Publication of the incident should only occur if necessary. Publication of names should only occur as a last resort (after seeking proper legal counsel) and only in instances of the unrepentant offender.